There’s a venerable rule in business: never work for friends. Many writers are in support of this rule. Others attempt to debunk it. Still others offer helpful how-tos, say, if you’re the boss, or when not to mix business and friendship. But if you’re in most any business long enough—and particularly any specialty businesses like science writing—then it’s likely someday you’ll have the opportunity to work for a friend. When, if ever, should you take it? I put that topic to my fellow Scilancers, and this is what I found out.
Friend or “Friend”
Like most professions, science writing involves cultivating relationships. Those relationships aren’t necessarily friendships, though. So before considering whether to work for a friend, decide first if the relationship is actually a friendship. Social-media labels (Facebook in particular) have blurred the distinctions between acquaintance, business contact, friend-of-my-youth, work-friend, and friend. For Helen Fields (bio), a social-media friend is “Someone with whom I could go out for a drink and not feel like I had to be on my best behavior.” For me, after a decade of going to science-writer conferences, Helen’s description fits most of my science-writing network, particularly those who’ve seen me in karaoke contests. Sure, I’m comfortable working for those kinds of friends. But I feel like I should still take care in deciding whether to work for close friends with whom, say, I swap favors.
With vs. For: A Work Favor
Close friends or not, when you work with friends, you’re doing yourself a favor, too. As discussed on The Open Notebook, working with friends is how the Science Writers’ Handbook came about in the first place. Working for friends—and by work I mean the writing, researching, interviewing, editing, voicing, recording, producing, hosting, moderating or whatever else one might do as a science writer—is something I tended to shy away from. I’m still cautious about it, but will do it now if there’s a clear quid pro quo. That is, I get paid, or payment in-kind at the same rates I charge any client. Jill Adams (bio) puts it this way: “I work the same whether for a friend or an acquaintance or a stranger,” so no projects without a signed contract at a fair rate of pay (not too little pay, not too much). Liza Gross (bio) says whether or not she is working for a friend, “Every assignment demands a respectful relationship, professional behavior and a commitment to deliver whatever you’ve agreed to do.” Andreas von Bubnoff (bio) sums up his recipe for working for friends as requiring one crucial ingredient: “Mutual professional respect.”
Write It Off
Sometimes things go wrong, though, even with mutual respect, a signed contract for a fair rate of pay, and on-time delivery of whatever it is you’ve agreed to do. If you’re working for a friend, it can be even more stressful than when working for a stranger to write off such a failure as bad luck… or whatever you term a series of unpleasant coincidences. When an assignment I did for a friend went wrong, I pined away for several weeks, asked other writer/editor friends for advice, and sent handwritten letters to explain what I thought went wrong (though still insisting that I be paid—let’s be clear). In commissioning work from friends, says Monya Baker (bio), “It can be awkward” especially when the piece “isn’t what you expected.” That said, Monya says she is more comfortable turning to a friend when the assignment itself is awkward (i.e., on a short timeline, with a difficult source) “because I feel more comfortable being frank” with a friend.
Whether more comfortable or more stressful, if the working relationship turns sour, don’t necessarily write off the friendship. Says Helen Fields (bio), “I did some editing for a friend a few years back for which I never got paid. I know it has to do with some contract kerfuffle on his end and I’ll nag him about it someday, but I don’t see why that should affect our friendship.” Robin Mejia (bio) says she’d be surprised if any of her friends turned out to be unprofessional editors who treated writers poorly. “Those are qualities I think I’d notice in some other context,” says Robin, who says she tends “to choose highly competent, smart, likable people for friends—and those are qualities I like in editors.” Indeed, Robin says she really likes working for friends. In fact, many Scilancers say that the best edits they’ve received have been from friends.
Maintaining Professional Roles
Anonymity allows for easy dismissal—just ask any book editor who has dismissed an unsolicited manuscript from an unknown author. And the more anonymity, the more that normally nice people who read your work can turn into venomous monsters. Ultimately, then, whether a close friend, social-media friend, or even a new friend who is relatively unknown, working for a friend is about maintaining professional roles. So if either one of you has trouble with that because of your friendship, don’t work for (or hire!) that friend, no matter how much you might want to. Find a way to work with one another instead.