Why I’ve Never Stopped Writing for ‘Exposure’

It’s not a forbidden thing to do.

I earn less than $1 writing 30+ blog posts every 30 days.

This is not a complaint, and if I’m being honest, it’s a vast improvement over the first eight years I spent doing this. It was, and still is, my choice to keep ads and brand deals off this site. It has never felt right to do that to my audience and it never will. So I’m totally OK with not making a living doing what I do.

If we’re being technical, I actually lose money on this blog every year after paying the costs of my domain and WordPress.com hosting.

And yet I’m still here doing the thing. It’s almost been 11 years, and I’m still here, writing for free.

Why?

To be clear, this isn’t the only writing gig I’m happily committed to that does not pay me at all, and there are several others that don’t pay much for the amount and hours of work that go into the content I produce.

But still. Why? If I’m trying to make a living as a writer, why do I do so much work without much financial reward?

Add in the amount I do earn that doesn’t get taken out for taxes at payout, meaning I’m going to have to pay the government out of my own pocket in the spring because that’s just how things are (#adulting #work), and … yeah. People think making money as a writer is so easy. It’s not. It’s really not.

I am fortunate enough to be in a position where multiple websites pay me for my work. A company also pays me to edit other people’s words, which I would some days argue is a thousand times harder than actually writing. I know I have an advantage over many aspiring writers who have to trudge through jobs they don’t like while also figuring out how to set aside time in their personal lives to pursue their writing goals.

But I also know this whole “should you write for free and when” debate is an ongoing thing for many writers, because even I still struggle with it sometimes. I wanted to bring up the topic with the general understanding that anyone reading this, while searching for paid opportunities to grow as a writer — as you should be — are also concerned about growing and establishing yourself from the ground up.

Hopefully some of the insights below can help.

Writing isn’t all about money. Yes, you can’t write for free always and forever and expect to be able to pay the bills (and, hey, some of the things you like that aren’t bills, too). And no, not everyone has the luxury of writing for a paycheck with time left over to write “for fun.”

But this is one of those things each writer has to consider and decide for themselves. How much time can you afford to write for free, and how much time do you have to put into work — writing or otherwise — that pays? How much effort do you want to put into each? How much money do you need to make to live — and/or live comfortably? Do you have the skills and experience necessary to make as much money writing as you need to?

There are too many factors that go into decisions like these to be able to address all of them here. But the point is, money is important. For you, writing might also be important. There are dozens upon dozens of writers who get up in the morning, go to a job that has nothing at all to do with writing, come home, “adult,” and then sit down in front of their laptops and work on personal writing projects for as long as they can.

It’s doable. It’s not easy, but it can be done. You just can’t forget that sometimes, you can write without getting paid, and that’s not a bad thing.

Writing can be a job, and writing is a job for many people. But don’t ever forget that sometimes, it’s OK to write just because you like to write. Everyone should have at least one “just for me” writing project always going in the background. Just something that lets you write freely and makes you feel good even if you’re the only one who ever sees it.

Success often depends largely on who you know. And there’s no better way to get to know someone than to write for and work with them, even if they pay you very little or nothing at all.

Writers don’t really always like talking about this, especially those who have earned success but have gained opportunities through “mutuals.” Think about a job you might have had at one point that you didn’t particularly love, but that introduced you to a boss you managed to form a good relationship with. Years later you’re off doing your own thing and your former boss sends you an email telling you about a writing opportunity he thinks you’d be perfect for — and one he’s happy to recommend you for as well.

This happens a lot more often than you would think, which is why it’s so important to form good professional relationships with the people you work with no matter the job. You don’t have to be best friends with your manager — in fact, that’s probably not a worthwhile goal to pursue anyway. But you should do whatever it takes, in any job, to prove you are a smart, capable, driven, and dependable person. Because you just never know when something is going to come up that matches your interests and qualifications perfectly.

I can’t even count the number of writing opportunities I have been fortunate enough to grasp because someone I worked for — who didn’t pay me, maybe because they couldn’t, this happens — forwarded a job posting to me or recommended me for a job or said nice things about me to someone in charge of hiring.

Just because someone doesn’t or can’t give you a sizable paycheck doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate what you’re doing for them, or that they won’t think of you when they happen to see someone else is in need of a really good writer or editor. I’m thinking of one person in particular as I write this and just want to say, again, thanks — you’re wonderful.

Practice stimulates growth, and growth promotes success. All writers “practice.” Your weekly blog posts and email newsletters and random rants from characters you just made up on the spot are more than just “messing around.” You’re writing, and therefore, little by little, you’re getting better at writing. And by getting better at writing, you’re also increasing your chances of success down the road.

Because while every writer wants to make money and establish themselves in a particular genre or style or fandom, every writer also has their own individual strengths and weaknesses. And sometimes, before you can make a lot of money as a writer, you have to get really good at capitalizing on those strengths and figure out how to thrive despite those weaknesses.

And this often requires writing without getting paid.

This isn’t anyone’s fault or a “flaw in the system.” It’s the natural progression of things. In college I worked as an unpaid intern for an online magazine for three years. Before I started, I knew nothing about professional writing, or, really, professionalism in general. I didn’t know how to pitch to an editor. I wasn’t great at meeting deadlines. I had no clue how to send a clear and concise email.

These were weaknesses that probably would have prevented me from getting a full-time writing job once I graduated had I turned down the opportunity because it didn’t come with a paycheck.

Granted, I was a student and — because privilege — school was my job. Preparing to qualify for a job was my job. I didn’t have a family or work or other major responsibilities to deal with and I could afford to work for free.

But I’m not saying you have to put in 20 hours of work without pay every single week to get better at what you do. An article a week. A book chapter every two weeks. Small ongoing projects that don’t support you financially are essential to keep yourself motivated and give your creativity somewhere healthy to go.

If you want to grow as a writer, it’s simply a sacrifice you have to make sometimes. Some of us give up sleep. Others stop watching Netflix. Many writers lock themselves in their respective writing spaces whenever and however often they can just to take even one small step closer to achieving their dream.

We do what we have to do. It’s not always ideal, but we make it work. We have to.

Worrying about money is normal. We all dream of being able to write [almost] every day without having to wonder if it will earn enough money to pay for the things we need — and the things we deserve to have that we don’t necessarily need.

It’s hard admitting that this dream isn’t a reality for many aspiring writers. The reality is that these things aren’t always fair, though, and we have to figure out how to make our work, well … work.

I write for “exposure” because I, too, dream of feeling like I have earned the right to call myself a full-time writer. I jump on as many writing opportunities as I can because I know the power of networking and experience and versatility. I write for free, in many cases, because I just like to write and I have things to say.

It’s not a sin, and it’s also nothing to be ashamed of. The hope is that, as a writer, you someday get to a point where you can pick and choose the opportunities that pay and the few that don’t.

Until then, just keep writing. It doesn’t necessarily get easier, but the rewards do get significantly better as you go. Financially and otherwise.


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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