Selling services: pushing pixie dust?

After leaving my editor’s job at The Gazette, I returned unofficially to the ranks of professional service providers as a freelance writer and consultant. (Unofficially means in this case that I didn’t have any clients.) I had made my living that way in Atlanta before moving to North Carolina, working in a number of jobs that ranged from a week to a couple of years and paid between $40 and several hundred dollars per hour. Short assignments for marketing pieces paid the most per hour, but yielded the lowest total payments. Long term technical writing and project management paid less per hour but were most lucrative because they lasted months or years.

Recently I have had several people approach me about “writing something” for them, but I’ve run into a problem. Because writing is a basic skill most people assume they know how to do, it’s hard for many of them to recognize it as valuable when outsourced.

Here’s what I mean. I’ve had two inquiries from small businesses or organizations that regularly publish or distribute written materials, usually written by the staff or by volunteers. The inquiries have asked if I would be willing to work on a project, and then add, “we could buy you lunch” as payment.

Such offers are no doubt based on tight budgets and the underlying assumption that services such as writing are not in the same category as “real” crafts, such as carpentry or plumbing. While I sympathize with the tight budgets, I would point out that my family and I like to eat several times a day, every day. Working on a project that takes several hours or days to earn one meal is not only poor business, simple math tells me it’s a sure way to starvation.

While it’s true that writing projects seldom begin with a leaky roof or the basement being flooded, the time, effort, and talent that go into producing a written document are similar to those needed for construction or plumbing. And just as anybody can probably swing a hammer or work on a leaky toilet, any literate person can probably complete a writing project without engaging a professional.

But, the question should be, is it worth it? If you add up the costs of tying up your own time or that of your staff, might it be cheaper in the long run to call the pro? Not only does a pro have the knowledge and experience to tackle your project faster than you can do it yourself, but the results are likely to be better.

A friend of mine who is a graphic artist has had similar experiences. Many prospects she talks with decide they can put together a brochure or Web page without using a designer. And they certainly can. But does the result serve their organization as well as something designed and built by a trained pro?

When I first started freelancing, she gave me some advice I’ve always remembered: Don’t give away your professional services. If you do, you’ve told everyone that what you do is not valuable, and then you will have trouble charging future clients a fair price.

More colorfully, she said, “We’re standing out there on the street corner soliciting, so there’s no doubt what we are. But once you do it for free, you just look like an easy date.”

Note: I am not saying a writer should refuse to write for free to support a worthy cause. But I advocate separating charity from paid work. If we never get paid, it’s a little tough to offer free work. Lawyers, doctors, and other professionals have an established tradition of pro bono work. But they don’t work free instead of being paid. They get paid for most of their efforts, then choose to donate work to worthy causes.

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