As a successful freelance writer, I often find myself engaging in conversations on forums and in various groups about the topic of writing for free. My position? Professional writers, or those aspiring to become professional writers, should not write for free. I’m not talking about when you write for your local community newsletter, or for a nonprofit organization you support, but about writing for outlets that make good money off the content on their pages and on their websites. Here are some of the most common arguments I hear for writing for free, and why they are just wrong.
1. I need the clips.
I get that we all need to start somewhere and that it is hard to break into paid markets when you don’t have work to show editors. However, you don’t need to line someone else’s pockets to show off your writing skills. It’s easy enough to set up your own blog and display your talents there or to write carefully crafted pitches that make editors want to assign you stories even if you are a newbie. (That’s how I got my start). “There are plenty of places that are built on the business model of exploiting writers by not paying them. Are you going to let them do that to you?” asks Gwen Moran, a seasoned New Jersey-based freelancer and co-author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Business Plans.
2. Writing for that magazine/website gives good exposure.
My short answer to this is always that people die of exposure. As prestigious as you may think writing for certain websites may be, most editors know exactly what websites are legit and pay their writers. They know you likely gave it away for free – which is definitely not how the pros conduct themselves. “Sure, if the writing is strong, the experience and exposure could pay off in the long run and win you more lucrative assignments, says Alexa Young, Los Angeles-based freelance writer and a former editor at Shape and Natural Health. “But most reputable media outlets will at least pay something, and most reputable editors are going to pay more attention to clips from serious sources when considering you for assignments.”
3. I’m giving that editor a sample so they’ll buy from me in the future.
This is probably the dumbest reason that I hear in defense of writing for free. New Jersey-based freelancer Jen A. Miller, whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Runner’s World, American Way and New Jersey Monthly, puts it like this: “Giving a free sample to an editor so they’ll hire you? Why would they when they already know they cannot pay you for your work? They have zero incentive to pay you anything, let alone a decent rate.”
4. I’m trying to build a platform for myself.
Is your platform as a professional freelance writer? Then act like a pro and charge money for your words or build your audience on social media where the only one profiting from your awesomeness is you, not some super-wealthy media mogul that’s too cheap to pay writers. That said, there are circumstances where writing for free may make sense if you are in fact selling yourself in other ways. Moran points out that it is all about understanding your business model, and if you’re creating revenue through selling ads on your blog, doing speaking engagements, writing books you need to publicize, etc., then it can make sense to write pieces that support those endeavors and build your audience. “But, every minute that you spend writing for free is time that you can’t devote to making a living,” she says. “If you’re truly getting payback – through the roof traffic or better writing gigs – that’s one thing. But you need to measure the return on the time you’re investing or else it’s easy to get seduced into throwing it away.”
5. I don’t need the money. I’m writing for fun.
How absolutely lovely for you, but the majority of writers that I know are scrambling to pay the mortgage every month so please, please, please don’t just give your words away for the sake of the rest of us. “The more we write for free or insultingly low pay-rates, the less valuable we all become and the more our industry suffers,” says Young. Get paid and donate the cash to charity (the American Society of Journalists and Authors has a Writer’s Emergency Assistance Fund that accepts donations) or take the writers you know that do need the money out for dinner.
With all this in mind, next time you get approached to write for free, or feel like doing so, please reconsider. “None of these excuses are valid,” reiterates Miller. “None. Zip. Zilch. Zero. They don’t pass the plumber test: Would a plumber say this and not be laughed out of the room? You’re a professional. Professionals do not work for free. Period.”
Lola Augustine Brown has written for magazines, newspapers and websites on four continents. Her work has been published in Today’s Parent, Cosmopolitan and The Toronto Star.