Freelancing—Will You Have to Work For Free?

Erika_9_typewriterIn short, and in my experience, yes. Because we are in a society where you need experience to get experience, an education is often not enough to get you a job straight out of school. Publishers, marketing firms, and other writer-hiring businesses want you to know what you are doing and to prove that you know. That’s hard when you are just starting out and cannot, for the life of you, find a paying job for whatever you took in school.

It’s disappointing to think that after you accrued a large amount of debt for being trained by professionals, you still don’t qualify for your dream job. It’s even more disappointing to take a job that you could have done before you ever went to school. Let’s note here that I am taking about writing professions here specifically.

Sometimes, the only answer is to start freelancing on your own. But potential clients almost always want to see a portfolio, or at the very least, examples of your work for other clients. How can you show them that you can do what you say if you haven’t worked on any projects yet? You can’t. Unless you work for free.

It’s a devastating blow sometimes to take clients who are willing to accept your skills for free, but who won’t pay you for them. It stings and it gnaws. But if you don’t do some volunteer work, how else are you going to get started? I’ve done my share of free/volunteer work and now I even do some just to be nice. If you find the right people to volunteer for, they’ll likely let you use the work for a portfolio as well as give you a great endorsement. Keep track of everything so that you can use it for a website later on.

I started out by doing an internship with a local magazine. It wasn’t paid, but it was simple. At the end of it, I had a couple of articles published in their national magazine, a recommendation letter, and a valuable reference. Aside from them, I have volunteered for an independent publisher, a clothing business, an RMT, a food business, and now I volunteer for a brilliant little organization called Leaf2Wing (they are trying to save Monarch butterflies by reestablishing milkweed growth in North America). I don’t really need the experience from volunteer work anymore, but it sure feels good to do it anyway.

My advice to any aspiring writers is to start finding volunteer work while you are in school.

  • Post free ads online, talk to friends and family, post flyers, and do whatever else you can think of. Do it while you are in high school and university. Start contacting newspapers, newsletters, publishers, book stores, author groups, and anything else related to your concentration. Make sure that you outline that you will use this work in a portfolio and ask them for a written endorsement after the work is done. Keep their contact info just in case you need to use them for a reference or if you want to check in later on.
  • Be wary of those who ask for too much for free. Set your limits and outline them clearly. I’d suggest using a contract for anything that you do, but sometimes that isn’t practical. At least have a saved email message with the terms outlined and a response back from the business or person acknowledging those terms.
  • Understand that although most of your experiences should be positive if handled properly, not everyone is a “good egg”. Some clients will disappear, get work to you late, or dislike your work for whatever reason. It happens. Suck it up, let it go, and move on.
  • Branch out a bit from your area of expertise. I took publishing in school, but now I work full-time as a writer, and I offer social media marketing, editing, small business planning, and even some design on the side. I haven’t been out of school for that long, but the more that you learn the more likely you are to find people to work for.
  • Don’t be afraid of other industries. I’ve worked with clients in real estate, dentistry, food, publishing, marketing, law, massage, and tons of other industries. Just because you are trained in a specific area doesn’t mean that other industries won’t need your skills. It’s all about gaining positive experience.

All in all, it takes a lot of guts to be a freelancer of any kind. The income is unstable most of the time, if not all of the time, managing multiple clients can make you feel as if you are being pulled in a million directions, time management is difficult in the beginning, and it’s hard to just go out and “find a mentor”, which is what I was told to do many times and never did, though I tried.

Remember that if you keep at it, you’ll get there. It might not always be fun, and it might not always be as magical as you’d hoped, but if you’re doing what you really want to do, and you find some happiness in it, you’re going down the right road.

Do you freelance? Are you hoping to freelance one day? Have you worked for free, or did you start out differently?



13 thoughts on “Freelancing—Will You Have to Work For Free?

  1. Thank you for this little list and the words of encouragement for writers everywhere trying to figure out how to make their way in this world. All your words are grounded in reality, and I for one totally appreciate it. Best of luck with your writing. 🙂

  2. Great post. I started out doing largely voluntary work for a local magazine and used that experience as a basis to post an ad online so I could start picking up paying clients.

    I find it baffling how many people approach writers for work and say, “we will be unable to pay you but this will look great in your portfolio.” Be that as it may, no other industry is expected to work for nothing the way we are; it’s a very unfortunate fact of this line of work that only serves to make it even more difficult to succeed.

    If a job is worthy of calling in a professional – however much experience they may or may not have – then that person deserves to be paid. Sadly that’s not how most people see it.

    • Thanks, and great comments. It’s true that a lot of the time people want writers to work for free, although they can’t or don’t like to write themselves. It’s a skill just like any other—if you don’t have the time or the learning to do it properly, you’re going to have to pay for it.

      It is difficult to succeed, but it can be done if you push hard enough. It takes guts of steel to be a writer though, at least in my experience. You have to accept rejection, take free work, and continuously search for clients. That being said, there’s nothing quite like it.

  3. I’ve tried freelancing but have never made it or found anything I’ve liked. I love to write but am not sure where to start and actually do something with this. Thanks for the great post though. It inspires me to keep going!

    • We’ve all been there, I think. If it’s what you really want to do, push as hard as you can and innovate whenever you think possible. There’s no one formula that will guarantee success, you just have to keep going and do what you can. Best of luck!

  4. I’m just barely getting to a point where I want to start trying…so far, I haven’t done much aside from submit a short story to a publisher asking for a particular type of short story.

  5. Pingback: Weekend Wrap-up: First Week of July | breakfast with words

  6. Writing is always what I like doing.
    But I can only write at early morning. My work now demands that early morning. Meaning I don’t time for writing again.
    Who will advice me on best way to handle this situation?

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