10 tips to score paid work from a freelancer that has never worked for free

10 tips to score paid work from a freelancer that has never worked for free

Finding work experience when you are starting out or stepping up in your career journey can be hard – not just in the journalism sector, but many other creative sectors, too. Finding paid work experience can sometimes feel even harder. 

Leveraging paid work experience – talking about whether and how much you should be paid – can feel tricky but there are ways to do it! C-Jaye, our Junior Graphic Designer who also works as a Freelance Graphic Designer, recently shared his career journey with us during a meeting, and let us know that he had never worked for free unless it was collaborations on other friends’ projects.

Talking about how he started, he shared his experience looking for internships, and when he found himself in the tricky situation of having to speak about remuneration when it wasn’t initially offered for the first time. 

He said: “I had my first internship when I was in third year and they paid but I know when I was looking for internships, there were a lot of internships that weren’t paid or paid ridiculously poorly.

“My first ‘proper’ commission  – I did commissions before but the first one where someone just contacted me out of the blue – was for a production company and I’m still working with them today. It was like Christmas! It felt like the ‘proper’ thing. It wasn’t anything too complicated, just designing a website.

“Well, they never mentioned money. I was sort of stuck in between and I was like ‘How much will it be?’”

Since then, C-Jaye not only managed to negotiate a rate for this particular role and company but has continued to work and make a living as a freelancer by continuously negotiating payment and carefully considering each offer. 

He explained that in his experience, much of it is about having confidence and setting boundaries for yourself. This is his advice for anyone wondering how to score paid work when starting out:

#1 Think about the experience vs. being paid trade-off closely

Often opportunities that do not offer financial compensation are said to still be unique opportunities for those starting out to gain valuable experience.  For C-Jaye, this notion is unfair. He said: “Experiences aren’t substantial enough to warrant, you know, it being unpaid or poorly paid. Because I think we also have to remember that, yes, we learn by doing these things, but most people have no idea what they’re doing. 

“When do you stop working for free? When are you experienced? I think if you’ve worked once during an internship – let’s say you’ve done your time and that’s it. So, just put a stamp on it and then you actually end up attracting a lot of paid stuff.”

#2 Make a rule for yourself (and stick to it) 

 “Just make a rule. Make it right now. If you’ve done all the free stuff, you’ve done your time working for free and getting experience. From now on be like, ‘I’m not going to take anything that’s not unpaid.’

“It would take a huge exciting thing for me, for me not to get paid. They would have to offer me a holiday, or something like that, or something amazing for me to do it for free.”

#3 If something is unpaid, check if you are getting other benefits

If you do get approached to work for, for example, a non-for-profit company that does not have a large budget, you could still get benefits from working for this company without necessarily getting financial compensation. 

For C-Jaye it was asking  “Well, what can you offer me in return?,” and making a list of the benefits he could gain versus the benefits the organisation would gain from him working for free. Depending on the organisation/ client and the work you are doing those benefits can differ and it is up to you to decide whether there is an even enough balance to warrant you not getting paid.

#4 Find ways to work out what your rate is to make it worth your time

“My advice would be that if you haven’t already sort of worked before freelancing and got an idea of how long something will take you, to think about a rough estimate. It depends on what project it is. 

“Before you need to sit down and work it out, and also work out, if it’s only going to be a four-hour thing – then you probably want to charge more to make it worth your time – or if it’s going to be a more long-term thing, and, you can maybe make it cheaper.”

Consider flat rate fee vs paid per hour (and what each mean) carefully

According to C-Jaye, it is important to  know if  you are offered a flat rate or a ‘per hour’ rate. While a ‘per hour’ rate (as hinted in the name) will see you invoicing the time you spent on a task as you go, a flat rate would see you getting a certain pre-agreed amount for the project. When freelancing as a journalist, for example, you will often find yourself getting paid per article – rather than on the time spent writing it. Because of this, it is important that you are sure that the flat rate fee adequately reflects the work/time you put in. If you think you will go substantially over a pre-agreed fee, it is important you communicate this with your client. 

“The first big gig for me, I worked a hell of a lot longer on a flat rate. What I do now is go ‘We went over quite substantially. So I’m going to add it to the second invoice. But I tell them. I just keep that conversation open.”

Remember other costs of freelancing

Think of all the things that you use to fulfill the role that is required of you and find ways to figure out your charge. This includes your time, travel, rent for an office space, your equipment, and also the fact that as a freelancer you will have less security and will not necessarily receive things like sick and/ or holiday pay. 

#5 Remember that it is a negotiation process – you don’t have to impress first time

“So basically when I sort of got that first gig, I was thinking ‘How long is it going to take me to do this?’ and I had a rough idea of how long it would take because I did some freelance stuff before. But I remember in that interview, they were playing this weird psychological game, which I just knew straight away. 

“It was like: ‘Well, you know, we’re gonna obviously get quotes from different people.’

“I can’t remember how much I charged them. I think it was £15 an hour which is not that much when you freelance. So I ended up actually working for £12 an hour, but it worked out that I worked for them – I got a foot in the door with this company. So I guess there was a sacrifice there. But I didn’t sacrifice more by working for free.”

#6 Do your research about the company

At times, a company might have to negotiate with you when it comes to rates as they might have a lower budget if they are a non-for-profit company or charity, a start up, or a small business. On the other hand, large-scale companies might have a higher budget and should be able to pay you your rate. C-Jaye recommends doing your research before approaching the bargaining table.

“I would recommend just having a dig online, like what type of company it is – if it’s a start up, or if it’s an established company that’s making a lot of money – then, you know, they are going to be playing the ball game, and you can be charging them more.” 

#7 Go in with confidence

“Especially like all these creative industries, or the places trying to communicate with an audience that we are – they need you. They need us. Just go in with confidence. The whole ‘fake it till you make it’ thing is so cliché, but it’s really true.”

#8 Start saying “NO”

“There’s a weird psychological game, I think that ends up happening. If you sort of go to someone that approaches you, as soon as you turn around and say: ‘Yeah, like, thank you, but no,’ it’s a weird thing. 

“It switches and then they try harder. You know how you feel when you get rejected from a job or a gig? You feel like ‘I want to show them I can do better.’ Just do the opposite. In my personal opinion, nine times out of 10 when I’ve said: ‘Sorry, thanks, but no,’ they’ve come back to me with a counteroffer which has been what I wanted. 

“I think it also portrays this sense of big confidence. I think a lot of creators really know what they’re doing because they’re like ‘This is how much it is.’ That’s what people that are Senior Designers do and I think that’s what maybe Junior Designers don’t do enough of. So, go in, and then you can negotiate it anyway.”

#9 Organise yourself

C-Jaye’s top tips are to:

  • Track your time:

    “I’ve got this really great tool called Caato Time Tracker. And basically, you can track the times you’ve been working on your projects. And it’s super helpful.”
  • Find a way of invoicing that works for you

    Your invoices should be easy to use for you and let you make changes quickly, so that you can be transparent to your clients as to why, for example, you are charging more.

#10 ‘Pass the buck’

As a final point, C-Jaye talked about the importance of not working for free, what knock-on effect this can have for others, as well as the importance of being transparent so others do not have the trouble of having to find things out themselves.


“Be super transparent. I mean, even if you’re just transparent only with your friends or people you work closely with. It’s that whole ‘passing on the buck’ thing. I’m very, very, ‘protective’ when it comes to my friends. Everytime I ‘pass on the buck’ and recommend one of them, I always say to make sure you’re adamant in your price and you’ll get what you want.”

Some Resources:

We know how daunting starting out can be. If you are starting out as a freelancer and are unsure about how much to charge, there are some valuable resources out there for journalists:

Journo Resources have a big collection of guides but their guides on ‘Freelance Rates’ and ‘Invoice and Account Templates’ could be particularly helpful when you are looking for a place to start.

Another great resource is Freelancing for Journalists run by Emma Wilkinson and Lily Canter. They have a free podcast talking about finding work and how to best go about being a freelance journalist and a vast amount of other resources through their website, social media and book.

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