Should You Ever Write For Free?
Is It Ever Okay Not to Get Paid For Your Work?
I've been a professional writer for more than twenty years. During that time, I've heard lots of opinions, advice, and angst over whether or not it's okay to write for free or for very little.
If you're just starting out, you may hear that you should never write for free. But, in some instances, money isn't the only consideration.
You might consider whether your work builds community, gives you some sort of tangible reward other than cash, or will lead to paid work at some point.
Write for a Good Cause
Once word gets around that you're a writer, you may be asked to use your talent for a good cause. You may also find yourself called to offer your services to a group or agency that moves you.
Even if you are an established writer who could command payment for your work, offering your services for free when the cause matters to you helps build readership and goodwill and may give you experience writing for a national market or doing a type of writing you're new to.
Once upon a time, I wrote a weekly column for a feminist magazine aimed at teenage girls and transyouth. I was able to write about a topic, body image, that was important to me for an audience that I continue to be invested in reaching.
That publication is now defunct, but I was happy to contribute without pay.
When evaluating whether or not you want to accept an opportunity to write for free, make sure that you won't be disappointed if it never leads directly to money.
It's important to remember that sometimes connections are not straight forward. It's been a decade, but I still occasionally hear from a reader who remembers me from that feminist publication.
Write to Build an Audience
Writers need to eat, of course. We have bills to pay just like everyone else.
But money doesn't grow on trees.
For writers, money flows from audience.
Sometimes, we're paid directly. We write a book, someone forks over $9.99 for a copy. We write a blog post, someone pays us to put an ad on it. An editor contracts us for work and sends us a check.
The one thing that all of those avenues to a paycheck have in common is readership. If we can prove that we have readers eager to consume our work, then we can convince an editor, a publisher, or an advertiser to pay us to reach those people.
If you have an opportunity to write something that will build your audience, carefully consider if even if you're not offered pay. This often takes the form of guest posting on a website or someone else's blog, or writing for free for a publication that doesn't pay, but does reach readers that you would also like to reach.
Write to Learn
Writing is a skill. Like any other skill, you have to practice in order to get better. Having the chance to work with other writers or an editor can also be valuable.
If you have an opportunity to write in a genre or on a platform that's new to you--and you'll get the chance to learn a new skill or work with an editor who will help you learn--you might find that it's worth your time, even if you're not paid for your work.
Think about it like an apprenticeship or an internship.
Write to Build Your Resume
If I ever have the need to let someone know about my writing credentials, I can say that I've written for Huffington Post. Huffpo famously does not pay its writers. For that reason, I don't regularly write for them.
But they are well known and respected and the one or two posts I've written for the Huffington Post, without pay, look good on my resume.
If you're offered an opportunity to write for a publication that will build your resume, consider whether or not that is worth your time.
Write to Build Your Catalog
Often, in exchange for the lack of pay a publication will allow you to retain the copyright to your work. That means that you can use what you've written in another way, sometime later.
You might want to republish your work on your own website, where you have ads. Or gather a collection of your work in a book you can sell.
Make sure you understand what exactly you're giving away when you write for free. If someone pays you, they often want to own the work in perpetuity. You can't ever republish it or use it for another purpose.
But if you're not paid, usually they only ask that you allow them to publish it first. Sometimes, they don't even require that. In that case, especially if you're getting some other non-monetary benefit from the work, you might find that it's worth taking advantage of the opportunity.