Don’t Take Free Work

Inspired by a conversation I had with a friend recently, I have some advice for all new writer-publishers[1]:

Friends will offer help when you’re in need. They’ll offer to do some writing for free, or editing for free, or art for free, whatever.

When they do, politely decline or offer to pay. Never take free.[2]

People are well-meaning, but the problem with free work for friends is that is has the lowest priority. Lower that work that keeps you in rent, food & Internet. Lower that paying work that’s interesting. Lower that relaxing after a stressful day. And often lower than sleeping. This causes one of two problems:

  • You can’t depend on them for a schedule. Sure, they’ll say you can depend on them, and I hope you can, but expect them to slip.
  • Because you’re getting work they’s done whenever they could get around to it, expect it to be sloppy or rougher than what they would otherwise turn it for a paying client.

Sometimes, you get both problems simultaneously.

Now, your friends aren’t bad people. Quite the contrary! But there’s often a vast valley between our intentions and our bandwidth. And people offering tend to not take that into account. But it still leaves you in an awkward place. When you receive said work, you can:

  • Accept it begrudgingly, and spend a little time working on it to fit what you’re doing.
  • Accept it begrudgingly, and spend a lot of time working with it your vision. Likely as much time as you would have spent writing or whatnot in the first place.
  • Send back notes, asking for revision, and expecting the same sort of issues with scheduling & quality.
  • Reject it, and cause hurt feelings because this was a favor done for you.

Again, your friends aren’t bad people! But now you’re in a hell of a situation, where you have more trouble than you had before. There’s guilt on their part for offering, guilt on yours for having to deal with this situation, and frustration all around. This is the sort of thing that can strain friendships and break up romantic relationships.[3]

(And yes, you may luck out. But the smart money doesn’t plan for success, but for struggle.)

All that said, there are people you can rely upon if you outline what you need, when you need it, and know that they aren’t critical to the project going live. Like what I did with Finis, and what we did when Jonathan Walton & I proposed Magic Missile[4]. But if people volunteer to do something critical for your project (which happens often when you’re doing a charity project and people can’t volunteer money, so they want to volunteer time), know that you’re walking into a suboptimal situation that, weeks down the road, will cause strife.

(Yes, I realize there are entire sites that run off the “work for free” model. They have more discipline and possibly less financial hardship than I do. I do a little bit of free work, knowing that I’m actually being paid in social capital, and always for something short, quick & interesting.)

– Ryan

P.S. I’ve been spending all my time lately packing up my place to move this coming week to Denver, and spending time with friends who want to see me off. So that’s why I’ve been radio-silent. Expect that more-or-less through the next 10 days.

[1] “Writer-publisher” sounds like this century’s “warrior-poet”.

[2] Caveat of “unless you absolutely know what you’re doing”, as Jess Banks does with Fighting For Gwen.

[3] I speak from personal experience.

[4] Which a few months later, I realize that I was the friend who was going to do shitty, late free work, and turned the project over to Jonathan.


2 Responses to Don’t Take Free Work

  1. I couldn’t agree more, Ryan.
    And the flip side is, if you’re considering offering work to your friends for free, or your friend asks you to work for free, do some soul searching before you accept. If you can’t with a clear conscience say that you’re so excited to be a part of the project that you’ll prioritize it over most other aspects of your life over an extended period of time, you’ll just be doing them a disservice.

  2. Jesse Coombs says:

    The “Let’s Make Mistakes” podcast had a good episode that covered some of what you’re saying from the other side. They made a point of saying that just because you’re doing something for free doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve THE SAME amount of effort and professionalism as paid work, and if you can’t do that say no. Otherwise, you’re a dick.

    link: http://muleradio.net/mistakes/34/