working for freeShould You Work for Free?

by Ann Harth


Should you?


If we were discussing a waitressing job or employment as a shop assistant, the answer would be an emphatic 'no'.  I have never heard of a self-respecting new employee who would say: Of course I'll work a week for free. Then you can decide if you want to hire me. If this were the norm, guess how many people would be 'employed' for one week only? Shop owners would be rolling in profits and workers would be jumping from job to job with no pay. In most of the working world, freebies do not exist. Prospective employees and employers know where the line is and rarely cross it.

When we talk about writing for free, this line gets a little hazy. Monetary rewards are not the only payment a writer can receive. Many writers give away their work for various reasons. Some are sensible and sound. Some are not.

Beneficial reasons to work for free  

To gain confidence: Going into business as a writer takes some courage. Although you are offering a service that is offered by many others, yours is unique. Only you can write with your tone and style, only you will bring to an assignment your particular angle.

But what if prospective clients don't understand your angle? What if they think your tone is too formal? Too didactic? Too wimpy? How can you charge someone for your work, if you're not sure they will even like it? How can you ask for money if your opinion is not valued? 

It's scary -- and completely understandable to want to stick a toe in the river before doing a swan dive from the bank. You want to get some experience before you charge the going rate for ghostwriting or assessments. This is safe and it's smart. 

So. Where do you draw the line?

This decision is yours, but don't undervalue your time. Write a few articles or do a manuscript assessment for a friend. Get priceless feedback while you are perfecting your methods and formatting. Just remember: Whether you are paid or not, it is crucial to offer only your best work. In this day of the Internet one free article can find its way onto dozens of different websites. One sloppy assessment can put your name at the top of many blacklists. Be thorough and honest. Make sure you can be proud of your work.

To gain experience: A writer is never finished learning. Each week, each year, as you work on your craft, you will be happier with the results. The more you write, research and assess, the more efficient you will become. Your writing will sparkle and you will be able to expound on different methods of toilet training as easily as you can point out the strengths and weaknesses in a middle-grade manuscript.

But how do you know you have enough experience to expect payment for it? If you want to take on a few freebie jobs or write for low-paying markets to begin with, that's seems reasonable, but don't stagnate. 

When I started my freelancing business, I found that the easiest way to give myself a well-deserved pay rise was to become a clear communicator. Once I had someone interested in my services, I would explain exactly what I would provide and give them some of my writing samples. I decided that the more they knew about my work and what I could offer, the more I could relax. If they had enough information to make an informed decision and still wanted my services, I could move ahead with confidence. 

To gain clips. Again, this is an acceptable reason for working for little or no pay, but it is not strictly necessary. There aren't many magazines or publishers who will knock back a spectacular query or manuscript based on the fact that the author has no clips. Perfect your work, do your homework and send out your best.
To help a friend or a charity. Writing an article for a favourite charity or assessing a friend's short story can not only give you a warm fuzzy feeling but it can also offer an addition to your CV and welcome experience. 
To promote publicity for a product or service. Writing short stories or informative articles to direct people to your website is a great way to promote books, e-books or services that you want to sell from your site. Your visitors get valuable information and you get free advertising.
To offer information and promote your fiction or non-fiction.  Do you have a passion for palaeontology? Are you an expert on cyclones? Start a blog or build a website and offer your knowledge for free. You can make a name for yourself as an authority on the subject. Then promote your book on Velociraptors or tracking cyclones or concentrate on pitching articles or short stories to your chosen magazines.

Unbeneficial reasons to work for free:

Desperation. Sounds sad, but it's easy to fall into this trap. It's been months and you haven't sold a thing. You would do anything to see your name on a published piece again. So you give it away? Too easy. If a piece is good enough to be proud of, it's good enough to be paid for.
Cleaning the cupboard. If you're anything like me, occasionally you will decide you want to do some spring-cleaning.  You will try to place every last article or manuscript that is clogging up your 'rejected' folder. Why not give them away?

Because you never send out work that isn't polished.

Read them again. After having that necessary distance from your work, you may be able to resurrect them and find them a paying market.

Once free always free. When a freelancer first starts out, they want clips, testimonials and a few references. This is fine, but one per customer to the first few customers should be plenty. Once you know you can do the work and have proven this, become a professional. Collect your testimonials and use them. They now belong to you. They are proof that your expertise is worth paying for. The people who keep coming back for more freebies simply because they don't want to pay are doing you no favours.
You want your name in a well-known publication. If someone will be making money with your work, you should too. A publication that is receiving payment for advertising or subscriptions should certainly share the wealth. People are reading the magazine for your articles, not for the ads.

Protecting the Profession

There is a lot of controversy about writers giving away their work. Many established professional writers feel that continuously giving away your talents or selling your work for very little can undervalue the skills of others. This is understandable and you may find that you join these professionals one day.

Many freelancers earn their annual income by selling articles to various magazines, e-zines or newspapers. What if suddenly, those markets were able to find writers who would hand over their articles for little or no pay? Where does that leave, not only the freelancer, but also the entire writing profession? Seems to me, it would die a slow and painful death.

Good writing takes time, intelligence and experience. You work hard to get the right words out. Don't undervalue yourself.

A final word:

Offering your work for free can be beneficial to your freelancing business, but keep it in check. Ask yourself the real reason you are spending eight hours on an article and receiving no payment. If you are satisfied that no one is taking advantage of you and that you are receiving compensation in some form, plough ahead. If not … think again.

Remember, most writers who decide to become freelancers have years of writing experience. Many have degrees, professional diplomas and dozens of manuscripts written. Others may not have the formal training, but have written a dozen manuscripts and trained themselves with books, writing groups and hours and hours of practice. Chances are if you're deciding to become a serious freelancer, you already have the writing expertise. You just haven't been paid for it yet.

© copyright Ann Harth. Ann Harth is a freelance manuscript assessor, copyeditor, proofreader and ghostwriter as well as a published author. She writes in all genres of children's fiction from picture books to young adult novels as well as adult fiction and non-fiction. She has successfully completed several text-editing projects for university students and authors, and is the assistant fiction editor of, a  literary on-line magazine. She is also on the creative writing staff of, a website for children.

More information on the freelance services that Ann Harth offers can be found on her website at



The Busy Writer's One-Hour Plot

The Busy Writer's One-Hour Character

Book of Checklists

The Busy Writer's Self-Editing Toolbox

The Busy Writer's KickStart Program

Write a Book Fast