An American Editor

February 3, 2021

On the Basics: Should we work for free?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

Disclaimer: This post expands on a conversation I’ve participated in on LinkedIn, so some of you may have seen parts of it already.

Like many of us here, I’m often asked to do writing, editing, proofreading, website or speaking work for free. When such a request comes from organizations or causes I believe in, I’ll consider it and sometimes say yes. From people who aim to profit from the project or my potential role, I find polite but firm ways to say no, and explain — if necessary — that I do this work as my profession, so I expect to be paid. I don’t talk about my need to pay a mortgage or buy groceries; I simply present myself as a business. With newbie authors, I suggest that they start saving so they can afford to hire professional editors or proofreaders, designers, etc. With startup companies, I suggest that they get back in touch once they’re funded/established and can pay for professional services.

While it can be challenging to stand up for ourselves in terms of being paid, I find it easy to talk to people about pro bono or free work. If we don’t value our services, skills and experience, no one else will. I wish people would realize that someone like me does the work as my profession, my living, or at least respect that — I think it’s pretty clear that I write, edit, etc., as something other than a hobby. People probably know that, if they have any sense; they just don’t want to accept or respect it.

It does help that I’ve been in the communications field for long enough that I don’t have to do free work to become established, prove myself, earn paying projects or making a comfortable living. If I were just starting out, my perspective might be different — but I would still put limits on the scope of pro bono work I would do.

The lawyers I work with in editing or proofreading for law firms do pro bono work for charities/nonprofit organizations as part of their and their firms’ commitments to service to their communities. Pro bono is expected in their profession. They also might get awards for such contributions. We in the editorial field don’t usually get such recognition; we do pro bono as a personal service, and sometimes to get established.

The difference is probably that the lawyer or accountant usually has a regular income, so doing pro bono work doesn’t cut into their business the way editing someone’s ms. for free, for instance, would interfere with a freelancer’s income-generating time. I wouldn’t give away editing an entire ms. unless the author were a relative, very close friend or colleague who had done something similar for me — but I wouldn’t ask anyone to do anything that substantial for me without compensation. Maybe a skim and an opinion, but not actual work.

Good reasons to donate our time

It should be noted that there are good reasons to do some editorial work for free.

If you’re new to the field, it makes sense to do a few projects for free to get established, build a network, create visibility and prove your skills. If you’re in a rut and want to expand into new types of editorial work or start covering new topics, it might take doing some work for free to get your feet wet and establish yourself on those new levels.

One example of writing for free is, of course, blogging. I don’t profit from the An American Editor blog, much as I enjoy writing here, and many of our subscribers have their own blogs on all kinds of topics that they don’t get paid to write about. These projects are everything from a service to colleagues, or friends and family, to soapboxes to therapy of a sort. Blogs are a great outlet for opinions and insights that you can’t share elsewhere and don’t have a paying client for, and can be an excellent way to get noticed. Even posting to someone else’s blog can be beneficial by creating greater visibility for your work and voice. (Some blogs do make money — there’s a lot of advice about “monetizing” blogs, and bloggers have been known to get book or other paying offers based on their posts.) However, working for free in return for visibility or “exposure” can be iffy. Just keep in mind that exposure can get someone arrested, or killed. 🙂

One of the hardest work-for-free requests for me is speaking. I love to talk, I love to share information, I love to be of help to colleagues, I love to be around people at conferences and similar events. I don‘t love to travel or stay in hotels on my own dime, which is often what’s involved with speaking at out-of-town events. Some organizations even have the chutzpah to expect speakers to pay to attend the events where they’ll be speaking, which I don’t accept. I believe that when someone is providing expert advice, they should get something out of it. That’s why the Be a Better Freelancer® conference that I host (now with the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors, and AAE) covers speaker accommodations, conference fee and meals at the very least, and often has paid for speaker travel as well.

I often recommend that colleagues put limits or deadlines on the pro bono work that they do, but I’ve never come up with a standard for setting the amount of time I might give to such projects. Some of them have involved a couple of hours, some have been ongoing for a long time; it depends on the cause or organization and my connection to it.

Setting boundaries is also unpredictable. Sometimes I say I’ll be available for X hours or Y months; sometimes I just see how I feel after a while to decide it’s time to stop and devote my energy to something else. How long you work pro bono and for whom is a personal decision that you probably have to make on a case-by-case basis; there might be no one-size-fits-all rule. Just be sure to give adequate warning when you reach that point of no more freebies so the recipient can fill the gap quickly.

When it comes to speaking, I often make my decision based on event location: If a conference will be held somewhere that I like or want to visit, especially because I have friends or family there, that tends to tilt the scale toward yes. If you’re an author with books to sell (or an artist or photographer, etc., with works to sell), speaking engagements can lead to onsite sales, which can offset the expense of getting to the event and make the free speech worth doing. Some of my colleagues consider the travel points they accumulate from speaking at out-of-town events as a worthwhile swap for being paid to present.

Doing free writing, editing, proofreading, indexing and other types of editorial work can be fulfilling. It can even be profitable: The connections you make and the work can take you from volunteer to employee or paid contributor. Before you turn down or accept such requests, look at them closely, think about how acceding to them will feel and act accordingly. Set your own limits and go from there.

Have you done any pro bono editorial work? For whom? How did you respond? How did it turn out for you?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (www.writerruth.com) is the owner and editor-in-chief of An American Editor and an award-winning provider of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers and companies worldwide. She created the annual Communication Central “Be a Better Freelancer”® conference for colleagues, now cosponsored by the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors and An American Editor. She can be contacted at Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com or Ruth@writerruth.com.

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