Writing for free. The idea makes us all cringe, but the reality is, we’ve all probably done it at least a dozen times before. It’s just … what you do. At first. You still do it occasionally even after you start getting paid to write (or you should). Here’s when it’s OK to write for free, and why we really shouldn’t give it such a bad rap.
When you have little to no writing experience
For some reason, it’s hard for people to accept that when you are first starting out, regardless of how you want to make your living as a writer, you are going to have to write for free. The reason behind this is not complicated: you do not have enough experience. You have not written for enough websites or magazines or organizations. You don’t have polished writing samples to prove you are an asset. You’re not a ‘bad’ writer. You just haven’t actually written enough yet.
Things that don’t really count as the kind of writing experience clients and employers are looking for: blogging (sorry), writing for your school newspaper (depending), being a writing tutor, creative writing. Things that do count as adequate unpaid experience: internships, magazines, credible websites that are not stand-alone blogs, feel free to add if we’re missing any.
You need to write for free for awhile. That’s just how this game works. (Yes, college students, this means you too. Once you graduate, you can complain about not making money all you want. Tough love.)
I wrote for a magazine for almost three years, hundreds of articles without earning a cent for them. That time extended into my post-grad life. It was worth it. I never expected to be paid for it because the experience was much more valuable at that time in my life. No regrets.
When you’re balancing ‘writing for pay’ with ‘writing for exposure’
There isn’t anything wrong with writing for a few different websites, for free, to start to build your portfolio and start getting your name out there. That’s all you’re really going to get out of work like this: website owners need writers, a lot of them, and you need things to write. It’s like a partnership. They get what they don’t pay for, and you earn a nice article to share with your followers.
Writing for exposure is the whole point of writing for free, but there does come a point where you need to try and find paid work. That doesn’t mean you have to, or should, abandon all of your free gigs. Keep a few of them. Never forget that you’re writing because you like it (hopefully …), and if you’re writing just to get a lot of Twitter followers or have a popular blog, you really need to rethink your priorities.
I contribute to sites like Lifehack and Elite Daily, which understandably do not pay their contributors for their work, because I enjoy writing, and getting your name out there is really important when you’re first establishing your brand. It’s much easier to do now that I’m freelancing because I can focus on my reasons for writing it as my motivation instead of a deposit in my PayPal account.
When you’re truly passionate about a cause or organization
Even when you have a full- or part-time job, and/or you’re making money writing somehow, it’s worth your time to still look for a side gig that helps you refine your skills, build relationships and support a cause or movement. Sometimes, making a difference comes with a cost: it requires your time and effort, but you won’t get monetary compensation for it.
There is value in giving some of your time and skills to a cause or organization you really care about. I recently returned to NoStigmas as a volunteer contributor on their research team. I write about every two weeks or so and don’t get paid for it, nor did I expect to when I inquired about the opportunity. You never know where these kinds of things will lead, and spending a few hours every few weeks writing something you’re truly passionate about is not a minute wasted.
You can check out more of our Let’s Get Published series for more tips on building your writing career from the ground up. You can do it.
Do you write for free? Are you OK with that? What advice do you have for new writers looking for more opportunities to accumulate more writing samples?
Image courtesy of driftingthrough.com.