Putting the “Free” in Freelance

When I was a teenager — after I gave up the aspiration to move to NYC at the age of 18 and be a singer — I thought the life of a freelance writer sounded so glamorous. I read articles that interviewed all the “in” celebrities, and at the end of them I always saw, “Jane Writer is a freelance writer who has also contributed to Fashion MagazineBigger Fashion Magazine, and Even Bigger Magazine. Her new book, I’m a Fabulous Freelance Writer, will be published next month.”

In my Literary Magazine class during my senior year of high school, we had to do an assignment on career choices, and I researched the illustrious life of a freelance writer. Of course, that’s when I got my first inkling (pardon the pun) that the profession might not be all bylines and big bucks. Once I started working that first post-college job and started doing a little bit of freelance, I learned how much things differed from my high school dreams of the early 2000s.

Okay… the late ’90s.

Fine! The late ’80s…

Anyway, while I enjoyed the writing (for the most part), I admitted that the pay rates weren’t great.  Eventually, I came across a situation that taught me the dangers of working for free. I decided to share this story because of one of my Facebook friends shared a link to a hilarious flow chart that attempts to answer the question “Should you work for free?” My favorite line answers the question of whether the person has promised that the work will give you exposure or a good portfolio piece:

This is the most toxic line of bullshit anyone will ever feed you.

Okay, on to the story… I’d love to call this guy out, but I’m just too nice for that, but I’ll give you a clue. His first name was also used as the first name in a song title by a one-hit wonder rapper, and every time I said his name, Cinlach would sing that one line from the song’s chorus.

This guy wanted to start his own animation company.  He had an idea for a TV series, but he had no writing skills.  I mean, none. I know a four-year-old who can spell better than he can. After his first e-mail to me, I wondered how he graduated from high school. Wannabe literary scholars could mistake his correspondence as passages from The Sound and the Fury — no punctuation, no capitalization, atrocious spelling.

The story was a sci-fi thriller, and Animation Dude said he’d shopped it around to a couple of movie studios and cable channels and had some interest. Since the company was a “start-up,” (You’ll see that on the flow chart.) no money was promised until something sold, but the situation was
understandable, so I joined the writers.

We were on a creative roll for a few months, and then we had trouble getting together to meet and Animation Dude had stuff going on. Things stalled for a few months, and I was thinking of going back to school.

Then, in the summer of 2007, he invited me to a big “company” meeting with all the people involved in the project. I went and felt incredibly inspired by all the people there devoted to making this project a success. New people came in as writers, and we started meeting regularly to work on the script.

One day in August, Animation Dude came to us with a project supposedly from Reebok. Apparently, he had been in contact with a big wig who wanted to see what we could do. No promises that they would go with us — but it was a possibility if we impressed them. We wrote scripts for three different commercials, which would combine live action and animation.

My idea took about eleven hours of filming for two minutes of footage. One of the writers, who also directed and edited his own short films, put together the live action commercial. It was SO AWESOME to see my idea there on a screen. All it needed was the animated footage that Animation Dude was supposed to do.

We never saw the finished version — if there ever was one. Animation Dude told us that he had completed the commercial and shipped it to Reebok just under the deadline. No one believed him, and every one was done.

Despite never earning a dime off anything I did for Animation Dude, I did meet some cool creative people and did learn I loved seeing my idea/script being filmed. The day I spent helping film my commercial was hard work, and I loved it. But in thinking about the flow chart I came up with one more question you should ask yourself: Even if you absolutely love, love, LOVE what you do, would you… could you do it for the rest of your life for free?

If the answer’s no, never do it for free. Charge a small fee, barter for services if you want, but always make them give you something.

If the answer is yes, then FREElance away… you masochist.


Thoughts, anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

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