Should You Write For Free?

by Anne Wayman

If you want to get a group of freelance writers talkng, throw out a statement like “every writer has to write for free sometime,” and stand back. You’ll get all sorts of opinions that range from “that’s true” to “no way!” with everything in between.

And, if you tell the world, or even your neighbor that you are a writer, you will be asked to write for free. It may be that neighbor who has an idea for a book that wants you to write for a percentage. Or you’ll join a group and, surprise, need a newsletter editor and ask you to do it at no charge.

A website or even a magazine may suggest that if you write for them for free, you’ll get traffic to your website or exposure that will help you build your career,  at least get a credit. The implication always is that your efforts for free today will parlay into good income in the future. It rarely works that way.

There are always a ton of opportunities to write for free; what’s more difficult is to get paid for your writing.

Getting Paid For Writing Is Possible

As any even partially successful write can tell you, it’s possible to get paid for your writing. The truth is, assuming you can write a cohernet, complete sentence or two, it’s possible to get paid right away for your writing. It’s often more about how you present yourself to a prospective employer or publisher than your actual writing credits.

Even if you’re new to the game, keep these points in mind:

  • Writing is hard work. When we write well, we work hard, and we deserve to be paid for our efforts.
  • You’re a professional. Really, you’re a professional writer when you decide you are. There’s not test to take, license to earn, or degree to be gotten. Professionals get paid. In fact, being paid is one definition of ‘professional.’ Sometimes you need to take yourself and your writing career seriously enough to insist on being paid.

Reasons To Write For Free

Yes, there are some good reasons to write for free, including:
  • When you have no clips. Getting a byline in a local newspaper, web ‘zine, or even a club newsletter can help you assemble the credits you want to present to an editor when asking for an assignment. Before you agree, however, read No Clips? No Problem!


  • When you want to break into a new area. If you’ve been writing, say travel articles, and want to start publishing self-help, you probably won’t need to write for free. But if you’re moving from non-fiction to fiction, getting one or two stories published for free may help you break into the paying short story market.
  • When you want to contribute. There are always a few situations where we simply want to make a contribution, and donating our writing can be a good way to do it.

Obviously there’s no single answer for everyone, or for every situation. When I began writing, I did do some writing for free. Now I rarely do, and only if I feel I have enough time to devote to the project.

Tread cautiously when you’re asked to write for free. Think through not only what you’re being asked to do, but how it fits with the rest of your life, and your writing career. In fact, unless the person asks me specifically uses the word “donate” I always ask how much they are willing to pay. Once and awhile I’m pleasantly surprised.

How do you decide when to write for free?

[sig]

Image from http://www.sxc.hu

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

puja banerjee March 28, 2012 at 4:07 am

Hi Anne, thanks for this useful information.
I’ve searched through several of your blog posts but can’t f ind the answer I’m looking for:
What is your opinion on a freelance writer submitting articles to a website, without receiving named credits for these pieces? This is paid work for a beginner freelance writer, so good practise, at the cost of not being able to self-promote later.
Look forward to your advice!
Thanks
puja banerjee recently posted..Like a bird in a cageMy Profile

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Clara Freeman January 5, 2012 at 8:01 pm

Recently ended a gig writing for free at an online magazine for the reasons Jonathan mentioned. Great zine, with great number of subscribers should equal something along the lines of payment?
Well, I garnered great exposure:)

Clara.
Clara Freeman recently posted..2011 in reviewMy Profile

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Devon Ellington January 16, 2009 at 3:35 pm

You have to take it case by case and use common sense, in my opinion. If you need legitimate clips, find a non-profit about which you’re passionate and do pro bono work for them. Those clips can then be used to garner paying work from clients with good reputations and profiles. Plus, you’ve gotten involved and given back to the community in an arena you love, without having to put in scheduled long-term commitments, as Lou mentioned above.

On the other hand, if you answer a posting from a fly-by-night website, in most cases those clips won’t be what gets you into a paying or higher-paying slot, and once you start working for those site machines for little or no money, it’s hard to get them to ever pay you or the really good clients to take you seriously enough to pay you, either.

If you’re going to work for free, there’s got to be a payoff at the end, even if it’s not financial, and that payoff needs to be more than just expectations of more work for free.

Devon Ellington’s last blog post..Friday, January 16, 2009

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Lou Paun January 16, 2009 at 2:28 pm

I write for free only if I would be willing to work for free. For example, I occasionally write for our local historical village and the local arts center. I don’t want the time commitment of being a docent, but I like being involved. I do get a byline, but I can’t say that it’s enhanced my career!

I do work on spec when the money involved is adequate and the buyer has a solid reputation. I’ve published books with Simon & Schuster that way. Work on spec is always a gamble, but it can pay off nicely.

Otherwise, no — no freebies!

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admin January 16, 2009 at 1:33 pm

Susan as you re-purpose your pieces you’ll probably do enough rewritting so it doesn’t matter… but you might want to get some sort of agreement going… he gets first rights or first electronic rights…

Years ago I had a horribly low-paying part time newspaper job and the editor was so hard on me…. and I learned so much I still remember him with a combo of fear and gratitude.

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Susan Evani January 16, 2009 at 12:59 pm

Great post! I am a typical, “newbie” in freelance writing. I write for one site on a click basis, and another for the experience of writing reviews, something I have never done. The site owner is hard on me at times but pushes me to do better so I’m getting some training for free…so that’s sort of what I’m getting “paid”. However, even though we have no written agreement, he seems to think he has all rights to the items I submit, which could become problematic as I try to re-purpose some of my pieces. Again, all an education though, one that I hope will pay off soon.

Susan Evani’s last blog post..Let’s call it a water landing, shall we?

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admin January 16, 2009 at 11:58 am

Kim, both excellent reasons to write for free – and fun article too.

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admin January 16, 2009 at 11:54 am

Jeff, the only problem with offering to do it for free is that client will almost always expect a freebie… journalism tends to pay less than advertising ;(

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Jeff Shattuck January 16, 2009 at 2:15 am

I’m of the opinion that it’s easy to tell someone you can write, but hard to prove it — unless you have examples. And even then, it’s hard to say how much influence others had on what you achieved. No, in my experience, if you’re new to the writing game and you need to prove your worth, offer to do it for nothing, but if your writing meets the spec, you get paid a good rate. In journalism, I have no idea what such a rate would be, but in the advertising world, let’s say $700 to $1000 per day.

Jeff
http://www.cerebellumblues.com

Jeff Shattuck’s last blog post..• What I’ve learned: drinking and songwriting.

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Kim January 16, 2009 at 1:30 am

I haven ‘t written for free in many years — until last month. I willingly submitted an article to an on-line magazine free of charge for a couple reasons: 1) I needed to update my on-line clips (when I tell someone to “google me” I want them to see an article less than a year old. 2) I wanted to be able to say to prospective employees that I am an “international” writer and this piece that I write was for an on-line magazine that is published in South America. Here is the link to my the article that I gave away: http://www.livinginperu.com/gastronomy/features-1217

Kim
So. California

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Celine January 15, 2009 at 10:16 pm

Good points, and I can especially relate with the second one. Even if I get paid good rates writing for a certain niche, when I want to explore another niche, I have to take on some “passion projects” that don’t pay much or don’t pay at all. Of course, my criteria for these passion projects tend to be high, and I ask myself the following questions:

1) How much will I learn from this experience?
2) How much exposure will I receive? Will this allow me to build a good portfolio for this niche?
3) How much time will this take away from my paying projects?

These questions prevent me from indiscriminately taking any free gig that comes my way. :)

Celine’s last blog post..Journal Comic #1: The Art of Sucking

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Jonathan Cohen January 15, 2009 at 5:29 pm

My advice: Don’t write for someone for free if you hope to write for them for pay in the future. Chances are, they’ll see your work as having far less value if you’ve already demonstrated you’ll do it without pay.

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Brick ONeil January 15, 2009 at 5:01 pm

Well written and well said!

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