Freelance Blog + money

Guest Post: Giving Back or Giving Away?

By Devon Ellington

One of the decisions published writers face, at one time or another is the dilemma of when pro bono work is giving back to the community and when they are giving away time and energy that is better spent on a money-making venture. Far too many unpublished writers hold on to the fantasy that published writers “owe them.”

We don’t.

Most of us got into the realm of The Published by learning both our art and our craft, and working relentlessly to perfect them. Most writers are extraordinarily generous in taking the time to dispense time and advice. Writers owe their readers and/or clients their best work, all the time. They owe strangers – nothing.

One can choose to give back to the community in a variety of ways, some of which have to do with writing, and some that do not. Non-writing volunteer efforts are just as fulfilling as something that requires writing. In fact, many writers I know prefer to volunteer their time at a soup kitchen or walking shelter dogs or helping out at a charity walk rather than writing for an organization, because it’s different and affords variety, while still offering an opportunity to contribute to the community.

If one chooses pro bono writing work, there are many options. You can teach at a conference. Some of these pay fees, some pay honorariums, some do not pay at all, and taking on a workshop as a pro bono effort is a way to give back and help other emerging writers. Mentoring first year participants during National Novel Writing Month also falls into this category. However, you have to set firm boundaries, or you will be inundated with manuscripts that have nothing to do with the workshop you teach, and, furthermore, you will be inundated with demands to walk those manuscripts in to agents and publishers. Remember that you are not obligated to do any of that. Make it clear that you will not accept or read unsolicited manuscripts if that’s your choice. If you come across a manuscript about which you are passionate and WANT to give someone a leg up, go for it. But it’s not a requirement.

Taking on a charitable organization as a pro bono client is another way to give back. If you’re early in your career with few clips, pro bono work for a reputable charity will result in clips that will get you higher-paying and higher profile future clients than working for a mill offering $1 for 20 articles. A single outstanding clip for an excellent organization will do you more good than twenty sub-par pieces. Also, participating in an organization about which you are passionate enhances your life and helps the organization.

Still, you must set boundaries. Be firm about the time commitment and the amount of work you take on. You don’t want to be in a position where you turn down paying work because your pro bono client’s piled on so much work you don’t have time for anything else. Also, set boundaries about work outside of the organization’s realm. I once had an executive of a pro bono client slap a 300 page manuscript on my desk and tell me I “had” to revise it for her. It was a novel she’d written on the side. It had nothing to do with the organization’s mission or the reason I took them on as a pro bono client. I refused, and the executive made my time there such hell that I resigned from the organization, letting the board know why. The board’s response was that I should have done the edit (which was at least a couple of thousand dollars’ worth of work) as a favor, because “it’s not like it would be that hard for you.”

No, it wouldn’t be “hard.” What it would be is giving away a specific set of skills for nothing, and not within the realm of what I agreed to do for this pro bono client. Had I agreed, that’s allowing them to take advantage; not only would I have resented the time and effort put into the manuscript, I would have opened the door for more of the same. Agreeing to such a task would indicate that I do not value my hard-earned skills and time, and shows a lack of self-respect. If I don’t respect my time and skills, why should anyone else?

Giving back is important. Setting boundaries so that we don’t give away not only time and money but respect is equally important. Choose your pro bono work carefully, set strong boundaries, and stick to them.

Devon Ellington publishes under a half a dozen names in fiction and non-fiction, as well as providing a wide array of business writing services (www.devonellingtonwork.com and www.fearlessink.com) Her plays are produced in New York, London, Edinburgh, and Australia. She is the author of The Jain Lazarus Adventures and the energy behind the Penny’s Dreadfuls shorts. Her YA horse racing mystery DIXIE DUST RUMORS, under the Jenny Storm name, will release in late summer. Visit her blog Ink in My Coffee to keep up with the various projects and the ups and downs of the freelance writing life.

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