Will work for peanuts?

I have never minded too much helping friends out with editing projects, but I began to seriously limit the number of people I’d say yes to after an acquaintance asked me to “edit” her college paper.

I wanted to help, so I agreed to do this for free. But when I got to her house I found that she had not accurately represented the scope of the work. More specifically, there was no finished paper for me to read–she was still writing it, and expected me to help! I was more than a little put off by this.

In retrospect, I think I still might have been willing to help–to some degree–if I’d known she needed help with the writing along with the editing. I would not have written it for her, though; I have a pretty strong belief that people who are getting grades for their papers should write them themselves. I don’t consider using outside help to edit a paper is unethical. But I was annoyed because I felt someone had baited and switched on me.

It reminded me of another friend who was moving out of her house and wanted me to help her. Plenty of people have helped me move from one place to another over the years; who am I to say no? But I was thinking it was going to be easy–we would load boxes onto a truck then unload them at the other end.

What actually happened what she was woefully unprepared for moving day. Instead of just lifting boxes, we had to help her pack. And she was so unorganized that she didn’t even have enough boxes or containers to pack things into!

I think the highlight of the day, however, was when she told me to go into the kitchen cabinets, check the expiration dates on all the food, and pack anything that hadn’t expired.

I was fuming about the whole scenario and vented to another friend who was also helping with the move. He was much calmer about it, and just said, “Set a boundary. Just tell her you will help for ____ hours and then you have to go.” It was a good lesson about helping someone within getting suckered into more work than I’d agreed to.

Back to editing, which is my career: Editors certainly have no corner on the people-trying-to-get-free-work-out-of-us market, but I do think, unlike what doctors or mechanics or lawyers face, that there is this mistaken notion that because most people can read, what I do for a living requires no special expertise. “I shouldn’t pay someone … but if I know someone who’s good at catching mistakes I should ask her to read this for me.” My degree and my years of experience writing and editing have a little to do with how good I am at “catching mistakes.”

People have advised me to never work for free and to always charge normal rates. But I compromise. I’ll help out a friend, but there has to be something of a return for me–either a small payment, a barter of services or advertising of some kind. Editing is calling of sorts, but I would quickly be burnt out if I were only doing it for a love of words.


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