Freelance Writing Week II: Should Freelance Writers Ever Write for Free?

Welcome to Day 2 of Freelance Writing Week II!

Yesterday’s topic, in case you missed it, was:

How Much Do Freelance Writers Make?

No Soliciting by greefus gone fishin on FlickrNow from a rather tame subject to an extremely volatile one. How volatile you ask?

Well if you’re ever at a party and want to break the ice with a freelance writer, just ask:

Should Freelance Writers Ever Write for Free?

And then stand back. Far.

Many experienced freelancers will say you should never accept non-paying or extremely low paying assignments with the reasoning that, hey, this is your *job* and no one expects the plumber to come over and fix your toilet for free! And even if freelance writing isn’t your full-time job, you should still be compensated for your services.

On the other hand, beginning freelancers, i.e., those without any clips, generally don’t see anything wrong with accepting jobs with no or low pay because hey, how else can you get started?

So who’s right?

I say they both are–at least to some extent.

Don’t Write for Free!

Generally, you should avoid writing for free as you are not only devaluing your own work (and telling potential future editors that your writing was worth nothing), but you’re also making it difficult for your fellow freelance writers to ask and receive a decent wage for their hard work.

This principle, by the way, also applies to extremely low-paying jobs ($5 or less for full-length articles is extremely low-paying in my book).

Is it *ever* OK to write for free?

I do think there are some excellent reasons to write for free, but the list is *extremely* short:

1. To Compile Clips (Maybe)

If you’re just starting out and haven’t been published anywhere, you *might* consider writing something for free just to get a clip or two under your writing belt.

But (and this is a *big* but) don’t make a habit out of it. It’s easy to get into a rut accepting non-paying or low-paying jobs, so set goals for your writing career and check in with them periodically to make sure you’re moving forward and not hovering in a bad place.

Even better than writing for others for free just for clips? Start yourself a blog and write “samples” of articles you’d like to eventually send to potential clients. It may be writing for free, but at least you’ll still own your material.

v2.569: May 8th (Broke!) by Phoney Nickle on Flickr2. Charitable Organizations

If your church or local community center needs a press release, flyer, or other written materials and you’re feeling charitable, this is a great way to give back  and also hone your writing skills along the way.

Something like this may also lead to future paying work, so if you have the time and inclination, writing for free in this situation is a glaring exception to the “Don’t write for free!” rule.

3. Exposure

To be perfectly clear: I am *not* talking about all those job ads that say “We can’t afford to pay now, but you’ll get great exposure by writing for us!” Run from those. Fast. If they can’t make ad revenue to pay you, how do they possibly have enough readership to give you great exposure?!

What I mean is that if the New York Times calls you up to write an op-ed for free, you should seriously consider doing it, assuming you’ll get a byline (and preferably a link to your website!). If the publication asking for your free services is “important” enough and will, indeed, pay in exposure, it might be worth it to write for free.

If you’re a blogger, another example might be guest-posting at Darren Rowse’s Problogger; the link love and clicks over to your site alone could make your free writing worth the effort.

4. Promotion of Your Work

If you have written a book, for instance, and you can promote it by writing articles or blog posts, this is a good time to write for free–so long as you’re submitting to places who also cater to your target audience.

That’s my abbreviated opinion on the matter, but if you Google the topic, you’ll find lots more opinions, including:

Be sure to come back tomorrow for
“What’s the ‘Right’ Pay for Freelance Writing Jobs?”

If you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe through an RSS feed so you don’t miss a single Freelance Writing Week II post.

Also free free to bookmark, Stumble, and share these posts with friends via email, your blog, and Twitter. The more people we have reading them, the more ideas and suggestions we can come up with in the comments. We freelance writers have to stick together!

So what do you think about freelance writers writing for free
(or clients requesting that they do)?

7 Beans of Wisdom to “Freelance Writing Week II: Should Freelance Writers Ever Write for Free?”
  1. Gil

    I hope that all of the work that you are putting in on this series earns you more than a few € cents!

    Erm, let’s just say thank goodness I believe in karma 😉

  2. very interesting. I can see how one can be taken advantage of if they are not careful.

    nyc/caribbean ragazza’s last blog post..Maybe I’m a Zitella (Spinster)

    I think beginning freelancers are definitely at risk…it’s *so* hard not to accept any job that comes along when you’re just starting out. I remember it well!

  3. joanne at frutto della passione

    Well, so far I’ve found this whole series really informative and I’m looking forward to more, although I have to admit I have always looked at freelance writing (for me) as the little something extra I do on the side, but then again that’s what I used to say about translating and now look at me!!

    joanne at frutto della passione’s last blog post..Forte e gentile, tu sei abruzzese

    So happy to hear you’re enjoying the series, Joanne! I think it’s important especially for those who do freelancing as a side thing to remember that they should be compensated appropriately…it’s still your valuable time and energy you’re using, after all 🙂

  4. Sore spot. Sore spot. Ouch!

    No, good advice and I agree with your reasons on “when” you should. I’m personally offended at people/websites who make money from ad sales, etc and who ask me to write for free. I don’t get it …

    Cherrye at My Bella Vita’s last blog post..Travel Tip Tuesday: 25 Tips for Traveling in Italy

    Ooh I hear you there….

  5. 04.21.2009

    I went on a little rant about this on my blog a while back. Great topic and I’m enjoying Part 2 of your Freelance Writing Week!

    Thanks Anali!

  6. Michelle,
    I loved this post- it’s perfect timing in my life b/c I was just told on Saturday that if I wrote for a particular magazine, to consider it a gift for helping to launch their premiere issue and in return I would get a lot of great exposure. This just didn’t sit well with me- how can a freelance writer take him/herself seriously if there is always the sense of self-sacrifice for ‘exposure’.

    One question I’d like to pose if you haven’t addressed it already in your postings– what about bloggers? I know I’m not getting paid for my writing or recipes, is there some naivety about putting all of it out there for free?

    Thanks for all this great info!

    Yvonne, My Halal Kitchen’s last blog post..Free Scoop of Ice Cream at Ben & Jerry’s April 21…and other Ice Cream Options

    That’s a good question about recipes…there’s nothing stopping you from gathering them up and making a book, though, so there’s always that avenue to explore if you’re interested. That said, I wouldn’t post many of my own recipes at someone else’s money-making site for free….

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Michelle FabioMichelle Fabio is an American attorney-turned-freelance writer living in her family's ancestral village in Calabria, Italy and savoring simplicity one sip at a time. 

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