Should copywriters work for free?

“I’m starting out as a copywriter; should I work for free?”

That’s a great question! With a complex answer. 

When starting your freelance career, finding clients is one of the toughest challenges you’ll face. Without experience, people may be unwilling to hire you, so working for free might seem like the only way to start building your portfolio. 

While you might consider working for no money, you never want your work to go unrewarded. A great way to think about offering services for no charge is to consider whether it will benefit you in the long run.

Do I need to work for free?

No. You do not ever need to work for free. This is especially true of situations where businesses approach you asking for free work with a view to paying you for ongoing work in the future. This is no way for a reputable company to seek quality copywriters, and such businesses should be avoided. Every. Single. Time.

Your skills as a copywriter are valuable, no matter how many bots and apps are out there claiming to offer great copywriting for a fraction of the cost of a human writer. Such claims are categorically wrong because you, a human, have the finesse and life experience to bring humanity to your writing, which is the very reason why people read what you have to say – yes, even if you’re writing real estate brochures or instruction manuals for cleaning car parts. Never forget, the ability to put meaningful words on a page that impart the right meaning and carry the voice of whomever you are writing for in a clear, concise way is a skill that very few people have. You can and should charge good money to write copy for anyone requiring your services. There are, however, good reasons not to charge money for writing copy as well.

I sometimes write copy for free. Here are my reasons

There are instances where I have offered copywriting work for no charge. However, these experiences have not been for nothing. Let’s explore.

1. To find new clients

This is my top reason for offering free copywriting – to ensnare new clients! Since I am a copywriter in Melbourne who specialises in copywriting for small Australian businesses, I’ll often go on a Google search to find websites with great potential – but less than stellar copy. I’ll choose a page, usually their About Us or Services page, and rewrite it into a concise, creative copy that I feel reflects the tone of the business. 

I’ll then send the business an introductory letter outlining my services, rates and a report on where I think the website needs improvement (and, naturally, where I think their website is outstanding!). I will also attach the copy I rewrote, making sure they understand that it is theirs, free and clear – my gift to them – and they can use it if they want. That way, if they would like me to do any further work for them, they know my style, they know I have good intentions, they have a copy of my prices so there are no surprises, and they know I have done my homework on their business. I’ve gained many short-term clients this way, and a few ongoing clients looking for regular blog contributions.

2. To get honest testimonials

Word of mouth is worth a million times more than advertising. As a copywriter, you can run as many Facebook ads as you like letting people know what you can do and how well you can do it, but nothing is worth more than the word of a third party who has genuine experience with your work.

Working for free to gain honest testimonials is a great reason to do it, especially when you are starting out (but don’t make my mistake and ask for a written testimonial instead of directing them to write a Google review!)

3. For a well-connected potential client

If you have the opportunity to gain access to a range of new clients (and ongoing work) by doing a little free copywriting, DO IT! Your hard work will pay off tenfold by the range of paid opportunities you open yourself up for. 

When I began working freelance and was seeking clients, the very first job I approached was work from another copywriter who had taken on too much work and needed an extra pair of hands. She asked for five blog posts for a nationally recognised business as an example of my work, which I provided unpaid, and these blog posts were published on their website. Those free articles lead to regular ongoing work, which I still do to this day – I consider the two days I spent painstakingly writing those five articles to be a fantastic investment in my income.

4. For family and friends

You’re a copywriter. You’re likely the only one in the family who has the skills and experience to write an amazing cover letter to disguise the World of Warcraft gap in Cousin Fred’s resume or to write the services page for Auntie Amaya’s startup plumbing business – and it’s always good to do for family. Just be aware that any time you spend working unpaid for family is time you won’t be able to spend earning an income for yourself, so don’t let yourself get taken advantage of. You might tell Auntie Amaya that you’re thrilled to help out with the copy for the website, but you won’t be available to write the weekly blog post she had in mind. Or you might tell Cousin Fred that you’re delighted to help him with a general cover letter geared towards the industry he is interested in, but he’ll have to update it every time to reflect the exact business he is applying to. 

Sometimes, any work is good work

If you’re a newborn copywriter who has never seen the business end of a client before, go ahead and take any unpaid job you can get, no matter the client. It’s a fantastic way to gain experience and learn how to handle a client, not to mention you’ll be able to gauge better for your next job how long it takes you to get your work done. Chaulk it up to a learning experience, ask for a testimonial and keep looking for paid opportunities.

I’ve said no to unpaid copywriting opportunities. Here’s why.

Taking on free work can be tempting when you’re new and desperate for some experience. You can’t land clients with an empty portfolio, after all.

However, if you aren’t careful, unpaid work can be drawn out, frustrating and ultimately lead to nothing. Here are a couple of things to bear in mind:

1. Free work might not be taken seriously.

Getting something for nothing can make it feel less valuable. If you’ve ever picked up a bargain brand-name pair of rollerblades from a hard rubbish pile or been handed down a brand new iPad (yeah, right!), the fact that you didn’t pay for it makes it feel less valuable. The same can be said for offering free work. The business you give your words to may feel that it isn’t worth as much as they may have paid someone else to do, and may therefore mistreat your hard work by pulling it apart or not using it at all. This can be very frustrating and will land you back to square one.

2. I didn’t like the person I was offering the work to

We’re all human; sometimes, it’s difficult to make a good connection, even if you are both good, decent people. One of the businesses I approached with a free Services page rewrite was captained by, as it turns out, someone I had known and not gotten along with in the past. Though there could have been ongoing paid work resulting from the free work I offered, it was not worth the anguish of continuing to have contact with this person who made me question my abilities and skills. Nope – that one was not for me!

3. The business is not reputable

Again, though there may be the offer of ongoing work, if the business is a scam or has questionable ethics (or simply ethics that do not align with your own) you may not want your name attached to them. 

4. They won’t allow you to use your work in your personal freelancing portfolio

One of the biggest reasons you are offering unpaid work is to propel you into more paid work, right? Well, if the business won’t allow you to take credit for your own work, especially if it is unpaid, what’s the point?

Don’t let people take advantage of you

You’re a copywriter. And if you’re like the majority of us, you may not be entirely confident in your skills or your ability to begin charging for your work. The sad fact is, there are people out there who will take advantage of you for the less-than-outgoing personality that allowed you the time to hone your writing skills in the first place, so keep a wary eye out. 

Offering a business one free page of work is perfectly acceptable if there’s a chance it will lead to paid work. But if they’re angling for more free labour, get out fast. If a big or influential client allowed you to work with them on a project in the first place, they like your work and know you have skills. And if you have skills, you should be getting paid.

Work for free…but only if it benefits you

The only reason you should ultimately be doing unpaid work as a freelance copywriter is if it will benefit you in the long run. It may be because you need the experience or because you foresee paid work in the future by doing a little free work now. But you should never feel compelled to work for free – it is by no means a requirement of the job. As long as you set boundaries right at the beginning of your relationship with a prospective new client and know in your core that your skills are valuable, you could find success in doing a little free work from time to time. 

Have any questions about doing free work as a copywriter? Just ask!

4 thoughts on “Should copywriters work for free?

  1. I enjoyed your perspective Geni. I have worked for free to add certain people to my portfolio. On the other hand, I have bartered and did not like the trade to continue. The idea about writing something for free to entice a client I have my eye on sounds promising and something a bit meatier to add to email outreach. Thank you for sharing

    Like

  2. I enjoyed this perspective Geni. I have bartered before and ended it when I realized the trade-off wasn’t worth it.
    I would like to try out the complimentary writing piece to entice a client I have my eye on. It would be a welcomed email with benefits vs an empty-handed cold pitch. Thanks for sharing

    Like

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