I give away work for free. Am I an idiot?

I say ‘no’, because the work I ‘give away’ comprises sample pieces for prospective clients. And in a world where everyone with a keyboard thinks they’re a professional freelance copywriter and everyone with an editing app thinks they’re a freelance editor, I think that’s mutually helpful. Not everyone agrees …

As a seasoned freelancer, I have been hanging around the freelance copywriting and freelance editing communities on LinkedIn for a long time now. Long enough to notice that certain topics keep cropping up.

First among these is ‘how do I get people to pay my invoices/pay my invoices on time’ (to which the answer is, ‘factor the relevant laws into your t&cs and if that doesn’t work, have a chat with the Small Business Commissioner‘) and my own personal favourite, ‘why it is completely unreasonable for anyone to ask any freelance copywriter and/or editor to do anything related to work, ever, without payment’.

The overwhelming majority of commenters in these debates (or at least, the many iterations of this debate that I have read) assert that they would never provide any form of work for free, because ‘I know my worth’ and ‘these people are just trying to take advantage of freelancers’. Apparently people who provide samples are ‘not proper writers’ (what is a ‘proper writer’, anyway?)

I take their point: I work to make money, too. But generally I disagree with their arguments.

Why I provide bespoke copywriting and editing samples

I routinely provide (brief) sample pieces, written to the enquirer’s own specification, without charge. I do this if the enquirer seems genuinely interested in working with me over time, and I think we’d be a good fit.

I do this because (a) I wish to preserve the anonymity of my existing clients (my work is overwhelmingly white label) and (b) I completely understand why any potential client wants to know that I can produce exactly the type of content they want.

I’ve heard stories from clients and contacts about freelance editorial folk who have let them down in all sorts of ways. Some have returned work so poor it has had to be re-written (I know this to be true because I’ve been asked to re-write other people’s work in the past), some have poor research skills and some don’t understand the importance of deadlines or editorial processes. I hope these people are the vast minority, but I know for certain that they exist.

What is more, I tend to work in pretty specialist niches. I edit lots of reference and academic books and papers, I write about slightly obscure things like metallurgy, industrial supply chains and finance software.

This has its disadvantages (I recently ruined an episode of Saturday Night Takeaway for my entire family by banging on about the self-healing properties of stainless steel, for example) but the benefits far outweigh them. I work with bright people. My type of client doesn’t have the time or inclination to waste on wannabe writers or editors who are not all they seem.

We’re all editorial professionals now … apparently

And that’s one of the biggest problems with copywriting and editing. Pretty much everyone you meet thinks they’re a writer and many think the mere ability to use editing apps makes them an editor. This despite the fact that loads of editorial and marketing pros are well aware of the drawbacks built into such tools (see here and here, for example). Just yesterday I read an article that claimed the key skills required for editing are ‘a love of grammar and a love of books’.

Bless.

When a business engages a freelance copywriter or editor, they take a substantial risk – with their public profile/reputation/brand, with their money and with their time.

And when that client works in a specialist area or ‘unsexy’ niche they often take an even bigger risk. Because there are relatively few of us writing specifically for those sectors, and the importance of precision and accuracy is substantially greater than for more general topics. And yet plenty of wannabes will put up their hands and shout ‘pick me!’ Either because they over-estimate their own capabilities, or they plan to style out their lack of knowledge and make a few quid.

Free samples demonstrate the working relationship

Another advantage of providing bespoke copywriting and editing samples lies in the ability to show my responsivity, the fact that I am an absolute joy to work with (honest!) and that I work as a freelancer full time.

Not everyone is and does, you know. And speaking personally, I’m not sure I’d be happy outsourcing my company’s work to anyone who is only available between lectures or in the evenings (when they’ve finished their other job). It’s going to slow down progress, for a start.

Doesn’t ‘free work’ exploit freelancers?

Sometimes, yes. I have definitely been ripped off because I thought the recipient was interested in working with me and it turned out they just wanted free work. That’s why I limit the extent of work I offer (usually around 500 to 1,000 words) and try to judge people astutely. But of course I get it wrong sometimes.

That’s life, unfortunately. There are dodgy people out there, but that doesn’t negate the need to treat the good ones fairly. And anyway, my ‘working for nothing’ in this way is not altruistic: I’m investing in a potential working relationship. And the value of an investment can go up or down, as endless financial services ads will tell you.

In fact, after 9 years I can count on one hand the number of times I have ‘given away’ work to people who claimed to want to work with me, but didn’t. I think that’s a pretty good hit rate, and that’s why I’m going to carry on doing what I’m doing.

As for the original question: am I an idiot? Well yes I am, some of the time – but never when it comes to my work!

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