Should you ever write for free?
If you want to spark a heated debate in a room full of writers, just mention the Huffington Post. Arianna’s publishing empire incites a range of alternating fury and support that occasionally makes me fear for my life. There are those who proudly declare they write for such a widely read publication, even if it is for no pay, and others who proudly declare they will never give their work away to a non-paying giant like Huff Po.
The golden rule of freelancing is to never, EVER write for free. Heck, I have written those words myself, right here. With freelancing rates staying at the same level they were 30 years ago or, worse, dropping to abysmal lows, it’s a wonder any of us could be foolish enough to follow a career in publishing. And that’s why as a collective whole, writers and bloggers advocate against writing for free—doing so just perpetuates the belief that we’re happy simply writing for “exposure.” (When was the last time “exposure” paid your rent?) Write for free, and you’re telling the publisher that your work and time—and the work and time of all other writers—is worth nothing.
But, despite all that, I’m going to say it: Sometimes it’s okay to write for free.
There. It’s out. And I hope I don’t have my PWAC membership revoked for it.
Most of us have written for free, or for rates so low it felt like free, at some point in our career. I have, plenty of times. And while there have been times when I shouldn’t have, for the most part, I don’t regret any of it because it all helped me get to where I am today.
The catch is deciding when to write for free. And the truth is, you should not do it very often. (Like I said above, it kills the industry for all of us when too many people are willing to just hand their work over for nothing.) So when is it acceptable to write for zero (or close to zero) payment? Answer: When you have a reason to do so that directly benefits your business or your professional development. If you don’t get paid in cash, at least get paid in something that helps you to advance your craft, your business, heck, even just your personal happiness. It all comes down to a cost-benefit analysis of what you’ll gain from the experience versus what you have to put into it (much like the rule a friend frequently tells me I should apply to my dating life).
Here are five times when I think it’s okay to put in some work for little or no pay. Some of these are widely accepted without debate, while others may spark a bit of controversy (I’ll go run for cover now).
1. You’re doing a favour for a friend
Perhaps your friend or colleague needs someone with your particular expertise to write an article or edit content for his or her blog, newsletter or other publication. Do it. And don’t charge them, unless it’s a completely monstrous job that will take up hours upon hours of time that you should be devoting to paying work. I’m a firm believer in paying it forward, and helping out a friend in need means karma/fate/whatever-you-want-to-call-it will pay you back later.
2. You’re volunteering
I’m currently the publications chair for the Toronto branch of the Editors’ Association of Canada, and one of my duties is to act as editor-in-chief of the branch newsletter. This means that I’m often writing articles and editing content, and all of it is strictly volunteer. In fact, all of us who sit on the executive committee are volunteers, not to mention all the countless volunteers who contribute articles and editing time, who help out at workshops and who do all the other things that keep our association running.
Whether it’s an association you belong to or a charity you’d like to help or an internship that will give you the training you need, offering volunteer writing services is a great way to get some experience, to meet some new people, to boost your resume and to just feel good about yourself.
3. You’ll get (good) exposure
Yes, this is the dreaded exchange for free labour, in which some publisher tells you that the exposure you’ll get from their website or magazine is worth enough. Most of the time, a well-worded ‘eff off’ is what these publishers deserve. But sometimes such an arrangement can be worth it. If you’re just starting out, exposure and experience are exactly what you need (yes, and rent money, too). But of course, you don’t just want any exposure—you want something that will give you quality exposure to a wide-reaching and/or well-targeted audience (that’s why there are so many pro-Huff Po’ers—the Huffington Post definitely offers a lot of exposure).
If you find yourself considering writing for exposure as payment, weigh the pros and cons. How far-reaching is the exposure? Is it in the field you want to establish yourself? Will it give you a solid clip that can be used in portfolios and on resumes? If your answer is no to all of these, say buh-bye. If there’s a yes in there, consider how important that advantage is to you and decide based on what feels right.
I confess that I’ve never been a fan of Huff Po, simply because of the money they have and the money they’re not paying. But I also confess that when they contacted me a few months ago and asked to use one of my photos in one of their weekly “Best of” round-ups, with a link back to my blog, I said yes without hesitation. Sometimes the exposure really is worth it. Which leads me to my next point…
4. You only need to put in minimal (or no) work
As mentioned above, the Huffington Post asked to use one of my images. It was already published on my own blog, and I didn’t have to submit any work to them. I retained copyright. They just wanted to republish it. While we really should be paid even if a publication is just republishing our work (let me stress this, YES, you should be paid for republications), the fact that I didn’t have to do anything made it that much easier for me to allow them to use the image.
If they had wanted me to write a feature-length article with in-depth research for just a link back, I’d say no. (Oh, who am I kidding? It’s Huff Po, so I’d probably say yes. But I probably should say no. Yes, I am a hypocrite.)
5. You’ll land (paying) work from it
I once wrote for a gorgeous magazine that, sadly, didn’t have the budget to pay writers at the time. The magazine was just starting out, but I firmly believed it was (and is) going places. I loved the design, the content, the feel, and I wanted a clip from it. So I offered to write a piece for free. It was on a topic I was passionate about, and for a publication that I adored. But, more importantly, the publisher told me that when their budget would allow for payment, and when it came to doling out assignments in future, they’d remember the people who helped them get their feet off the ground. I wouldn’t recommend doing this for all start-ups, but if it’s one you believe in, go for it. You could land regular work from them later on, and you could make some good connections in your industry.
I’m a writer and an editor, and I’ve worked both in-house and as a freelancer. So I definitely see both sides of the writing-for-free argument and understand that what works for me may not work for all. But these are the rules I’ve built my freelancing business by, and the rules that seem to have worked to my advantage in the end.
What do you think? Agree? Disagree? Would you ever write for free?