More on Freelancing, Blogging and Giving Out Free Information

At SXSW last weekend I had a chance to attend a small, intimate gathering made up of many of the top writing bloggers and social media professionals in the space. We had an interesting conversation regarding email and how many people write to us on a daily basis requesting advice. Most of us described receiving hundreds, if not thousands of emails each day requesting advice for getting started, setting rates and other questions.

So herein lies the dilemma….

Every bit of advice folks email to ask about can be found on this blog. For example, I receive mail asking for tips on getting started, how much to charge clients, if something smells like a stinky gig, how to give oneself a raise and more. Every day. All day.

So put yourself in my place:

You receive between 500 and 1500 emails each day, many asking the same questions. Every single one of those questions can be found on your blog. Do you:

  1. Respond to everyone right away?
  2. Refer everyone to your blog?
  3. Say, “Here’s my coaching fee?”
  4. Respond when you get a chance which can mean months from now?

Remember, we’re not talking about a few emails each day. We’re talking about hundreds of questions.

Consider this:

  • If I respond right away to everyone it cuts into work time as it will take several hours to get to it all.
  • If I don’t respond right away there’s a chance people are going to fall through the cracks.
  • If I tell people to search my blog for the answers it’ll get all over the blogs and forums about how I’m this b*tch who won’t answer questions.
  • If I charge for advice I’ll also get called out for being a money-grubbing b*tch.

At the above referenced party, we discussed each scenario. I ended with the question, “when do I draw the line and stop giving away free advice to the folks who write asking questions?” The response, from every single person there, is that I should never give away free email advice in the first place.

It’s interesting, isn’t it?

The pros tell me not to give it away, but the freelance writing community tells me I have no choice but to give it away. Considering the pros aren’t my community, I’m thinking it’s you who I should be listening to. The funny thing is, the same people writing to me for free advice would never give away writing for free. You let me know when you don’t approve of my sponsors, don’t approve of a recommendation for gigs out of your price range, don’t approve of writing for exposure or a byline, but you also let me know that you don’t think I should charge for my services.

This isn’t a martyr post. I’m not looking for the sympathy vote, I’m thinking aloud more than anything. There are so many pros who tell me I’m doing it wrong, yet if I do it their way I’m going to lose my community.  The problem with free advice is that once you stop giving it away, you risk losing it all.

What are your thoughts on this. Say you’re a popular freelance writing blogger who receives so much email each day. How would you handle it? Where would you draw the line?

Comments

  1. I, too, have been thinking about this a lot lately. I run a blog about freelancing and, as a result, receive tons of questions about setting rates, how to pitch, etc. It’s the reason I decided to explore career coaching, and I recently launched a coaching practice focused on the publishing industry. I’m also writing an ebook that I’ll be selling through my coaching site. So does this mean I stop answering the e-questions? Is it bad karma? Will I be unable to continue building a network of freelance writing peers?

    Oy.
    .-= Steph Auteri´s last blog ..Job Hopping for Word Nerds: An Ebook-in Progress =-.

  2. I’m one of the freelancers who has benefited hugely from the kindness of pros like you who share information and advice freely. I’d take their names here to publicly announce their awesomeness but I don’t think they’d appreciate the crazy email influx that would happen as a result.

    I’ve often wanted to do something in return for the help I’ve received but always end up feeling inadequate. What could I possibly offer in return that would help them just as much?

    Maybe if you allotted a small task to do in return for your advice, it would work? Or something along those lines. I know I’d love to help out all the great pros who have helped me.

  3. Amy Lynn says:

    Your time is money. If I were in your shoes, I’d ….

    1. Create a form response for standard questions that refers people to your blog.

    2. Start a regular post featuring questions you receive via email.

    3. Add to your contact page:

    a. All emails are subject to publication. (without personal details such as email or full name)
    b. A link to the form response following something like “Before you email Deb, please check our FAQs.”
    c. Insert a disclaimer: Due to the quantity of emails Deb receives, you may not receive a response for (insert time).

    4. Create a post announcing the new changes.

    • Amy your advice sparked inspiration, and I’m working on something that will hopefully answer many of the questions people send to me via email. Thanks for your suggestions and for taking the time to comment.

  4. Margaret says:

    As someone in a slightly different field- food writing – who receives calls, emails and letters asking for advice and recipes, I am familiar with the dilemma. I usually answer, but not always promptly, but have often considered the questions that you pose. I would not at all be offended if you were to refuse to answer and expect people to find the answers to their questions in your blog. But, I don’t quite have the nerve to do the same thing myself (and I don’t have a blog).

  5. Deb, First of all, you DO have a choice whether you want to spend your time giving away free email advice when that time can be better spent on running your business to say, pay for food, clothing, and shelter for your family. You need to handle your business/email/blog the way you want to handle them. Period. Sure, it’s nice to ask your readers/community what they want but ultimately, it’s up to you.

    There will always be someone offended by something you do or say; you cannot please everyone all the time, so don’t bother trying. That’s probably the biggest mistake people make in business and…well…in life. And, I believe, that’s what the professionals were trying to make you understand. You have to respect yourself enough to say, “no” and they (your clients, community, those who email) will, in turn, respect you, no matter what you say or do. If they don’t, they’re not worth worrying about.

    Second, Amy Lynn is correct when she states: “Your time is money.” Those who email you don’t think of infringing upon your work time, and taking you away from paying clients/projects. They want immediate advice for free because they are too lazy to do further research on their own (go to the library, search your blog, join a writer’s group or critique group, find an association to join). They don’t realize how many others email you, and they don’t care.

    It’s like your teenager asking you how to spell a word or what the definition is and you tell them, “Look it up in the dictionary.” You’d think you just asked them to roll a boulder up a mountain! They’re insulted! You get the rolled eyes, the anguished “awww, man!” with a tang of anger thrown in. They may be hurt but soon they’ll realize the lesson learned: be resourceful.

    Third, I completely agree with Amy Lynn’s suggestions/guidelines. Don’t forget to utilize Twitter to remind people of your new guidelines on a daily or weekly basis until you notice a reduction in emails. If you’re still getting inundated with emails, consider a pdf or audio version of the ten most pertinent blog entries for people to purchase.
    .-= L.A.´s last blog ..Another Cold Week Bites The Dust. =-.

  6. I agree with Amy Lyn. I would set up an auto response for emails that states it may take awhile to get to individual emails but you can locate FAQ here on my site.
    And setting up a post on a schedule to answer an email will help keep the community engaged, answer questions and help you accomplish what you are looking for.

    That’s what I would do if I were in that position, anyway
    .-= Jules – Big Girl Bombshell´s last blog ..First Day of Spring Giveaway! =-.

  7. Yours was one of the first blogs I stumbled upon when I decided to try freelance writing. It’s one of a handful I keep in my favorites (and Facebook). So, first, I truly thank you for the information you share and the gigs you post. My first major gig – I earned $600 – started with a lead here!

    Regarding giving away free advice – Since you post advertisements on your blog, that advice isn’t completely free. Without “giving away” advice on your blog, you’re right. You’re readership would probably diminish.

    However, I understand your concern about answering hundreds of emails. I would NOT answer them if the answers can be found on your blog!!!

    If a writer can’t or is unwilling to do a little digging for some information about a question pertaining to writing, he is NOT going to make it as a freelance writer.

    I agree with the above mentioned idea of having a standard response. It can be an automatic reply. Explain, due to the volume of emails you receive, you are unable to respond to every one. Encourage them to search your blog and maybe mention popular topics that are already covered in the blog.

    When you are able to run through your emails, delete those from people who should be able to find answers within the blog, and, if you find a unique question, answer it – if you so choose.

    You have an awesome blog, and you’ve helped countless newbies.

  8. When someone asks me a question I answered on my blog, I usually cut and paste the blog post into the email I send back. Interestingly though, I don’t get many emailed questions. Once again, I am amazed at how different my audience is from yours and most other writing blogs.
    .-= John Hewitt´s last blog ..How to Avoid Loneliness as a Freelance Writer =-.

  9. Hi. I’m new to the business of blogging and I must say the Freelance Writing Jobs Network is a gem! I’m very grateful so much useful information is available here. I agree with the others… have a standard email response that says due to the volume of email you receive, you are unable to answer all individual questions, and mention that the question has likely been answered somewhere on the blog. Who doesn’t understand what it’s like to be inundated with email? I’ve recently had to unsubscribe to almost everything that comes into my inbox, and it’s helped. But I will certainly not be unsubscribing to this! (Perhaps I’ll look around the blog for an explanation as to how to add “(My) last blog…(was x)” to comments.)

  10. “Coaching fee” for you.
    Since About is one of my clients, “refer to the site” is my answer.

    This isn’t even a hard question for me, honestly. This is your career. Your job.
    .-= allena´s last blog ..Freelance Writing Jobs with the Federal Government =-.

  11. Personally, I think you’ve done a wonderful job of giving information away free. I for one have gleened a tremendous amount of knowledge through your emails and the site. You go out of your way to connect related posts and they are a wealth of information. The emails you receive have to spark new topics that I’m sure keep your idea plate full.

    As to responding to those email, I’d say, say thanks for the idea and stay tuned for the next installment. I’m sure I could gleen a lot more with your one on one expertise, but if that’s what I want, I would and am paying for those services. Since that is not the service you want to provide, I see a new sponsorship opportunity from those that would like to provide the one on one payed service.

    Keep up the good work, I look forward to reading….the next installment.

  12. why not hire someone specifically to answer emails, providing that person with standardized answers to your most frequent questions. You can personally handle those emails that are unique or particularly important.

    Lisa

    • I’m thinking about it Lisa. I’ve been considering an ME for FWJ and one of those duties would be dealing with editorial questions that come via email, so that would take off some of the pressure.

  13. I wear two hats, both dusty with experience: freelance writer and marketing consultant. And although I respect that giving away free information takes time out of your productivity, I believe that you must – in some way, shape or form. It brands you as an expert. It develops relationships and rapport. Yes, at some point, you do need to find a way to kindly and politely point people back to your online information or other resources. There is a limit to how much time you can give away. But for anyone balking at responding to all those comments that people leave for you, or other interactions with your readers, just remember: when movie stars begin their careers, they’re thrilled when people ask for autographs. Later on, when they get to be big stars, if they can’t be bothered with autographs for “the little people” because it takes time away from their busy day, it shows they’ve attained a level of snottiness that gets them branded as a diva – which, by the way, has bad connotations (so stop calling yourself that if you use that term). I am so thrilled to get letters, emails and blog comments from my readers. Sometimes if someone seeks more information about gardening or health, my niche topics, I’ll point them to an online space. But I hope I never get to the point where productivity matters over people. If it weren’t for my readers, fans and followers, I wouldn’t be able to keep selling my work because no one would be interested in reading it.

    • I just want to clarify: yes, you do and should point people back to an online source or your own work when the answers are out there and easily found. But at least acknowledge that folks reached out to you. So I agree with Allena and others that do refer folks back to their sites, articles online or other resources – I think it’s more the “I don’t have time to even acknowledge people” that irks me a wee bit.

      • Thank you, Jeanne. Your comment stands out in my mind. I hope I’m never too busy to acknowledge the folks who come here or write to me at least in some way. There are a couple of “famous” bloggers who have never responded to my emails, and I wasn’t even writing to them for advice. So I hope I’m never that way.

        Sometimes people get a response a few weeks after they write to me, but I try and respond even if there’s really no great answer. Your movie start analogy is one that I will take with me forever. Thanks for keeping me on earth.

  14. It’d be a great dilemma of course. I myself have written you an email once or twice, Deb. But you haven’t replied up to now, which is OK because I know how extremely overwhelmed you are with all those chores.

    What I can suggest is that you should try adding something like “recommended pages/posts” or “the most popular pages” on your sidebar. I saw one on copyblogger.com and I found it quite useful.

  15. I agree with Amy’s ideas and think a basic e-mail referring people to the FAQ page and/or the search function would be helpful. And I love the idea of a weekly “advice column” – one of your form responses could be, “I’m answering a similar question in this week’s column – stay tuned!” for example.

    Also, what about sending e-mailers to some kind of forum for more unusual/difficult questions? That would be one more thing to moderate, update, etc. but could potentially save you some time and give your readers/colleagues a chance to chime in as well…

    I do some freelance writing but mostly work in a completely different industry, in a specialty craft shop. We always have customers coming in and asking questions, advice, etc. about their projects. We answer them no matter what (even if they didn’t originally buy the supplies from our store) partly because this is a marketing tool – we are building community and hopefully they will support us for their next project. However, if we are too busy to take time to sit down with them, or if they have so many questions that it will take us away from other customers, we suggest that they schedule a private lesson.

    I don’t know how much of your revenue comes from other clients and how much is based on advertising here, etc. – but in some sense, we are also your clients, right? So I realize it isn’t a good financial decision to deal with 500 of us individually, but there is at least some (monetary) value in keeping your community here.

  16. Sounds like you’re on the cusp of a watershed between blogging and founding some kind of organization. The view from the other side of the watershed is that you need some structure, volunteers and energy to reach out and support a large interest group more effectively and efficiently.

    That said, my chapter’s parent org (www.STC.org) has raised its cost of entry to an unsustainable level with resulting membership collaplse, is avidly building passworded walls around its gated community of “valuable” content, and is rapidly plunging into irrelevancy and bankruptcy. You have to ensure two-way participation at every level for it to work out well.

    Ev Larsen
    President, STC Montreal
    http://www.stc-montreal.org

  17. Thanks to everyone for terrific suggestions and your support (and more emails, heh.) I put up a FAQs page with links to many articles that will help answer all those questions. I’ll continue to update and add to it as I go along.

  18. This is great advice. I have been giving away free advice for years. I have also been writing for free for about a year. Now I am determined to stop giving everything away for free.

    From time to time it might be worth it to give free information, but for the most part giving things away for free only encourages more people wanting free advice. As of Novembrer 2009, I stopped writing for free and when people ask me to write articles for their Blogs I let them know that my articles will be for sale. Most of the people who are just looking for freebies run the other way. I just laugh because I am now taking a bold stand.

    It’s not really about the money but I want to show that my hard work and time is worth something.

  19. I think that when you do post like “We got Letters”, or when you mention a topic idea was based on a question you received in an e-mail, then it does give the impression that this is something you do as a part of the site.

    I also think that Amy Lynn was dead-on with the feature answering some of the questions and comments you get. Some comments on articles you don’t even have to include a reply to, and others could be some of the more unique questions asked of you that you want to write about. You can even go a step further with the FAQ, and make sure readers have to scroll through/skim the FAQ before they get to the contact form to send in a comment or question for “possible inclusion on the site”. FAQs make great ‘Google fodder’ anyway, so you do your site and your readers a service. :)
    .-= AuroraGG´s last blog ..A Cloud Computing Dictionary =-.

  20. I think that there might be a ‘happy medium’ here. I also have a “tips” type of freelancing website.

    I am sure my volume of email is not what yours is but I do get my share. I have created an ‘auto-responder’ that basically says

    “Because of the number of inquiries we get I am sorry to respond to you with a ‘canned’ response. Our blog covers (links to the categories). If for some reason an answer to your question cannot be found there, We would be happy to address it if you would email me at (special email set up for those purposes). Please be aware there could be a delay in responding for up to 72 hours”.

    This of course *only* works if you have multiple email accounts (which I do).

    Doreen
    .-= Doreen´s last blog ..Freelancing Interview Questions =-.

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