Pro Bono Freelance Writing

Pro Bono Freelance Writing

Double-Edged Sword or Generous Gift?

There are oh, so many things about this headline that make it controversial. So many ways to interpret each part of it, tip to tail, twisting it into something entirely palatable, or something more contrary. I’m not going to do that. Let’s instead examine the various scenarios and allow you to decide for yourself whether to put the free in freelance, divided into six distinct lessons freelance writing professionals need to take into account before masticating their own words.

Established writers with comfortable steady royalty income carry all manner of flags in their pro bono allegiance. Take, for instance, James Patterson, who spewed forth 13 novels in 2012, earning him a cool $94 million. Now, when James hears a pro bono request, his response might well be a hearty laugh. It could also be met with a supportive gesture. My request for comment was not returned at press time, so the mystery remains.

Lesson No. 1: No response or publicity = no critique.

Other famous authors are a little more forthcoming in their pro bono and charitable works. Consider the creation of anthologies that donate to specific causes, such as Shaken: Stories for Japan. That collection gathered 12 recognized mystery writers to collaborate on a tome to benefit tsunami victims with 100 percent of all proceeds from sales.

Also consider Stephen King, who, by the way, pulled in $39 million in royalties in 2011, donating through his STK Foundation. Of course there are benefits to doing it that way, but still, it is giving back through things like heating homes of those in need in his own state of Maine, support of artists experiencing health problems, the Jimmy Fund and Heifer International.

Lesson No. 2: Form a foundation.

Authors are really a rather introverted, quiet bunch when it comes to their personal affairs, so information about their private lives and charitable causes is minimal, yet diving past the first five or six search engine pages reveals that many perform pro bono freelance writing acts, from celebrity readings of their works, to supporting the First Amendment Project. Note, however, that there is still a thread there that ties much of the good work back to profitable arenas.  We’re seeing the trend of freelancing become prevalent with newbie college grads, too.

Lesson No. 3: tailor your pro bono activity to do good while helping your own bottom line.

Let’s move to the other end of the scale, to the shiny new scribe with a pitifully slim portfolio, and bank account to match. In scenario one, Newbie is having trouble securing work. As a virtually unpublished author, Newbie seeks and finds needy Nonprofit with an appealing mission and agrees to write a new donation letter. It is wildly successful and Nonprofit thanks him with a _______ (you fill it in: a coffee gift card, a spot in their next newsletter, or a nice thank you note from the Director).

Lesson No. 4: Get it in writing. Even pro bono work deserves a contract, preferably one that allows use for personal promotion.

From there, the plot thickens and can go several ways. Ideally, Nonprofit realizes the value of the work and contracts with Newbie for the next writing task. Note that this is a possible, but unlikely, scenario. Another possibility is that others see the freelancers work and decide to hire the various newbies; also a good road, but still an unlikely one right out of the gate. A third positive outcome is that both of the above happen.

Lesson No. 5: Buy a lotto ticket. Kidding, but only half. Newbie will probably need to repeat this step several times in order to build a portfolio that displays reliable talent necessary to elevate freelancers around the world.

Say Newbie runs the same drill and is again sitting down to write a new blog for Nonprofit organizational use. Same in, same out: Newbie writes, Nonprofit succeeds, praises Newbie, then asks to repeat the process. They obviously appreciate Newbie’s work, know a good deal when they see it, and cannot believe their good fortune when Newbie nods in agreement to do it again. Or, consider the possibility that Nonprofit’s friends hear of the free bennies and also tap Newbie on the shoulder for pro bono words.  It goes without saying, regardless of path chosen, that content marketing success relies on energized prose which leads into the sixth lesson.

Lesson No. 6: I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine. Agree to do the first gig pro bono, with the stipulation that satisfaction delivers future paid assignments.


Most freelance writing buffs fall somewhere between the two extremes cited here, but, as they say, writers use both mind and heart, experiencing life on a deeper level. That makes writers, as a group, fairly generous. Many are also fairly hungry. Both contribute to the continued expectations of pro bono practice. In addition, agreeing to write for a less than livable fee has a tendency to drag down rates for all writers. If you need to make rent or buy groceries, then by all means do what you must. But if you are building a serious freelancing career, make sure the world knows what you are worth.

Final lesson: You don’t get what you don’t ask for. Go ahead. If you’ve got freelance writing panache, flaunt it.

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