The Way We Work
February 15, 2010 by Guest Blogger

By: Tamara Rice

It’s okay to give your work away, even when you are trying to build a lucrative freelance writing career. It may seem counterintuitive at first, because the end goal is – of course – money in the bank. However, to earn it you sometimes need to make career moves that don’t involve money at all.

So, how do you know if you’re doing the right thing by giving it away or if someone is taking advantage of you? The main rule of thumb in this department is to never sign away permanent rights to your work if you are not being compensated. However, giving someone the temporary rights (for six months past their publication date, for example) is not a bad deal, provided you can feel good about giving it away for free.

And when should you feel good about it? When your reasons line up with one or more of the following:

1. If you have never been published, give it away. If this will be your first time seeing your name in print, just do it. You have to start somewhere. Writing a few thousand words (or less) for free might be the smartest move you ever make.

2. If it’s for a charitable cause, give it away. A lot of anthologies and websites give proceeds to charity, and a lot of charities need writers who will donate their work. If your work will be used in this way and you believe in the cause, it’s a great idea to contribute your work.

3. If a client just wants a sample of your skills, give it away. It’s common practice to provide a prospective client with a sample of your related work. If you have nothing relevant in your portfolio, you may have to write something. Just know where to draw the line. Writing a few hundred words to show what you can do is no big deal, but if the client expects more or expects to have the right to use it, you should be compensated.

4. If you aren’t likely to publish it for money elsewhere, give it away. If you know there is no market for it elsewhere, there’s no shame in writing something for free. Anthologies are not a bad idea for those unique stories floating around in your head, even if they don’t pay. Just don’t give up the rights to your work.

giving away your writing freelancer5. If it will increase your visibility, give it away. Ideally any assignment that will be widely read will also be generously compensated, but there will be occassions when this isn’t the case. As long as your name is front and center, it’s okay to do it solely for bragging rights and buzz.

6. If it will point others back to your blog or website, give it away. The internet is all about linking. If a popular site offers to give you a one-time platform and a link — even if there is no money involved – you’d be a fool to say no. Just ask Dave.

7. If you are helping out a friend, give it away. Writing for friends can be a great pleasure. Help a neighbor with her resume cover letter. Give feedback on your niece’s term paper. Be generous with your talent, and you may find great satisfaction in return.

8. If you are getting worthwhile non-monetary compensation, give it away. Sometimes you’ll get an offer that is too good to pass up, even with no money involved. Go ahead and write your dentist’s marketing copy for free, as long as you get some dental work out of it. Know the art of good bartering, this type of trading thrives during a recession!

When was the last time you wrote for free
and what did you get out of it? Tell us about it.

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  • Tamara

    Thanks, Adelaide. It’s true, you can donate more than money. Donating your writing skills is a recession-proof charitable contribution. Hmmm … I wonder if it’s tax deductable … ?

  • Adelaide Zindler

    Wow Tamara!

    Your article just gave me the idea of writing for a non-profit that I believe in. I will approach them about it since we already love working together so much. I never thought of it until reading your article on writing for free! In fact I’ve gotten hundreds of followers so far and have only been at it a month! Thanks for giving yourself away too by the way!

    Believe well!

    Adelaide Zindler
    Coming soon!

  • Tamara

    Thanks, guys. And good info on Associ. Content, Dale. That’s a great tip.

    I think every writer has a certain amount of fear that ideas will be stolen, content stolen. So the concept of giving it away is scary for some. But there are times when it’s in a writer’s best interest, and if you can secure your name to the project through something like Assoc. Content — all the better!

  • Stephanie

    This makes me want to update my portfolio again. :D Wonderful post Tamara! One of the most interesting entries that I’ve read so far since visiting and reading the oDesk blog a month ago.

  • johnV

    When I first started here in oDesk, I found it so difficult to land a job despite having taken a good number of tests and getting respectable results.

    It was only when I began offering free samples (usually 1 or 2) that some buyers allowed me to work for them.

    In a global marketplace like oDesk, you really have go the extra mile to show your worth. Many buyers won’t want to gamble on newbies … even if you offer them very cheap rates. Besides, a lot of providers are doing that now, so you need to offer something else of higher value.

    Showing them that you’re the “bang for the buck” is certainly the better way. Now, if you can’t persuade them through an impressive cover letter, then the free sample might do the trick. Although you may put in samples in your portfolio, you might be able to persuade buyers to try you out if the sample has something to do with what they really need.

  • Dale M.

    Absolutely correct – you’ve got to get your name out there so people can see what a great writer you are – and sites like Associated Content are great for publishing unheard-of writers.

    I also agree about prospective employers on oDesk and elsewhere, but even if a longer sample is requested, a writer can simply post the work for free on AC, thus establishing copyright and thwarting an unethical buyer.

    Excellent headline, by the way – when I saw it on Twitter I didn’t think twice, just clicked on the link.

  • Kristine – Freelance Writing Philippines

    Quite true, indeed. Samples are ways to get yourselves even better clients..and I don’t think there is anything wrong with that.

    There are some clients, however, who expect you to give them a 10-page sample..which I personally find offending and abusing…

    Nice read, Tamara. Thank you for sharing :)