As a huge supporter of new copywriters (and just a general copywriting nerd), I spend a lot of time perusing copywriting forums, message boards, and other online communities.
One of the most frequently posted topics is whether or not a new copywriter should work for free to gain experience, get testimonials, and build their portfolio.
It’s a hot-button topic and the poster is absolutely flooded with emotionally driven responses one way or the other.
But something I’ve noticed is that there’s never a response that weighs the pros and cons of doing so, and what parameters should be put in place if a new copywriter chooses to work in exchange for experience.
Now, if you’ve been following me for a while, I’m always shouting from the rooftops that there are virtually no situations in which you should be writing for free.
But that goes for copywriters who already have the experience, a portfolio, and a client list.
It’s a harsh truth that people are more willing to pay for experience.
If you don’t have ANY experience copywriting..
If you haven’t taken ANY copywriting courses…
And if your first client would basically be an experiment…
Then there are definitely some times where it’s acceptable to work for free as a newbie copywriter.
But..doing work for “free” shouldn’t be TOTALLY free. After all, you ARE providing a service, and you should be getting SOMETHING in return.
Let’s talk about when it is (and isn’t) a good idea for a new copywriter to take on “free” assignments.
Unpaid Internships (SOMETIMES)
I know this one is going to catch me a lot of heat, but hear me out.
There are some unpaid internships that absolutely take advantage of the interns, having you do income-generating work with absolutely no real learning experience or support.
Or, the internship turns into a never-ending stream of filing and answering emails that have absolutely nothing to do with the work you’re there to learn.
THOSE internships should be completely done away with.
But some copywriting internships can be hugely beneficial to the intern and work more like free training and free education in exchange for producing content.
If you decide to take on an unpaid copywriting internship, this is what you should look for:
- Feedback. TONS of Feedback.
If you’re not getting a constant flow of constructive feedback, you’re not there to learn, you’re there to be free labor. There’s a difference.
With very, very green copywriters, the members of the internal team are often spending more time editing your work and providing feedback than it would take to do it themselves, which makes the internship more about your learning experience and less about what the company gets out of it.
That’s how an unpaid copywriting internship should work.
- Portfolio Building
If you don’t have some kind of tangible takeaway from an unpaid internship, you’re not putting yourself in a position to actually advance your career. Before you agree to an unpaid internship, get a very, very clear YES to using your work in your portfolio.
- Company Involvement
And I don’t mean being the “coffee gopher” for the office. I mean being involved in team meetings, planning, and other company activities. You should be seen as a member of the team, not someone who’s there to alleviate the workload of the paid employees.
- Opportunity for Permanent Employment
A company that has a never-ending stream of unpaid interns is typically using those interns to offset labor costs.
If that’s what the company you’re considering doing an unpaid internship with is doing, RUN.
A worthwhile unpaid copywriting internship provides you enough training, enough experience, and enough portfolio piece to either create your own opportunities post-internship or to offer you one at the end of your engagement.
A skill swap isn’t necessarily working for free, but it’s working without a monetary exchange. When you engage in a skill swap, you’re getting someone else’s skills in exchange for yours.
For example, let’s say you’re just starting your freelance copywriting career and are in need of an online presence. You could write the copy for a web designer in exchange for a website.
As long as the swap is fair and you both hold up your end of the bargain, a skill swap is definitely an instance where it’s totally ok not to work for money.
Writing for Small Nonprofits
Now, a lot of non-profit organizations really rake in the cash and hire copywriters either freelance or full time.
Unless it’s a big highlight in your portfolio and worth it to you to take on free work to build your credentials, those types of gigs should definitely be paid.
But, if you’re just starting out and you want the experience, small, local non-profits are great places to cut your copywriting teeth.
You’ll be donating your time and work in exchange for experience, portfolio pieces, and even writing off the work on your taxes (and if you’re a freelancer, sometimes that’s enough to have you chomping at the bit to take on unpaid nonprofit work!).
When You REALLY Want a Foot in the Door
If there’s an industry that’s hard to get into but is exceptionally lucrative once you’ve gained some experience, offering free copywriting services in exchange for the usage of your work in your portfolio and a testimonial can be worth it for you.
You might even be able to pitch your (PAID) services once you’ve completed a project, which is an added bonus.
But, remember–you need to be getting something out of any unpaid work you do. Don’t work for free just to work for free.
Don’t Work For Free Forever
If you decide to take on unpaid work, know that there is a limit to how much of your time you should give away.
If your unpaid clients start asking for more work, it’s time to charge.
If your unpaid contract keeps getting extended, it’s time to charge.
If they’re asking you to do work beyond the agreed-upon project, it’s time to charge.
Should You Work For Free as a New Copywriter?
Whether or not you take on unpaid work to kick-off your copywriting career is entirely up to you. Some new copywriters are able to get work right out of the gate, while others find that the time-investment of unpaid work pays off long term.
Doing unpaid copywriting work is supposed to get you SOMETHING in return. Once you’ve done what you’ve set out to do, whether it’s pieces for your portfolio or specific experience, it’s time to start charginging (accordingly) for your services.