Recently I was asked by a writer friend, “How long do I have to keep writing for free?” I told her, “That’s up to you.” I guess that wasn’t the answer she was expecting, because she gave me quite a surprised look. Maybe you’ve got that same look on your face right now! So, let me explain…

Many people in the writing/publishing business (myself included) will tell you to accept pro bono jobs when you’re starting out and trying to get yourself on the map as a legitimate writer. I still agree this is a good idea. It’s the same principle as a new business in town giving away samples of their products or services for a limited time so their prospective market will take a chance and experience them.

There’s nothing wrong for a writer to offer to do an article for free–perhaps in exchange for a link to his website and a bio. Or, to give away some copywriting expertise to a local business in order to gain exposure and build a resume. Not only is it not wrong; it’s smart business. But at some point, you need to draw the line and start collecting money for your work. So, when do you know when to start saying no?

Here are a few scenarios when you should cross over that line:

  • When you’ve already done free work for a “customer” and they want you to continue working for free. I will usually give the same customer two freebies, depending on the nature of the job. If it’s extremely time consuming, or if it didn’t seem to produce much exposure for my work, then I will only give away one job. But, after working for someone twice for free, they need to start paying!

The exceptions to this are if you’re working for an organization you care about and just want to help them promote themselves, or if the company is offering you a consistent gig that will not consume too much of your time. I have worked for free writing a monthly article for a nonprofit but only because it didn’t take very long for me to write. I was able to build my business alongside this free job, and all the while I was accumulating writing credits.

The problem with continuing to give away your work for free to the same customer is that the longer you do it, the harder it becomes to tell that customer they need to start paying. (This is similar to the problem with ideologies like Socialism, but that’s for another blog.) But, the truth is, if they liked your work enough to ask you to do something else for them, then they should pay for it. And, deep down they know this; and more often than not, they are waiting for you to call them on it. Chances are, they won’t say anything if you don’t.

So…how do you transition a client from nonpaying to paying?

One thing I’ve done in the past is to set up an escalating fee scale with my pro-bono customer. After I did my first freebie and they decided they liked my work enough to ask me to write for them again, I proposed a payment scale that started out at 50% of what I would normally charge for that particular job. The pay increased 10% every time I did a job, until we reached my full pay rate. So it took 6 jobs for me to reach my full pay rate, but at least I was making money, and we were moving in the right direction! And, they agreed that as long as they were happy with the work, it was worth it for them.

Another way to handle moving from a nonpaying to a paying customer is to negotiate a contract (make sure it’s written and signed) stipulating that you will do 2 or 3 freebies, but then you get paid at a certain rate for 2 or 3 more jobs (or whatever terms you can agree on).

  • When you already have several writing credits to your name. This is the case with the writer friend of mine whom I mentioned in my opening paragraph. She’s been published in magazines and online a few times now (all for free), but continues to accept more nonpaying jobs.

Once you have published work, especially in print media, future publishers really should not be asking you to write for free. There will always be nonpaying markets–both in print and online–but you will know going into a job whether it pays or not. Once I had a few published pieces, I no longer submitted my work to nonpaying markets. Now again, there are reasons why you might:

–It’s a market you really want to break into, because you know it could lead to other opportunities or because it will give you a chance to do something out of your niche. When I first started writing for kids, I took a couple nonpaying jobs because it was new for me. I wanted a chance to prove myself as a children’s writer, so even though I already had writing credits, I did some children’s work for free to gain exposure in that market.

–It will give you an opportunity to promote yourself or your work by offering bios, website links, or book promotions. In the past, I have traded the chance to get paid for an article with the opportunity to promote my book and my website because that was more important to me at that time.  Many magazine markets are willing to do this if you have an article that will fit the theme of their magazine.

Once you have published credits and have experience to put on your resume, limit your search to paying markets (unless you have a good reason not to, as mentioned above), and send those publishers clips of your work and your resume when you submit your query letter or manuscript. If an opportunity comes to you where the business owner/publisher does not want to pay for your services, you should send them clips of the published work you’ve already done, along with a rate sheet for the type of services they’re asking for. That should give them the hint that you don’t work for free. If it doesn’t, then it will be up to you to tell them or…take yet another nonpaying job.

Stay tuned for Part 2 where I will continue the discussion on when you should say no to nonpaying jobs.