Clients, Freelancing TIps, Getting Started

Working For Free

Working for free

“Welcome ladies and gentlemen to tonight’s heavyweight championship fight…

In the blue corner we have “those who say you should never work for free…
…and in the red corner we have…”

Make no bones about it, working for ‘free’ is an emotive subject (and you’ll get zero arguments about it from me).

And whatever your take on the subject is, it’s only going to be on one side of what I can see is a simple, two-sided debate.

Two sides to this debate
A 2-sided debate

Yes or No – That Particular Choice is Simple

On one side of the debate are the, let’s just say, ‘established’ freelancers.

What I mean by established is that the members of this group have some writing experience, have had (and likely still have) clients, and have been paid for their skills, experience, their troubles, and of course their art. They’re professional writers.

Some comments I’ve seen are:

  • “I’ll NEVER work for free!”
  • “DON’T DO IT…”
  • “Don’t diminish the craft.”

There are many more, but that’s the gist of it.

I get where they’ve coming from. I do.

In an ideal world, I don’t think anyone should ever work for free.

However, and as far as I have been able to determine, there’s one key element with the established group that we haven’t factored in yet. I’ll come onto that in a moment.

Is this what the world’s coming to? (I must admit, I was shocked when I saw it, too.)

On the other side of the debate are those who are new to the profession. Whether they’re fresh to the jobs market, are switching careers, or whatever, the underlying factor is they’re struggling to get their foot in the door. Many have no writing portfolio to speak of, let alone something decent to show a prospective client. And they all are struggling to secure their first paying customer.

That’s how I see it.

(If you think there’s a different angle or group then I’m all ears. Feel free to let me know in the comments, below.)

As it stands,

It’s a Binary Choice

One, you’re either working with, or have been working with, clients and are in the former (blue, professional writers, never-work-for-free group); or two, you haven’t and you’re in the latter (red, still-struggling, need-a-break-and-would-work-for-free group).

Again, it’s binary: paid/free, blue/red, yes/no.

Now here’s my own personal take on it…

Before we go any further, I’ll reiterate that I don’t think anyone in their right mind will ever advocate working for free. And that does include me.

But here’s the thing…

You’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do

We all have to eat. We all have to put bread on the table. We all have bills to pay, and we all have families to support.

No-one’s arguing against that, of course. It’s reality.

But when reality hits, you need to face it.

And that brings me to the key element that was missing before…

Just How Far Is The Wolf from Your Door?

A valid question that, for established writers working with decent clients, will not change their stance one iota.

Not even a [veiled] ‘promise of future work’ will be enough to sway them. For this group, working for free just isn’t an option anymore.

For this group, dropping rates, bundling packages, etc., are applicable negotiating tactics, but giving skills, expertise, and knowledge away for nothing…

…is no longer open for discussion.

(Note: this is not denigrating that group; not at all. But IME they’re beyond the ‘free’ stage and from what I’ve seen, for many, they seem to have forgotten what being a newcomer’s like. These are also the same people who have likely never travelled to a different province or state, let alone left the secure borders of their own country to travel abroad and experience other cultures. As such, there’s little chance that they realise that when $10 is offered for certain work, that’s a day not an hourly rate, and will type away vociferously about how insulted they feel. Anyway, I digress…)

However, for those who are not privy to those options–for those who’re yet to secure a single client—saying no has a much starker outcome.

Yes, there’s a change that another contract or option might be around the corner but, again, only you know how far that wolf is away.

Here’s what I advise you do (this is from my own freelancer experience)…

The Rites of Passage (aka “The Shameless Whore” Phase)

This is a phrase first penned (as far as I know) by copywriter John Carlton in his ‘The Freelance Course’ (page 20 in my copy):

We’ve all read the history books or seen the movies where to be accepted into adulthood by the tribe, the teenagers must pass the ‘Rites of Passage’ that their forebears did.

Once they pass, they’re now accepted as grown-ups in their society and are treated accordingly by all.

JC coined the copywriter’s rite of passage as ‘The Shameless Whore’ phase.

“Basically, I recommend you take every single “little” job that comes within your reach. Don’t worry about fees — take every job… Do as much as you can, so you’re writing every day…”

John Carlton, The Freelance Course (p20)

I can’t argue with that.

Writing is a skill that requires practice (and then some). The more you write, the better you [should] become.

But it’s not necessarily easy.

“Writing Is Easy; You Just Open a Vein and Bleed”

Ernest Hemingway

For writers everywhere, especially those working directly with clients/customers, you must earn your chops. And you can only do that by writing.

“But this is what we’re already trying to do, Russ!”

I know, I know. I am getting there, I promise.

How Long Do I have to Stay in this Phase?

Good question, the answer for which can only come from you.

It’s up to you to work your way out of it.

1 job, 3, 5, 10… who knows? 3-months, 6-, 12-? Again… that’s down to you.

But you must get through it. And that means you have to write.

When you get good enough to pitch clients, then go for it.

But you can’t get the break you need, and the prospect offers you a free trial.

What do you do?

NEVER Work For Free


Not even on a trial project. Not even to write a sample in the hope of getting the job.

Neh. Eh. Ver.

Instead, barter.


“Ah, c’mon, Russ, that’s the same. You’re just cheating!”

Nah, I’m not. I’m actually trying to help you.

It’s an exchange that doesn’t involve money. Here’s what Merriam-Webster say:

As I wrote in my post ‘Why should a client hire you‘, as a beginner, you NEED that good, solid, and much desired testimonial.

Make no bones about it, if you can get paid for your work, go for it. Always. Without exception. I’ll be absolutely delighted for you.

But make sure you get that testimonial, too.

Because, at this precise moment in time, the lack of proof IS EXACTLY what you’re struggling with.

It’s why you’re currently reading this, is it not?

Not getting hired to do paid work is because you lack the proof needed to convince a prospect to hire you*.

Make no mistake, I’m not advocating you write a massive piece of work — that’s not what this is. Rather, this is something that should, hopefully, take no more than a few short hours of your time.

But the key function of offering to barter for a testimonial is it helps with managing risk.

And risk is prime focus for your client.

Risk Management

With no experience, to the client, you’re maximum risk.

And from either end of the scale, too.

On the one hand, let’s say you have no samples to show the client–then you’re maximum risk…

“A writer with no writing samples… mmm, how on earth does that one work?”

As you can guess, unless there’s a lightning strike that fries their brain, you’re a firm ‘no chance’. Even if you’re the only applicant, it’s unlikely as there’s just going to be too much risk.

On the other, let’s say you have solid samples (5 of) written for their niche and which meet their exact requirements for this role.

Do you think the prospect’s wondering whether you wrote them? How will you prove that you did? Regardless, they’re likely thinking you’re puling a fast one and, therefore, untrustworthy. (This is why verifiable proof is critical.)

That’s just the way it is and, unless something untoward occurs, it just begs too many questions.

For example: I remember several years back seeing a spate of “I’ll write an email sequence to your list for free. All you have to do is send it and if it doesn’t make you any extra money then you don’t pay me… all the risk is on me” (the writer).

Except that’s bullsh*t. It’s my list, one that I’ve carefully cultivated and nurtured for years and you somehow think that sending your emails poses no risk to me, my trust with my subscribers, my reputation? Sadly, you’re wrong.

You need to minimise the risk.

That’s what bartering will do.

For the record, I’ll say it again. I don’t think anyone should work for free. As a professional, you should be paid for your work. But, if you’re struggling to get started, then this is purely an option.

If you discover other alternatives more suited to you, go for it. This is me offering advice that you can use or discard as you like.”

Minimise Their Risk

Be professional. Be friendly and ask for the help when applying for the role.

“Hi name,

My name is <yourname>, I’ve been writing for <insert time> and I’m very interested in this role. However, I am struggling to get my first client and, as such, I’d be grateful if you would be willing to let a keen, diligent, and trustworthy writer provide a sample at zero risk to you…”

That’s what bartering for a testimonial is doing–it’s taking the risk off of them. (Feel free to use or customise the above to your own needs.)

Perhaps your conversation could go:

“I’m happy to write a small piece in return for an honest testimonial. Would you be okay with doing that as it’ll really help me out?

Furthermore, if you really liked the piece and decided that you’d like to use it, then we can always come to an agreement (plus I’d still like that testimonial, please). However, if you decide the piece is not good enough, then no hard feelings but I would genuinely appreciate some guidance both on what’s wrong and what you feel I can do to improve it. That way it’ll help me improve…”

That’s the essence of it.

Customise it how you want but take the risk away from them and get that proof you need.

I have to point out that if your writing’s not yet at a good enough standard then you really shouldn’t be pitching clients in the first place. If your spelling and grammar are riddled with errors, then you’re just wasting everyone’s time. What you provide needs to be perfect.

Your offer may work, it may not. Not everyone will be up to doing this. But you need to keep trying.

Test and tweak, test and tweak. Find what works for you.

Test Pieces

You may also see job posts asking for free test pieces.

Again, as before:

  1. How far away is the wolf?
  2. How much do you want to work with this client?

Only you can answer those questions, and the opinions of others (mine included) are irrelevant here.

Personally, I don’t think I’ve ever done a free test piece (I’ve done several paid pieces). But when I started freelancing online, I already had a background as a writer and had proof (of sorts) that I could do the jobs I was applying for.

But I’m not you.

Some want just a short piece, others want more. What’s acceptable to you (your cut-off line) is down to your circumstances.

You could try and negotiate a testimonial from this, even if they don’t use your piece; but my gut feeling is they’ll deem it too much hassle (it’s a global marketplace and they’re unlikely to want to enter into that sort of agreement as it’ll eat into their time unnecessarily).

With all that said, you’re now in the situation where you’ve delivered the work and it’s time to get that much desired testimonial

Getting that Written Testimonial

Do you leave what they write to chance?

Not on your nelly! (As the old saying goes.)

You can’t tell them what to write, of course, but you can politely guide them on the things to cover when they write it.

If they don’t know already, remind them that this is your first ever testimonial and that what they say can really make a difference in you securing future work. In doing so, you’re framing what they should be considering.

These might include how you:

  • did your job successfully
  • delivered ahead of schedule
  • wrote a great piece to their exact requirements
  • were communicative, friendly, and professional throughout
  • offered great suggestions to improve the piece
  • went above and beyond and they can now trust you completely.
  • were a delight to work with and they would have no hesitation in working with you again or recommending to you to others, etc.

All can be used to jog the client’s memory into how you helped them.

I’ve known some freelancers who’ve said you shouldn’t ‘lead’ the client in this way. I disagree wholeheartedly. What they do in their career is up to them, but this is yours.

Besides, by doing all the above, the client’s just telling everyone how it was. If you don’t frame the sign-off and testimonial, especially on longer contracts or where the client has multiple freelancers working for them, you might something like the following:

Tinsel aside, this ‘testimonial’ is to be avoided.

Sure, you did a great job (but that’s what we do, we over-deliver) but for a client to do that doesn’t help you one bit, particularly when you’re new.

Unfortunately, with competition in a global marketplace being as competitive as it is, it’s becoming increasingly harder for newcomers to break into. Getting proof is essential and without it you will struggle. Having a portfolio of sorts is essential and if you have some well-written and required pieces, you might be able to sell them directly to clients and get feedback/testimonials directly. If that’s the case then great.

However, if you can’t then I hope the above’s helped show that it’s important to minimize their risk to even stand a basic chance. When you do get the opportunity, then it’s critical that you take advantage of it, rather than leaving it to chance. Frame the context and get a great testimonial that is going to benefit you. It’ll help you reap many future rewards.

* You must determine what this time value will be. If you’re willing to put in 2-hours work, then that’s your call. If, however, you’re not doing anything for the rest of the say, then it’s you call whether to adjust that. Again, it all comes down to personal circumstance.

** If you are an experienced writer and you’re not securing jobs, then I’ll bet you a dime to a dozen it’s because of your ‘offer’. If a client has a budget equivalent to $10/hour, then there’s no way on this planet that they’re going to hire you at your desired $100/hour rate. Likewise, with $20/hr, $40/hr, etc. However, if you dropped your rate to their budgeted level, then you’re now a likely contender and they’ll look into other factors to gauge suitability, etc.

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