Would you condense your knowledge into a single email — for free?

January 16, 2012

I helped someone out on this blog a while ago. Because I couldn’t easily diagnose her Word 2003 problem based on the comments on the post, I asked her to email the document to me so I could see what was going on (I rarely do this, but it was very hard to diagnose based on what she said). I was able to quickly determine the issue — she was trying to create an automatic Table of Contents and despite my instructions on that blog post to the contrary, she hadn’t used ANY styles other than ‘Normal’ in her document.

Anyhow, I took each of her seven Chapter titles and made them into Heading 1s, and generated the TOC. This took me about five minutes. I sent her back the document, with a very brief explanatory email in which I had included this:

If you wanted this [document] properly formatted and edited, then I could do this, but I’d charge you for that work.

I got an email back from her within hours. I won’t try to paraphrase it — you can read it yourself (my highlighting):

Now, I like being appreciated as much as the next person, so I was glad I could help her, and she did thank me profusely at the beginning and end of her email.

But am I being overly sensitive? On reading and re-reading this email, I just felt angry and demeaned. This is my job. This is how I earn a living and pay my bills. I share tips and hints on this blog for free, but I won’t do jobs such as this for free. I thought I’d made that clear in my email to her. It’s taken me 20 years of working with — and fighting — Word to gain the knowledge and reputation that I have, so my immediate reaction to ‘just email me the steps to properly format my book’ was ‘You’ve GOT to be kidding!’, followed by anger and disappointment…

I was angry and disappointed that someone could even assume that a person who has gained a lot of knowledge in a field would give that knowledge away for free to someone they didn’t know (or even someone they did know). You wouldn’t ask a dentist, medical practitioner, engineer, plumber or any other professional or tradesperson to do a job for free (‘I can’t pay you. Would you just email me the steps for building a bridge across my river?’, ‘I can’t pay you. Would you just email me the steps for extracting my rotten tooth?’, ‘I can’t pay you. Would you just email me the steps for giving myself a shot of antibiotics?’, ‘I can’t pay you. Would you just email me the steps to unblock the toilet?’). So why ask me to do the same?

If I *choose* to provide hints and tips via this blog and if I *choose* to do that for free, that’s my choice. But that’s a lot different to taking on a job of editing and formatting a stranger’s (or a friend’s) book for free.

So many people think that this writing and editing stuff is easy just because they learned to write at school — and that includes those employers who think that everyone can write so why would they need a writer/editor on staff.

A good practitioner and someone who has honed their profession or craft by working at it every day for years, can make that profession or craft look easy — but it’s not. It comes from many years of hard work, frustration, testing, trial and error, and thousands of hours of going down different paths to find the answer, then applying that knowledge to each job that they do, and building on their previous knowledge. It also comes from attending conferences, workshops, training courses, seminars, and buying and reading books, etc. often on their own dime and in their own time.

When you pay me to do a job for you, you’re not just paying me for the number of hours I put in to do the work — you’re also paying me for my 20 years of accumulated knowledge in this field, and the shortcuts and workarounds I’ve discovered along the way to make the process of writing or editing your document as efficient and as quick and accurate as possible. My rate reflects that. You might think that I make it look easy, but that’s because I’ve learned a lot and I apply that knowledge to every job that I do.

But to ask me to give you that for free is just insulting. And demeaning. And it makes me angry.

What do you think? Am I being over-sensitive about this?

(BTW, I replied by sending her a link to the Microsoft Word training website.)


[Links last checked January 2012]


  1. Hello Rhonda,

    I understand your annoyance, but I think it is ignorance on the part of such people, not particularly an expectation of ‘something for nothing’. How many times do you hear of someone saying they had their best friend, sister, mother etc., edit their thesis – and the friend, sister, mother thought the thesis was ‘wonderful’! For many people, there is no understanding of what an editor actually does.

    What annoys me about this particular person is the lack of concentration, you had already told her, in your blog, how to create a TOC by using headings, obviously this was all too difficult to think about. And as for her questions, such as should she put TOC at the top of TOC page – good grief, did she not even read the guide which her university must surely have supplied to her! I despair at the mentality of people gaining higher education degrees when they obviously have the mental ability of a pre-teen.

  2. Hi Rhonda,
    Having your newsletter available and being able to pick up interesting tips and tricks is great. I fully understand the time it takes to become proficient at our craft and the level of ignorance that still exists about how long things take and amount of training and experience that goes into our ability to provide the services we do.
    I am always amazed that when I get a friend such as an electrician to do some work for me, I wouldn’t think of not offering some kind of payment. However if the same person asked me to help with a computer issue or completing a CV or similar; that work is not seen in the same light.
    You have every right to be annoyed.

  3. I understand your reaction. I work full-time now, but my time as an independent has given me tremendous respect for those working on their own. There is a lot of free stuff on the internet and it has made people think that everything can be for free. You articulated why it cannot. You gave a sampler. If someone wants more after a sample, they must pay.

    I still remember a horrible exchange on this very topic on a list I left long ago. Person A asked a question. Person B responded with a partial answer and said a fuller answer would cost money. (It was about Word VBA – not an easy topic.) Person C charged in and lambasted Person B in the most shocking manner. C accused B of not being a good member of the list and other things along that line. C had always been so pleasant mannered until that point. I was really horrified – it was that shocking. I don’t think Person A ever responded publicly. The topic went off track. It has stuck with me to this day as a reminder that there is a price for everything and it always involves respect. The price can be simply credit as with some Creative Commons photos on Flickr. The simplest forms still require credit – that you acknowledge the creator of the photo. Credit is also paying a professional for a job well done.

    I once tried to get my (former) workplace to hire a Word expert to clean up our templates. We used a handful and we had people on 2003 and 2007 on both desktops and laptops. (Do I hear you thinking about the sheer effort of testing now?) If I did it with a colleague, we estimated we could be done in 6 months – because it would have to be woven in with all the other tasks on our plate. Instead, I suggested this very good expert who presented an offer that was elegantly spelled out and layered with a minimum suggestion and with possible additions according to what we decided we might also need. I was brushed off by a C level person who dabbled a bit with Office things. He claimed he could do it all in an hour. I was so stunned I couldn’t reply. I had to just walk away and nothing was ever done, of course.

    In other words, you have my support.

  4. Hi. Firstly, my many thanks for your tips – as well as the tips of many others. I daily have Excel and often Word things that are “How do I do that?” type. I search the internet and if one site does not give me an answer, I go to another. In all of this, I am very much aware that many people, like you, have gained enormous experience and knowledge and voluntarily share this in an open forum. So, I appreciate what is there. That said, I have often used Excel / Word help functionality – it is the worst. The MS site is a considerable improvement; however, without the above sharing of knowledge about these products they would not be so popular. Because believe me, unaided, it can sometimes be a right royal B##### to work out. And, even with aid it is still sometimes difficult. Moreover, thanks to all the searching I have gained a lot of experience and knowledge to the point where I am referred to as the local SME. This is due to the sharing that people like you provide – thanks again

  5. Rhonda,

    You’re absolutely right about the value of your expertise and about your need to manage it as a hard-earned resource that’s the basis of your livelihood. You were generous to share as much of it as you already had with the person who contacted you about her Word 2003 problem.

    Reacting with anger and disappointment is understandable. One could argue, though, that she might not be culpable for more than ignorance; on the other hand, even if she’s unfamiliar with how contractors earn a living, perhaps she shouldn’t have presumed on your time as much as she did. Either way, you’ve educated her, and reinforced your lesson with some great links.

    I just discovered your blog about a week ago, and I’m impressed with much of your content (and with your willingness, for whatever reasons, to share as much as you do). And if one of your tips ever gets me out of a tight spot, I’ll make use of that infamous PayPal Donate button. :-)

  6. Rhonda,

    I would not take it personally because she is clearly clueless, but yes it is insulting and I would be highly annoyed, in fact I AM annoyed and the email wasn’t even to me, LOL.

    While it showed some manners/consciousness that she thanked you, it also showed significant inconsideration that she sent you that run-on-request for “the steps” when she obviously hadn’t taken the time to think about or follow any of the original suggestions on which you spent your valuable time.

    Sending her “the steps” would probably take a lot longer than just doing it for her, and since she’s not going to read or follow them anyhow, well, WOW I would say she thinks NOTHING of TOTALLY WASTING a helpful strangers time when it’s free to her. That’s what I find most offensive about her email.

    I will say that most of the time I’ve had really good experiences helping people I’ve met in user groups as well as received a lot of generous help from others. I always offer to pay when I have a big request, and many have offered to pay me even though they were individuals spending their own money (as opposed to their employer’s money).

    The bigger thing I’ve had a problem with is Business Administrators that contact my company for Word training and try to control the situation by saying something like ‘We’d like 2 hours of training. All we need to know is how to do a Table of Contents. We just need advanced training, my staff pretty much already knows Word.”

    First of all, for their type of documents this would involve styles, multilevel lists, style separators, headers & footers, section breaks with page numbering, dealing with documents and text from who knows where, creating a template and/or copying list styles between documents, etc… Secondly, I quickly detect that their staff who “already know Word” have never even heard of styles.

    In other words, what they really need is a full course on Word, but they want to keep time and costs down so they tell me an unrealistic time frame and misrepresent their staff’s current level of expertise. I understand they don’t know enough about Word to know how much they need to know, but instead of asking me what is involved so they can make an informed decision given their time and budget constraints, they try to “place an order” with me for something that doesn’t exist. If they really believe it’s that simple, why do they need training in the first place? Google it.

    Happily, most people DON’T do this, but those that do are not looking for a business partner, they’re looking for something I can’t give them and I’ve learned to run-don’t-walk away from potential clients like that. It will not end well for anyone.

    BTW, good job directing her to the MS Word Trainers website. I might have sent her the link to a big long Word book. :-)

  7. Gah! to Lee’s remark about the 2 hours. All too familiar. I have access to a Word MVP. A real Word MVP. I tried to get a company to hire her to make templates because I simply didn’t have the time myself. I was a full-timer there. There was such obvious ROI on hiring her. I was already up to my eyeballs in standard tech comm tasks. Often, on the side, I was helping people clean up their reports because they ran into a dodgy TOC, etc…. However, they couldn’t understand that I didn’t have the time because “it only took an hour”. We needed proper templates for office use. We had 2003 and 2007 installations. We had people in office on desktops and people in and out of the office on laptops. We had wildly varying degrees of knowledge about Word, although most were clumped at the clueless end of the scale. When they said it took one hour in that setup, I gave up. My friend gave the most beautifully done offer. She described a basic package for a very sensible, almost too cheap fee, and then she described additional packages you could get as an add-on deal. For example, she had some table fixer-upper macros. I thought “pearls before swine” to myself… Sigh.

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