Does ‘Doing Whatever It Takes’ Mean You Have to Write for Free?

At what point is “writing for free” no longer acceptable?

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For the amount of writing I do in a given week, I technically don’t get paid for a lot of it.

If you took how much I normally charge to write a blog post for someone else and compare that to what I make on this blog’s Patreon, I probably get paid for about 30 seconds of work on every post I publish. Which is totally fine — welcome to the internet.

There are some gigs out there that pay a small fee for every 1000+ views on your work.

And of course, there are some opportunities that allow you to do cool writing things but do not pay you for them.

When you’re first starting out as a writer, I hope you do so with the understanding that doing work for free is pretty much the norm. You do need experience and to prove you know what you’re doing in the right context.

But eventually, someone has to pay you to do something, or you’ll never be able to stay alive. Because, you know, bills. Loans. Food.

At what point is “writing for free” no longer acceptable?

I’d argue you should always be working on something that doesn’t get you a paycheck.

If you think about it, you will automatically spend the majority of your writing time — looking at the big picture — writing for free.

Your first draft is never your last. You might spend hundreds of hours doing multiple revisions of a book before you finish the draft that eventually gets published (if at all).

You might “shop around” an article for weeks or months (while working on others, of course) before someone decides to pick it up…..if they ever do.

Hey, you might even keep up with a blog for nearly a decade before some nice stranger decides to pledge $1 on your Patreon — your first dollar ever made screaming into the void.

I get paid to write full-time — I am an employee of a company that offers me a livable wage plus benefits in exchange for my brain-thoughts.

But I’m also currently volunteering with a different company I really like, on the side, to help them make Totally Awesome Content. For free.

Why? Because writing isn’t always about making money. When you don’t have another source of income, yes, getting that paycheck is a priority. But being a writer isn’t always about how much you make. You should always be working on something that you would continue to do if the money stopped coming in for it, or it never came at all.

There will be opportunities that don’t pay outright and may never pay. Does that mean they aren’t worth the time, the exposure, the experience?

I am not saying anyone should try talking you into working for free if that is not what you want. If you agree to work for someone and they agree that it will be a paid job, they’d better give you what you’ve earned when all is said and done.

But getting your work out there is hard. And statistically, the more you put “out there,” the more likely larger groups of people are to stumble upon it.

So you might have your day job and a paying gig or two on the side.

But you might also blog regularly for nothing and/or post things on Medium or work on a novel or two, or contribute to your church’s weekly newsletter, or post your thoughts about things on Facebook, and become a voice that isn’t only concerned with someone paying you to do that.

Money is important — I could not live the life I live (cough cough overflowing bookshelves) without it. But you are in this thing, doing this writing nonsense, because you care about it, first and foremost. I say put as much energy as you can stand into the projects that matter most to you, make money where you need to, and get to a point where you’re fortunate enough to be able to do what makes you happy and get paid for it.

That might take years. You might never get there. Does that matter?

Would I love to write about Star Wars all day every day? Yes. But I can’t make a living doing that at the moment. So I work hard at my day job and on this blog, and I write about Star Wars for free because who knows, maybe someday that could change. I’m doing what I can to make that a future possibility, even though I could be spending that time doing something that earns me cash.

“Doing whatever it takes” as a writer might mean sacrificing a lot. That doesn’t mean you can quit your job without warning and dedicate the rest of your life to writing books that haven’t sold yet — you have to be smart about it. But consider finding balance between writing to make money and writing to reach a specific kind of audience, until those two things become one.

It’s not ideal. We’d all love to get paid to write everything that comes into our heads. But that’s the problem. Everyone WANTS the same thing. Only a handful, out of the whole, will get there. It’s the ones who keep persisting and making smart decisions and meeting the right people that Make It.

Will you be one of Them?


Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.


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