Artists: 6 Reasons you should team up with a good freelance writer

Friends Lauren Tharp LittleZotz Writing and Heather Landry Sandpaperdaisy Art

A few years ago I became friends with Lauren Tharp of LittleZotz Writing. I didn’t know she was a freelance writer, only that she was the significant other of my incredibly talented artist buddy Ramiro. When I did find out about her occupation, I was mildly interested simply because I wanted to get to know her. Little did I know exactly how invaluable it is for an artist to know a good freelance writer, or how mutually beneficial our friendship would prove to be over the years.

Here are a few reasons why you really need a good freelance writer in your life too!

1. They know formal and proper ways of dealing with hellish clients.

We both have them, but artists might not always be as practiced in making articulate written communications with clients, debating over important points in the contract, renegotiating, and so on. Your writer buddy may have had to do this a thousand times over, even early or mid-career. The next time you have no idea how to politely tackle a rough client and avoid burning your bridges (or getting screwed) ask your writer friend for help!

2. They believe a freelancer should actually be…you know…PAID FOR WORKING.

Artists are prone to have their work severely undervalued or valued at nothing at all. People will often stare blankly when you suggest they should pay $20 for that print on $5 archival rag paper that you spent 10 hours carving on a $3 linoleum block. Worse, this doesn’t just come from prospective clients. I have heard plenty of artists speak as if they were ashamed to ask for payment.

Your writer buddy is working in an industry that is at least slightly more inclined to pay them for working. Their clients are used to the concept of paying by the word or the article, and most people seem to realize that journalists, editors, novel writers, ghost writers, script writers and the like are supposed to be paid for their work. Sometimes when you as an artist are tempted to give your hard work away or ashamed to ask for more than a few pennies (or deviantART points), your writer friend can remind you that YOU DESERVE TO BE PAID FOR WORKING.

3.They know people who constantly need art assets for their articles and books. Heck, they might even need art themselves.

This is great because your friend is a trustworthy client you resonate with, who you know won’t cheat you. (See #2.) They, in turn, don’t have to hook up with an artist they don’t know and possibly get burned. You both win big time. By the same token, if they point you towards one of their business acquaintances, you’re dealing with a potential client who has to some extent been vetted by your friend. Having a little knowledge beforehand is always preferable to approaching clients out of the blue.

Incidentally, you might need a writer someday! Wouldn’t you rather have someone you know and trust?

4. They know people in tons of disciplines because they have to constantly interview people and write articles about diverse subject matter.

They might even write an article about you someday! Connections and referrals are essential to your life as a freelancer, so here again you can both help each other out handsomely by pooling your knowledge and your networks. Both of you increase your reach, and you may end up getting more exposure while your friend gets more things to write about, and hence more work and a richer portfolio.

5. They’re always having to learn website and SEO skills to maintain their online presence.

The discussions you can have together about this can be absolutely invaluable to your art presence on the web. In my case, my friend is great at SEO and I have a bit more experience in web design and coding. We give each other advice and help all the time, when it’d cost money for us to be coached by other experts. Better, since we’re friends we can solve each other’s problems and help each other while in the midst of the fun conversations we actually want to be having. (Retro gaming! Nail Polish! Cat stories! …okay I found your coding problem. Surreal Japanese movies!)

6. If you’re up late working alone, chances are they are too. Encourage each other and keep each other company!

It’s so much better with a friend at your side. And trust me, having a friend to share all the ups and downs of freelancing with (the dreadful hours, the never-ending cycle of learning new programs and tools, the agonizing process of actually getting your money and then fulfilling tax and bookkeeping obligations…) may well be the thing that keeps you sane through your next project.

To summarize, I believe Artist/Writer is a beautiful and beneficially symbiotic friendship.

I formed my friendship without having a clue how useful it would end up being to my career. But if you’re interested in making new friends, you can’t do better than a writer, except possibly “Rich Art-Appreciating Fellow with Rich Art-Appreciating Friends.” And if you do meet that rich fellow, introduce him to your wonderful writer friend! They’d probably love to do an article on him or help him ghostwrite his latest Rich-People Novel.

The specter of spec art

The specter of speculative art

A lot of artists and other freelancers have opinions about “working on spec,” that is, doing work without compensation in hopes of obtaining a job or some other benefit in the future. Some maintain it’s a necessary evil in the industry, some believe it’s a good way to get exposure, and some urge you to avoid it like the plague.

So, which approach is best?

My answer is “a little of all three.” (Okay, a TINY bit of the first two and a LOT of the last one.) How could all three approaches be valid, you ask? Let me explain…

Spec art as part of your job

There are two circumstances that I would condone spec art as part of your job as a freelancer. The first is in the dreaded “concept stage.” During that stage, arguably, you may be doing a lot of work that does not end up being used. Fortunately, you can easily avoid all that work falling into the realm of “spec art” by anticipating the need for it and charging accordingly if you have a flat fee, or recording it faithfully if you have an hourly fee.

The other circumstance would be work you deliberately do to try and win a specific client. Many clients don’t merit this, but there will come a client that you will gladly do a fantastic piece purely to show them. This is speculation, all right, but it’s highly targeted to one person (or company) and you will have hopefully done your research well beforehand. My only caveat is that you should do your absolute best work if you take this route. That way, at worst, you will have a great portfolio piece.

Notice that in neither instance did the client ask you to work for free. In the first one, the client has already hired you and you have proceeded to the concept stage. In the second scenario, the client does not know about you yet and you are wooing them. NEVER DO FREE WORK FOR A CLIENT unless you have your own personal reasons for doing so. Good clients will not ask for this, and bad clients will ask for it and go on asking for it for the duration of your relationship.

An exception to this would be spec art as a charitable donation. But you’re arguably being compensated for this because it has given you the opportunity to do a good deed or aid your community.

Spec art for exposure

This one is even more narrow. There is literally only one reason you should ever do this. ONE. You should only take part in a contest, or answer a call for entries with a huge pool of applicants, or do free work for a zine, or similar, if the contest or project perfectly aligns with something you already planned on doing for yourself.

That’s it! That’s the only reason you should ever do this. There are so many other superior ways to get exposure that there’s no reason to fall for the “do free work for exposure” line. However, if you already wanted to do a specific piece for yourself, and you find out you can enter it in a contest or zine, go for it. IF the contest doesn’t have unreasonable rules about the ownership of your art. Check this thoroughly. In many instances you would get far more exposure from being free to promote your work as you see fit, rather than having to adhere to the rules of some contests.

Besides, if you slog through a theme that doesn’t interest you at all for a contest or zine, the judges will smell your insincerity a mile away. (Trust me on this one *cough*)

Avoiding spec art like the plague

This is the approach you should probably take a good 95% of the time (or more). In the majority of instances, people asking you for spec art are are up to no good. Your time on this earth is limited and priceless, and if you are not spending it working on either 1) personal projects with a personal meaning for you that give you pleasure and fulfillment or 2) work in which you are fairly compensated for your time and opportunity costs, you are wasting your time. Worse, you’re wasting your time on behalf of clueless or unethical people who will not appreciate your sacrifice.

You don’t want this.

To summarize, it’s best to only engage in spec art when the work is something you already planned to do for yourself. And you should NEVER agree to work for free unless you wish to make a charitable donation of your work. That way, you can’t get burned, you won’t be wasting your time, and the resulting pieces in your portfolio (whether they accomplished your goal or not) will be representative of you.

As always, these are my conclusions based upon my personal experiences of what was worthwhile and what wasn’t. You might have had a different experience, so don’t hesitate to tell me your ideas in the Comments!