It gets a bad rap. Writers, myself included, cringe at the idea of writing for free. This is completely understandable for someone who has enough writing experience to turn their nose up at the idea of writing for exposure – but many new writers are in dire need of a reality check.
That’s right – it’s tough love time once again, and the topic is – gasp – writing something, knowing you are not going to get paid for it.
Writing for exposure = having a piece of [hopefully] original work published online that you do not get paid for; your only reward is ‘getting your name out there.’
Here’s the reality many people reading this are not going to like: you can’t expect to get paid for writing right away if you don’t have experience. Not well, anyway.
Writing for exposure might seem ridiculous and unfair, but writing for free does not mean you spend all day every day writing without getting paid for it. That’s just not smart.
It means you likely have a stable full-time job or you’re in school, and you contribute several articles per week to various mediums for which you are not compensated – for the sole purpose of building an online portfolio, forming relationships with editors/publishers in your desired writing niche and starting to share your work on social media.
I see a LOT of complains in writing groups from people who are having trouble landing freelance writing jobs. (I really need to leave some of these groups … but I can’t … I JUST WANT TO HELP …) While there are many factors that might be contributing to each individual in different situations, I assume that at least a percentage of them do not have enough relevant experience to qualify for even basic level freelance writing contracts. And they’re just not aware of that.
How do you get that experience? By writing. For free, most of the time. But if you’re at all hesitant about doing this, here are several questions you can ask yourself before agreeing to write for exposure.
What is your level of expertise?
I’m going to use health writing as my example here, because that is what I have the most experience with. In applying for health writing jobs at first, the clients willing to pay higher rates were all looking for good writers – who had experience writing in niches related to health, nutrition, fitness and similar areas. Someone who had little to no valuable experience doing this would not get picked for these jobs. A client needs to see not only writing samples, but that you have a deep understanding of the topics they are going to ask you to write about.
Do you have a college or master’s degree in a field related to writing, OR a specific discipline in which you are attempting to write about? Have you worked as a writing intern for any publications at any point in the past two years? Do you have any certifications or licenses? Do you run any personal blogs that produce credible content in your niche, reflecting your knowledge and detailed understanding of certain topics?
These things matter – and if you do not meet these qualifications, you need to build up your credibility by either studying or writing about the topics you wish to get paid for writing about. Yes, probably for free.
How much real-world writing experience do you have?
This is EXTREMELY important when considering whether or not you need to scope out more free writing opportunities. Real world writing experience is very different from writing essays for a class, or sometimes even blogging. Prospective clients need to know that you can write well on a variety of topics, that you can turn around assignments very quickly, that you are quick to communicate and that you understand how to adapt to different audiences and writing styles/voices. You learn all of these things by writing in the real world – often, for free.
Some don’t count writing for a university, student-run newspaper as relevant writing experience, but I disagree. Student journalism is a really valuable way to learn how to and not to work with editors, especially when it comes to pitching, following instructions and meeting deadlines. Most publications like online magazines are always looking for unpaid interns, many times remotely. This is about as real world as it gets – you get to work with real, experienced staff. You’re at the bottom of the food chain, but sometimes, that can be a good thing. It’s very easy to exceed expectations, impress people and learn what you are capable of.
What is your end goal?
In small increments, there is nothing wrong with writing for exposure. I have not gotten paid a cent for blogging daily for the past 18 months, but that hasn’t bothered me. Some people want to write to have a decent presence on social media, and that’s fine. I just think way too many people come into this industry thinking they can make money. If you look at top Upwork profiles, yes, these people charge usually over $100 per hour of work. But they have hundreds of hours logged, they’ve worked with dozens of clients, and most of their ratings are a full five stars. These people didn’t get onto Upwork one day without any experience and start making thousands of dollars a year. They came in with portfolios. And they built those portfolios with experience – likely, sometimes, free experience.
If you want to write to make money, then realize in MOST cases writing for free is a prerequisite. It’s not because you aren’t a good writer. It’s because there are people out there willing to pay writers what they are worth – IF you can prove you’re reliable enough. I’m not saying you have to have years of experience behind you – but maybe you do. I can only look at this from a very limited perspective at this point. So feel free to enlighten me if you’ve experienced something very different than what I’ve described here.
In all honesty, I do not know the success rate of people who attempt to get freelancing jobs without relevant writing experience. I did not apply for any writing gigs until I had several YEARS of unpaid writing and editing experience, evidenced by a tangible portfolio. But the reason I was able to do this was because I did not have time to work while in college. This was the period of time writing for exposure made the most sense for me.
Writing for exposure as a student is what I recommend most people do if they are interested in pursuing a writing career directly out of school. At that level, you usually do not have enough experience to qualify for well-paying writing jobs. Between the time I left my “real” full-time job as a graduate and started freelancing, I also spent six months writing for exposure. While it was not ideal, it is the main reason why I started landing freelancing jobs only weeks after I started looking.
What’s your argument? Is there a point at which writing for exposure is acceptable (for students? For bloggers)? Where do you draw the line between writing for exposure serving as a reasonable way to get experience, and the point at which it becomes insulting to a writer’s worth and skill level?
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and a nine-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.