Working for ‘free’: Brother, can you spare your time?

skeletonsRepeat after me: you should never work for free.

You should never work for free.

You should NEVER work for free.

Got that? Good.

It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of doing spec work over and over in the hope of eventual reward. There is, however, a tiny but important difference between truly ‘working for free’ and getting an appropriate amount of value out of what you do. Here are my tips on how to find the best things to devote your time to.

‘Free’ vs ‘non-monetary value’

The amount you get out of a project or piece of work can’t always be counted in cash. (As nice and convenient as cash is.)

Something you’ll see on numerous listings for unpaid writing positions is ‘potential exposure’. As in, ‘no we’re not paying you, but you should be grateful that someone’s publishing your work’. Only take that exposure if you’re sure enough it’ll lead to something concrete. Write if it’s going to put your work in front of people who could genuinely employ or help you.

The other main thing you can get out of this type of ‘free’ work is freebies of your own. You could be invited to events, sent to important places as a rep for the people you work for, or offered other perks like free lunches and discounts. Some people (ahem, me) will gladly take on a food or drink client if it means free samples of the product.

I can doubly vouch for this approach: my work with both Funny Women and ShellsuitZombie has led to a stupidly high number of opportunities. They were (and still are) the right platforms for me to up my reputation – what could yours be?

An exchange should be exactly that

Some of us are copywriters, and some of us aren’t. That’s why we rely on each other to do different jobs. I certainly wouldn’t attempt to try and rewire my own house, for example.

Exchanging services with another professional comes under the general heading of ‘working for free’, yes, but it does again give you the chance to get something useful back out of it. Collaborate with a web designer and a shiny new website could be yours for less or nowt. Take on a project with a photographer and maybe you’ll finally have a photo of yourself that’s smart enough for LinkedIn.

Networking’s vital to do this. If you don’t know someone who does what you need, then you’re stuck. Put yourself out there and get to know as many people in different industries as you can. You never know who might be able to help you.

You also have to be certain that your chosen person is going to return the favour for a deal like this to be beneficial. And you have to hold up your end of the bargain, too. Even if you’re best mates, it’s best to put down an agreement in writing. That way, if they try to bail on you it’s easy enough to wave the piece of paper in their face.

Giving it all away online

As a writer, whenever I post on social media or my blog I’m uploading a free insight into my work and my personality. Your online presence is essentially a sample piece prospective clients judge you on, alongside your portfolio.

And when you’re on the job, you still don’t get paid to be personal. Some clients aren’t keen on seeing your Instagram updates at times when you’re meant to be working (even if they’re work related).

However, plenty of people do want to see what you’re like before they hire you. Platforms like Twitter are perfect for that. Giving over your spare time to properly maintain your social accounts can reap considerable rewards. Once you start getting work through them, it’s all suddenly worth it.

Again, back to me: I’d estimate close to 75% of my work now comes along via Twitter. And if you’re reading this and you need a freelance copywriter, you know where to find me.

How long are you prepared to wait?

You might not see results from what you do straight away. If you start blogging for an online magazine in the hope of exposure, it might be months and tens of posts before you start getting that recognition. It takes time to build up a reputation and a rapport with people.

On the other hand, there are ways to get instant impact from your work. Why not aim to go viral? Take on a project that’s controversial, or likely to be seen by a lot of people, and it could blow up almost immediately. And at that point it already has your name attached to it. Job done.

Work out whether what you’re doing is the long game or designed for quick gratification – and whether that’s how you want to go about it.

Know what you want and go get it

In everything you do, what you’re aiming for is value above all else. A tangible result from each sentence and paragraph. Not just in terms of what the copy’s meant to achieve as per the brief, or the targets the client’s set, but also what you get out of it personally.

Once you know what you’re ideally after, don’t back down when it comes to getting what you need from your work. Clients who’d like you to do ‘unpaid’ work for them can have just as persuasive an argument for not paying as you do for them coughing up. And they may not want to help you all that much. It’s definitely becoming more of an exception than the rule, though. Take the time to find someone you can really work with, and who knows how far it’ll take you.

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