Beware working for friends, freelancers

I apprenticed with a plumber on and off for a couple years at the beginning of my college career.

He’d always tell me, “Don’t do work for friends.”

It rarely ends well. Someone ends up feeling screwed, but no one wants to say it when friendships are on the line. When it comes to soft crafts like writing, it’s even harder to get things settled.

Your professional rates are going to sound crazy. Forty dollars an hour for freelance work isn’t very good at all, I’ve learned. Ten cents a word is bottom of the barrel, but try to tell that to your friend, or a friendly organization.

I charged a nonprofit for some work on their Web site. I undercut my pricing because I just couldn’t get myself to be hard with an organization whose work I supported and respected. Things turned out well enough that they came back for more work.

Working for organizations you want to support is fine, but you have to remember you need to make a profit. You are  a business now, my friend.

If you’re a professional, there’s a quality standard that comes with it, so of course you can’t do it for free. Doing it for cheap isn’t always wise either, but working for friends can get sticky.

When I was a student working for my college newspaper, I slaved over an alumni blog, led a complete reorganization of the paper’s archives and did a lot more work far beyond my “pay-grade.” That was a mission, and I was still a student. I’ve learned that it isn’t wise to do that as a professional.

It’s harder to make that clear to friends, so it might be better to avoid the topic altogether.

I recommend getting a group of like-minded professionals together. Share work. Defend each other, so no one works friends, but everyone gets work.

Some have argued that an era of profitable writing is coming to an end, leaving only the wealthy able to pursue their written-word desires. Whether that’s true or not, this economy and the current state of the print industry is such that freelancers, particularly those just developing their careers, can’t give much away for free. It’s a business, and you have to treat it as such. Working for friends can get sloppy.

It was good advice from my former boss. It is advice I still take very seriously, and not the only wisdom that I took from that plumber, who moved me enough that I wrote for my college newspaper in 2006 about my deepest learning from him.

I think you ought to learn it, too.