Telling Friends You Don’t Work for Free

Cindy Lou asks a question that we’ve all had to figure out over the years.

How do you get your friends to understand you don’t work for free. Especially during the Holiday’s, friends seem to forget I work for a living.

Listen to our podcast and then read I Will Not Read Your Fucking Screenplay. It’s great.


Steve: This is kind of the same thing about distractions and urgent to who? Urgent to him or urgent to me? Again, it’s a question of being a son of a bitch and I’ve had problems with this for a long time. I’m too much of a nice guy. But . . . Friends will definitely . . . Just like Seth was blocking that half hour for you Shawn, I can understand exactly, because he has hundreds of people a day trying to get something from him and take his time. I wish I could remember the name of this person . . . It was some famous scientist like a guy that split the atom, like Richard Feynman or whatever his name was. They wanted to have him talk about creativity. Somebody approached him for a magazine, and he said “Hell no. There’s no way that I’m going to give my time to some people who want to talk. I’ve got work to do, and the most valuable thing I have and the only thing I have is time, and I’m just not going to give it to this person who asks me about these things.” So I think we do have to, even if you’re only protecting yourself against the people in your family . . . You do have to block, put up that wall of steel and save that time and use it to get your work done. Even if it’s only an hour like you say Shawn, even if it’s only an hour. But, this brings me to . . . I’m sorry, Shawn. You want to go?

Shawn: I just want to drop in about the whole working for free element. I can totally understand because editors and writers especially . . . The layman person just does not understand that they need to pay you for advice, writing advice or editorial advice. So what I usually do is, when somebody asks me “Will you read this manuscript and give me notes?” I’ll usually say, “You know what? I’m totally booked up but I’ve got a list of friends of mine who are editors, and they have really good reasonable rates. I think they start somewhere around $1,000 to do something like that. They’ll give you their full attention, they’ll give you up to down, across-the-board evaluation and let you know. They’ll speak the truth to you”—and then you never hear from these people again because the truth is, they don’t necessarily want your work. They want to put the spotlight on themselves and they want to show you that they’ve done something and they haven’t really gone to the end of the line on their own editorial work. So it’s a little bit of a copout. So the way to deal with that is to always pass the buck to other professionals who are just like you and make sure you tell them how much that kind of advice costs, and then they’ll stop asking you after a while.

Steve: That’s a great piece of advice. Here’s something that happened between you and me, Shawn. That, uh . . .

Shawn: Oh, no.

Steve: I think it’s very interesting. I’ve forgotten exactly how this worked, but the bottom line was I needed Shawn to give me some editing help—real serious editing help on a book. It was The Profession, a couple of years ago. And at the time, I was, uh . . . We did not have—Shawn, you and I did not have a business relationship, so you weren’t going to make any money out of that. So I wound up paying you what? $30,000?

Shawn: Actually, more than that.

Steve: More than that. And the reason I did that—and I got a bargain because I thought “Here’s Shawn Coyne, A+ editor with ‘x-million’ years of experience and just a natural gift, and I’m getting his time, so I’ve got to pay for it,” and otherwise I thought I could never speak to you again. So, you’re right, When people realize what, and I don’t care if it’s editing or any other job that you’re doing, when someone is trying to get something from you . . . It’s like if you have a friend that’s a doctor and you say to him “Doctor, I’ve got this thing in my shoulder here,” he’s going to say to you, “Well make an appointment, come into the office and we’ll take a look at it.” But somehow for writers or editors, it doesn’t work like that. It’s like, “Give it to me for free.” And, I think you just have to draw the line. You have to lie if you have to do that. Tell people you’re out of town, tell people you can’t do it, but you cannot give your time. Just two days ago, I did this, I fell into this hole again. I probably shouldn’t be saying this on our . . . But a guy . . . Could he talk to me about his play, blah, blah, blah . . . For some reason or another, I don’t know why, I said “yes” and I met him for a cup of coffee in the morning. It was like only a half hour, but that’s a half hour of my day that I gave to him, you know? And, it was a total waste of time.

Here’s another thing I wanted to say on this. Part of what is so frustrating about helping people in this way is that they never listen to you. You give them your advice and, oh . . . I forgot if I told this maybe on another – I’m ranting now, I apologize. There was a guy—we’ll cut this out, Jeff, if it’s no good—who I met through email, he approached me. Would I do him a favor? He writes me with an ask, so I say “yes” and I do something for him. He comes back with another ask and another ask and finally he’s coming to me with something where he’s now asking for a friend. I think I told you this, Shawn. So I said to him, “You know, Joe”—whatever his name was—this is just too much. You have crossed the line.” And he said to me, “I always knew you were a Hollywood asshole.” Then he said, “Don’t ever contact me again.” So that’s kind of what’s really going on behind the scenes mentally with somebody that is doing stuff like that. It’s not like . . . Oh, there’s another classic thing—which everybody should Google this or read this. It’s called No, I Will Not Read Your Fucking Screenplay. It was written by a guy, a screenwriter who did a favor for a friend, and exactly what happens to everybody happened . . . The guy totally ignored him. The screenwriter spent all kinds of time helping, helping, helping, the guy totally ignored him and was just an amateur crazy person.

Shawn: That’s why they have to pay. Get them to pay. Somebody pays for something, they take it seriously. I’m not saying don’t help people, if they ask you a question that you can answer in five minutes, of course. Whether or not they take the advice, it’s just a good thing to do sometimes. But, you’re absolutely right. Unless somebody is paying, and I don’t know what it is, but once you take a dollar out of your pocket and you have to give it to somebody else, you listen to them far more than you ever would if they’re giving you the advice for free because you feel like, “Oh my God! I got to get something out of this because I just gave some money,” and whether or not you take their advice, it makes you focus and think all the more. So, if you need something from somebody, always offer to pay because it’s going to help you more than it’s even going to help the person who gets the money.

Steve: Very good. So true. Okay, here’s a question from Elizabeth Lada—and I’ve actually cut off the top of it. I apologize here. Elizabeth is kind of torn between—again this is on the subject of ‘How do we organize a year’—between jobs that make her money or jobs that are really something that kind of comes from her creative heart. So what should you do, she says, over the course of the year?


Steve shows you the predictable Resistance points that every writer hits in a work-in-progress and then shows you how to deal with each one of these sticking points. This book shows you how to keep going with your work.

do the work book banner 1


A short book about the writing of a first novel: for Steve, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Having failed with three earlier attempts at novels, here's how Steve finally succeeded.



Steve shares his "lessons learned" from the trenches of the five different writing careers—advertising, screenwriting, fiction, nonfiction, and self-help. This is tradecraft. An MFA in Writing in 197 pages.



Amateurs have amateur habits. Pros have pro habits. When we turn pro, we give up the comfortable life but we find our power. Steve answers the question, "How do we overcome Resistance?"



  1. Mary Doyle on March 3, 2014 at 6:24 am

    Three cheers for “the Hollywood asshole” – we love you Steve!

  2. Conor Neill on March 3, 2014 at 6:37 am

    This is super valuable! Thank you.

  3. MOR on March 3, 2014 at 7:19 am

    Brilliant! It’s not just time wasted, the emotional toll distractions like these take. I like the way Shawn shuts these interruptions down before they start. I look forward to becoming a “Hollywood asshole!”

  4. kristin on March 3, 2014 at 7:44 am

    OMG! I have spent the last 7 years doing tons of work for people for free. Loved the part about they never take your advice anyway. Or they turn on you.
    Never!I will never work for fucking free again!
    Thank you.

  5. Heidi Haaland on March 3, 2014 at 8:29 am

    Agree. And it cuts across every profession and endeavor. My brother is an antique dealer and gets this on a daily basis: “Come to my house and appraise my not particularly valuable furniture which I will then expect you to purchase and get huffy when you decline.” More relevant to this discussion, someone at IFP once asked me to proofread and comment on a 100 page calling-card script. The writer didn’t have a lot of money but agreed to $1.25/page. Besides the usual typos/grammar/syntax problems, there were references to songs he didn’t have the rights to, cameos by actors he hadn’t secured commitments from. It was far from a final draft. Anyway, he rewrote it, from what I gather, and seems to be doing well, most recently an indie film that you’d probably recognize the name of. I’d like to be happy for him, but…there’s a small matter of an unpaid invoice 😉

    • MarkF on March 4, 2014 at 7:26 am

      he actually *listened* to your recommendations? or at least enough of them to turn his screenplay into an actual movie? wow! in my own eyes, that would make up for a lot right there!

      “The writer didn’t have a lot of money but agreed to $1.25/page. Besides the usual typos/grammar/syntax problems, there were references to songs he didn’t have the rights to, cameos by actors he hadn’t secured commitments from. It was far from a final draft. Anyway, he rewrote it, from what I gather, and seems to be doing well, most recently an indie film that you’d probably recognize the name of. I’d like to be happy for him, but…there’s a small matter of an unpaid invoice ;)”

  6. Darren on March 3, 2014 at 8:53 am


    Here is a 30 second question ~ How often do you actually take the time to answer the 5 minute question. Because often, 5 mins seem to be at least 15 mins and then another lost 15-30 minutes to get back into the rhythm of whatever task was interrupted before the question. Curious how you manage that? I’ve often tried to live by the principle, “do for one what you cant do for everyone.” I like the 5 minute principle as a filter. Great post!

  7. Marcy McKay on March 3, 2014 at 9:09 am

    Hey, Mr. Hollywood Asshole, we like you just the way you are. Don’t change.

  8. Robert Farrell on March 3, 2014 at 9:20 am

    I volunteer some of my resume writing services as a love offering to God and the world. The rest pay because I’m a professional. I go case by case basis based on years of experience knowing that some will benefit from a free resume and others will benefit by paying.

    • Leslie Davies on March 3, 2014 at 1:15 pm

      Thanks for your comment. That’s how I handle my private coaching services. It’s not always easy to determine how to bless others, but it is a good way.

  9. Aaron C on March 3, 2014 at 9:40 am

    I work for a company that makes storage area network software, and because most people don’t understand what I do for work, when they ask me I say, “I’m in computers,” or something along those lines. I can’t count all the times I see a light go off in their head, and I know what’s coming. It’s either, “oh hey, I got a question for ya,” (followed by some story about how their iTunes isn’t working anymore), or “we should have you over to the house sometime so you can take a look at my computer.” I’m amazed at how many people have zero hesitation offering either nothing, or a dinner or a drink for me to spend an hour or two cleaning up their computer. I finally had to tell my ex-girlfriend (who I had been helping with web stuff for years) that I could not build yet another website for her latest and greatest idea. She was pretty shocked, “I thought you enjoyed building websites?” No. No I do not enjoy building websites. I get PAID to build websites on the side, and I only do it for the extra money. I also do not enjoy fixing your computer. Unless it’s for my parents or in-laws, I am cursing you under my breath while I am smiling and saying, “no problem — sure I’ll take another beer while I sit here and try to eradicate this virus that has completely infiltrated every nook and cranny of your ten year old piece of junk.”

    And then I feel like a horrible person. But really, I shouldn’t. This is my time. You’re taking me away from my work, or my family.

    And like the “script” article says — yeah, eff you for putting me in this situation where I have to feel like the bad guy.

    I always think of the All In The Family when Archie asked Sammy Davis Jr. to sing a little something for him. Meathead responded, “you’re asking Mr. Davis to go to work — how’d you like it if you went over to someone’s house and they said Hey Arch, how’d you like to do some packing and lifting for us?”

  10. Basilis on March 3, 2014 at 10:01 am

    Frustrating and hilarious, simultaneously!

  11. Kathy Ostman-Magnusen on March 3, 2014 at 11:03 am

    Good one for visual artists too. I am hit w/many who want to use my images for their “causes”. That is different to me, depending on the cause of course.

    Do I value my years of working at my craft enough to not throw it out, like it is nothing? Because yes, most just want a spotlight when you give them the time.

    Promo and advice for my own work? I think it comes down to, do I value my own talent enough to put out the bucks. How much do I believe in myself?

  12. Kathy Ostman-Magnusen on March 3, 2014 at 11:59 am

    I posted this on FB for other artists. A sculptor responded. I mentioned to him that as an artist he should get The War of Art, if he had never read it. He sent me this. Listening to it now. THANK YOU for the continual muse.

  13. Rob McCleary on March 3, 2014 at 12:38 pm

    Great interview, but I’m confused about the Josh Olson part. Doesn’t his career pretty much prove that “you do not have to be a writer to be a screenwriter.”? The guy wrote one straight-to-video movie who’s premise is a “Horror tale of insects which eat their victims from the inside out” and a movie based on a comic book…and it still blew chunks. And he’s dispensing insulting, condescending wisdom about how to write? I think Mr. Olson’s career serves as a shining example that a total lack of literary skill or creative ability need not stand in the way of commercial success.

  14. Cathy Turney on March 3, 2014 at 2:49 pm

    So how do you not insult some reviewers or have it look like a bribe, by saying you’ll pay them?

  15. Randy on March 3, 2014 at 3:54 pm

    A read somewhere once that success guru Tony Robbins charges one million dollars a day for one-on-one time. A MILLION dollars.

    When he was asked why so much, he said it wasn’t because he needed their money, but because he wanted the client to USE WHAT HE GAVE THEM.

    In essence he was buying their level of commitment.

    • Randy on March 3, 2014 at 3:55 pm

      I read…

  16. Cheryl on March 3, 2014 at 7:37 pm

    Amen! Thank you for showing us through your stories how we can respond better to these tricky situations. This is such a great lesson to learn on so many levels. In tennis you call your own lines. A discussion I often have with players, especially female athletes, is what it means to be fair. Fair means being fair to you, and fair to your opponent. Being overly generous with line calls doesn’t help either one of you in becoming a better player.
    Likewise, being overly generous for me as a speaker with the constant requests to speak for free doesn’t really help me or the organization/audience. Once I learned to set a limit of 3 non-paid speaking engagements per year with referrals to fellow speakers and their fees, it has freed me and made all the difference. It’s about respect, isn’t it, and it’s a lesson that I’m tested to learn all the time. Thanks again. Your AskMeAnything Mondays are like a breath of fresh air with a punch.

  17. MarkF on March 4, 2014 at 8:10 am

    “hollywood asshole”. i still shake my head when i see SP mention that. both for the audacity of person who said it, and for the badge of honor it actually is.

    there is a training coach, or ‘strengthology expert’ named Elliott Hulse near saint petersburg florida who, along with three awesome & detailed youtube channels, has some sort of ‘free gym workout’ session one morning each week.

    i can not remember for certain, but i think he otherwise charges $300 an hour for physical training.

    my cousin is a mortgage lawyer who got a fair bit of calls from people in financial distress. finally, he made up a youtube channel where among three or four videos, he answers those frequently asked questions. he mentions it in his outgoing voicemail and it cut down a lot on the garbage washing up on his phone.

    Mr Steve, by virtue of these ‘Ask Me Anything Mondays’ emails, i suspect you enjoy helping those who come behind you more than the label ‘hollywood asshole’ implies. thank you for sharing with us here.

    in general, i think email newsletters, youtube channels, or even (for the daring) a pre-scheduled once per week/month “anybody can ask me anything about this in person at charbucks” session are the places to steer inquiries. beyond that: “if you wish to retain my services, i charge this much by cashiers check or money order only, full payment in advance; otherwise, i wish you the best with this.”

    gotta be firm because yeah, people will just walk over you otherwise.

  18. Lukas on January 29, 2020 at 3:52 am

    I know I’m a little late to this article, but it’s still some solid advice. Going to have to use some of these on my “friend” who is constantly asking me to make him some kind of 3D model for free. Lately, I’ve gone with, “You can go grab that on TurboSquid, about $300.”

    I might also try the route of making him the model, and then putting it up for sale and sending him the link. Okay, make the purchase from my site and you can have it.

  19. Ann Rich on January 13, 2021 at 11:26 am

    Excellent work!

  20. Work Time on January 19, 2021 at 7:40 am

    Thank you for these valuable tips!

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