Don’t “Expose” Yourself: Why Free Work is a Losing Proposition

Even as a beginning freelance writer, you could throw a digital rock and hit half a dozen ‘opportunities’ that would happily accept your work in exchange for not paying you. While I don’t doubt that somewhere, somehow, there are a handful of companies that legitimately have the stature to elevate your position in the freelance writing sphere, the vast majority do not.

Casual news-scanners would be hard-pressed not to turn up one of the multitude of internship ethics articles hitting the media stream in the last few months. If you’ve happened to miss these, the gist of it is that companies are shaving down their “real” jobs and putting hapless interns – who aren’t making a dime – in their positions, one task at a time. These interns are worked mercilessly, and are often expected to pull hours a paid employee wouldn’t, and do so without complaint. The theoretical training and experience that they’re working the internship for in the first place take a backseat to the glut of expectations dumped on their shoulders. These free labor sources are very seldom hired to “real” jobs in the same company once their internships are finished.

While writing internships are few and far between, that doesn’t stop unscrupulous companies from trying to cash in on free work, especially from naive freelance writers just starting out. Don’t fall for their lines! Here are a few red flags to keep an eye out for:

  • The concept of “exposure.” Long a buzz word for shamelessly soliciting free labor from freelance writers, exposure makes the case that a client will see your work on (x) site, find themselves impressed by your skill, and seek you out to write for their own site. This is a strange and nebulous concept with logic that likely won’t hold water, once examined.
  • Why would a website want to make a case for a rival to take you for themselves? They’ll be left without a consistent tone (set up by your free work) and strengthen their rivals’ sites and sales.
  • How much traffic is the “exposure” site actually currently getting? If they’re just starting out – as is often the case – you’d have better luck starting a blog and writing articles about your skills to attract clients directly. It isn’t your job to contribute free work to a struggling site in the hopes of making it popular enough to deliver the exposure you were promised in the first place!
  • What would your byline look like? If the person soliciting work from you gives you the equivalent of an email shrug, or worse – doesn’t know what a byline is or isn’t willing to give you one – the whole thing’s a sham.
  • They demand credentials for your free work. As updates to Google have gradually been introduced to the marketing world, online identity aggregate tools like Google+ authorship have gained significant weight and value in search algorithms. To use a metaphor, a sketchy site demanding you use your G+ profile to author and link an article is like a really rude loser of a bar fly striding up and saying that they’ll “let” you date them and in exchange brag about the fact you dated them to every potential date afterwards. Sure, it makes them look good to their potential partners, but it’ll send yours running for the hills.Protect your G+ authorship credentials and only attach it to articles – and clients – that support your legitimacy as a freelancer.

2 thoughts on “Don’t “Expose” Yourself: Why Free Work is a Losing Proposition

  1. Great post, Delany, and so true. As the old joke goes, writers can easily ‘die from exposure’. The more desperate the writer, the poorer they’ll be. I take the ‘never write for free’ mantra even further – I never write for less than 7 cents a word. That’s just my personal cut-off. Every writer needs to have a bottom line that they refuse to cross, whether it’s free work, 5 cents a word or 50 cents a word.

    Kevin Casey

  2. Pingback: A Great Take on “Exposure” | The Freelance Writer Guide

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