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A Writer Asked Me for a Handout. Here’s What Happened Next

Updated: Jul 15, 2022

In my 25 years as a freelance writer, author, and coach, I have been approached by many, many people asking if I might give them one of my products for free.

They want free books. They want me to answer a list of questions about how to get started as a writer. They want me to critique their writing. They want to jump on a “quick call” to pick my brain. They want free access to the Brainstorm Buddy App.

I often wonder:

  • What goes through the minds of writers when they’re typing out that note asking me to provide them with free products and services?

  • Is this a strategy that works for them? Do they really receive virtual armfuls of free goodies just for asking?

  • Has an aspiring writer ever used the free resources they gathered to kill it in the freelance world? How many super-successful freelance writers started off by begging for favors?

And the big one:

  • How can these writers—who ostensibly want to make money from their own writing—possibly justify asking other writers to give their time, energy, and money to a stranger…in exchange for nothing?

The most recent time I was asked for a handout, I decided to write this post countering the most common arguments that make writers feel entitled to freebies.

Long-time freelance writer, book ghostwriter, and coach Carol Tice was visiting me at the time, and much of what you’ll read below was inspired by our conversation around this issue.

I hope this post will support and encourage all of us small creators—while at the same time convincing writers that asking for handouts is a very poor use of your time and energy.

“I want to sample what you have to offer before shelling out money for it.”

Just like you do in a clothing store! Ever notice how they’ll give you a top, scarf, or belt to take home and try out for free, so you can decide if the products are well-made enough for you to buy more of them?

Oh wait, that doesn’t happen in clothing stores? Well, how about the way a lawyer will do the first few pages of your will for free so you can determine if it’s worth paying for the rest? Or a housecleaner will do one room gratis, hoping you’ll be impressed enough to hire them to do the rest of the house?


Here’s how to know if a product is worth buying

The way you figure out if a purchase is worthwhile is the same for a writing product as it is for a pair of jeans, a lawyer, or a housecleaner:

  • Ask for referrals.

  • Check online reviews.

  • Read the business’s content.

  • If you have questions about whether the product is right for you, ask. Honest creators will give you a straight answer. For example, I have no problem telling writers that the Brainstorm Buddy App is not ideal for fiction or essay writers.

  • If they have a refund policy, purchase the product and simply return it if you don’t like it.

If you wouldn’t ask your hairdresser, plumber, or local hotel for a free sample, don't ask writing entrepreneurs for one either.

How this attitude hurts small creators

Two ways:

1. You’re encouraging a “sample economy” for writers

Ever have a prospect ask you to write a sample (unpaid) article to make sure you’re good enough to earn their 5 cents per word (or whatever bullshit fee they’re offering)? Often, they have no intention of hiring you…they’re just looking for free content. Or they never respond at all, and you wonder why you spent all that time and effort writing for nothing.

If you believe this is an egregious scam, don’t foist it on other writers—you're just encouraging the practice, which will hurt all writers in the long run.

2. Many people use this as a ploy to pay writers as little as possible

I have actual data to prove this!

Years ago, I decided to offer all my e-books on a “pay what it's worth” plan. The books ranged from shorter, Q&A-style books to full-length books that had once been published by a traditional publisher. I asked writers to pay the amount they thought each product was worth, and I set the minimum at $1 to cover my costs.

And what happened?

Most people went through my catalog of books clicking $1, $1, $1 all the way down.

How strange! Didn’t they at least want to try out one book at $1, and then decide from that how much they’d like to pay for the rest? Did every one of the products I spent months creating—each of which was the culmination of over a decade of research, learning, and real-world work—really offer exactly $1 of value?

Nope. The buyers’ goal was clearly to get all the products of my hard work for as little as possible.

That experiment did not last long.

Wondering how to decide if a creator’s product is right for you if they don’t offer a sample or a trial? Instead of asking for a freebie, check out the creator’s website and reviews. If you’re really worried you’ll waste your money—especially with high-priced products like courses—look for a money-back guarantee.

“I might buy something big from you someday, so you should give me this thing for free/at a discount now."

Gotta love it when someone hints that they might buy your $500 course someday, and then uses that as a springboard to ask you for a handout or discount now.

Every writer on the planet could potentially be a big-fish customer of mine someday. Are they all entitled to free products? If so, I should pack it in right now, because I’m about to go broke.

Smart business owners focus their attention on their current customers, and on the people who are most likely to become customers in the future. They cannot spend their time and money ingratiating themselves to every person who might possibly, maybe, kinda-sorta, someday buy their product.

To ask them to do so is unfair…and also gives your clients an excuse to ask you to work for free. (“I may have a $40,000 book project for you down the road…but for now can you write this blog post gratis?”)

Also: That’s what blogs, newsletters, and downloads are for. They’re free resources the creator made so you’ll hopefully keep them in mind should you ever need their services. And—bonus—you can get them even if you have no intention of ever becoming a paying customer!

“I don’t have enough money for this product, but I reaaaaalllllly need it!”

This justification is one that hurts you more than it hurts the small creator, for three reasons:

1. You won’t do the work (I guarantee it)

When I taught my Write for Magazines class, before each session I would offer a free ticket to the first person who asked. It was a scholarship of sorts.

Over the several years I ran that class, only one scholarship recipient ever did any of the work at all. The other 99.99% didn’t even complete the first lesson.

Yep. They got an 8-week class with hands-on coaching for free—and did absolutely nothing.

I realize now that people don’t value things they get for free or cheap. Their reasoning is, “Hey, I didn’t pay for it, so I lose nothing if I don’t do the work!”

You hand-wash a $200 sweater, but throw a Walmart T-shirt in the hot wash. You carefully detail your $80,000 BMW, whisking away every speck of dirt with a specially made microfiber duster—and cram French fry wrappers into the cup holders of your $500 junker. The less you pay for something, the less you value it (and vice versa).

2. You don’t have the resources you need to make it as a writer

If you don’t have, say, $25 to invest in a writing community or $5 to purchase an instructional guide for freelancers, you don’t have enough money to be a freelance writer. Getting the products for free doesn’t solve the main problem that you can’t afford to invest in your business.

What happens when your laptop breaks? When you need a printer or accounting software? When you have to buy gas to meet a client across town? Will you spend your time calling around for free resources whenever you need something new?

Freelancing, like any other business, incurs expenses. Take the fact that you’re asking for handouts as a sign that you may not be able to afford these necessary expenses.

3. You’ve fallen for a scam

If you truly cannot afford to spend $3 on an e-book or $50 for a writing tool—it may be that you were tricked into believing freelance writing was the perfect job for you.

Scammers and charlatans tout freelance writing as an easy, fun, cheap, and sure-fire way to earn cash fast. This draws in people who don’t want to, or can’t, work in other types of professions.

They think, “I keep getting fired from jobs for not showing up/not doing the work/not doing the work well…so I’ll just become a writer!” Or, “I have an illness that makes it difficult for me to work a 9-to-5 job. I know, I’ll write for a living instead!”

And then they discover that freelancing is a business. A business that requires a huge investment of time and money. That requires you to market yourself, qualify prospects, act professionally on the phone/Zoom, set rates, learn project management, track invoices, and pay taxes.

A business where it can take months to land your first paying project—and then the writing project itself takes weeks to complete.

Where you discover that writing for clients isn’t the fun, easy, creative endeavor you thought it was; it’s hard work.

And where the client pays you 30 to 90 days after all that!

By the time many of these aspiring writers make this realization, they’ve burned through their savings, gotten zero freelance jobs, and are about to get evicted. And that’s when they start scouring the internet for handouts that can get them out of this mess.

I am not making this up! I have heard this exact story from many writers, as well as from writing coaches and authors I know. I even had one writer tell me she hadn’t made a dime in two years…but she had to make freelancing work because she “refused to stoop to retail.”

What makes it even sadder is that many of these people have turned to writing because they are suffering. They may not be able to hold down a job because they have an anxiety disorder, or they’re sick, or they’re taking care of ailing parents. They’re suckered into thinking freelancing will save them, they get a harsh reality checkup, and then they start begging creators for free resources.

So if you can’t afford a $3 product…if you ask for discounts or payment plans on tools that cost less than $50…if you really, really, really need a handout from a small creator—stop and ask yourself whether you’ve fallen into this trap.

If you have, it's not your fault. You’ve been played by one of the many, many scammers who prey on writers’ dreams. Freelance writing as a business is probably not for you. I don’t know what is for you, because everyone’s story is different, but I’m pretty sure it’s not writing.

“It’s no skin off your nose to give me a digital product for free…it’s already been created and is just sitting there on your hard drive.”

Except that small creators need to pay their bills just like everyone else, and they do that by selling their products and services—not by giving them away for free.

Business coaches point out that in order to make good money, you need to find an audience that has money. Lawyers. Doctors. CEOs. You can sell these people a $2,000 product and they won’t blink an eye.

But people who create products for writers flout this advice. They know they are not going to earn as much money as they could if they targeted super-high earners—but they do it out of love, passion for the business, and a feeling of responsibility toward their fellow creatives.

These small creators are already limiting their income by serving an audience that is typically not wealthy. Why ask them to earn even less by expecting them to give away their work for free?

“Jeez, it takes one minute to either just send me the free thing or respond to say no. What’s the big deal?”

Here are three reasons this is a big deal for small creators.

1. It doesn’t take a minute

When I get a request for a handout, my internal process looks something like this:

  • Interrupt my flow of creation, which is not a good thing for someone with ADHD.

  • Read the note, which usually entails wandering through a long narrative about why the person needs/wants/deserves the free thing.

  • Figure out whether and how to reply.

  • Send a response saying no, but pointing the requester to other, free resources.

  • And sometimes: Fume that the requester never bothered to send a thank-you. Vow to never respond to these requests again. (Ha!)

I’m not one of those hardy souls who can simply hit Delete and be done with it. I’m a sucker for a sad story, while at the same time resentful that the requester doesn’t seem to understand that other people have stories of their own.

Maybe the entrepreneur you’re asking needs the money from the product they created to pay for their son’s surgery. Perhaps their car broke down, and they need that money for repairs. Maybe their spouse lost their job, and the creator has to hustle to cover the bills on one income.

2. It wastes precious creative energy

It doesn’t just take time to send you a freebie or a “no” reply…it takes mental energy, too. Every one of these requests is like a tiny cut to the creator’s brain, draining away their motivation to create.

Over time, the entrepreneur starts to wonder: “Is what I’m creating truly valueless? Are the 20+ years I put into creating resources for writers worth nothing? Is all the knowledge I gained in the trenches pointless? Maybe I should just stop creating.”

In fact, there is a stream of writing authors, coaches, and teachers who have fled the business for this very reason. I know this because I know these people. And because I’m one of them. (See this video about the writer who caused me to quit coaching.)

3. You are not the only one to ask

Finally, even if it does take one literal minute to deal with your request, you need to multiply that by 100 or more.

You are not the lone writer who came up with an unprecedented way to score free stuff. There are thousands of people out there who feel entitled to ask for charity from entrepreneurs they don’t know.

In fact, Carol Tice had to develop stock verbiage she sends to requesters: “I regret that I am unable to be a free source of individual coaching for the many writers who ask me each week.”

Over the years, I’ve gotten these requests for every book I’ve authored…every class I’ve taught…and every product I’ve created. Add to that the plethora of people who’ve asked me to “jump on a call” so they can “pick my brain”—you know, instead of paying the $300 I used to charge other writers for coaching—and you can see how those “one-minute” increments add up.

Every one of these freebie requests grinds the small creator down just a little bit more. If you aspire to be a paid creator yourself, put yourself in this position and consider how much you would like it.

“I bought something from you/joined your mailing list/took your class in 2014. You shouldn’t have a problem with answering this list of questions.”

Many of the handout requests I receive start out with, “I bought your book X” or “I joined your mailing list.” The subtext: “I spent time/money/attention on you, and therefore you owe me.”

What a guilt trip! With so many of us writers being sensitive souls, it’s exactly what we don’t need.

So here’s a refresher on how commerce works:

You pay $3.99 for a book and you receive a book. You join a mailing list to access free content in an area of interest to you, and you get free content in an area of interest to you. The transaction is now complete.

Creators don’t owe you anything beyond the product or service you purchased. They are not on the hook to send you additional resources, spend time coaching you, or give you free stuff.

“The product isn’t worth what you’re charging.”

We can have a world where creativity is valued...or a world where it’s not valued. Every action we take contributes to one of those worlds.

If you want to be valued for your work as a writer, you need to value other creators’ work as well. Complaining that clients want to pay you 5 cents per word, and then asking for a handout from another creator, is the very epitome of hypocrisy.

A million calculations went into the price the creator is asking. If you can’t/don’t want to pay it, don’t.

If you can’t afford the $500 course, find a $200 course. If don’t want to buy the $200 course, find blogs and downloads you can use for free. Just don’t grind the creator to lower their prices for you.

With Much Love...

I really, really appreciate the support of the hundreds of writers who have bought my books, taken my classes, hired me for coaching, followed the (now defunct) Renegade Writer blog, and subscribed to the Brainstorm Buddy App—a product that took 25 years to develop, and many months to test and create.

I’d estimate that fewer than 5% of writers approach me for freebies and discounts…but 5% of entitled people out of thousands of appreciative, paying customers has managed to congeal into a big, energy-sucking mass that would test anyone’s patience.

I hope this article has offered support and help for creators who have experienced the same lack or support and care from fellow creators. At the very least, when someone asks you for a freebie you can send them this link and be done with it. And I hope this has also been insightful for writers who feel "it couldn't hurt" to ask other creators for free products and services.

Do you have a comment, a critique, or an experience you’d like to share on this big topic that affects so many writers? The conversation will be happening on my LinkedIn post promoting this article.

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