Why You Should Write for Free–and Like It
For years I’ve been preaching to new writers: Know what you’re worth! Demand to be paid fairly! Don’t write for free!
And now here I am, telling you it’s good to write for free.
Am I crazy?
No. I changed because the industry has changed. When I was starting out in 1997, there were no content mills and bidding sites offering writers $15 per 750 words, or blogs paying $20 for an extensive post.
So when I said “Don’t write for free,” I meant, “You should be snagging $500 for a feature article.” Not “Don’t write for free…at least get a few pennies for your efforts.”
Also, in 1997, there was a lot less competition and even a newbie writer had a chance to break into big markets and land impressive clients. Today, thanks to the Internet, the competition is stiff and writers with more samples have a better chance of landing gigs. Another reason many aspiring writers flock to the el cheapo clients. “What an easy way to get samples!” they crow.
The bad news is, better-paying writing clients don’t take samples from content mills, bidding sites, or crappy-looking blogs seriously. There’s no barrier to entry (pretty much anyone can write for one of them), writers need to crank out words too fast to do their best work, and even a great writer’s work is surrounded by mediocre (at best) writing from other cheap scribes.
So I’m changing my stance on the whole issue:
I believe it’s better to write for free temporarily, on your own terms, than to write for pennies for a content mill or bidding site client that doesn’t value your skills–and won’t make a good sample anyway.
There, I said it. Now let’s explore the whys and hows.
Why Free Is Awesome
I’ve become a big fan of writing for nothing. Here’s why.
1. It feels good.
As you’ll see below, I recommend writing for free for causes you care about. For example, several years ago I was a volunteer writer for the SPCA’s newsletter. That’s gotta feel way better than writing gratis for some company that hopes to earn lots of profit from your free work.
2. You get to choose your clients.
Landing free gigs is much easier than pitching low-paying clients. After all, the first is, “Hey, I’d love to write a post for you for free to help build my portfolio” (who can say No to that?), and the second is, “You say I’m competing against hundreds of writers for this low-paying assignment? Let me bend over further for you, my liege.”
When it comes to getting those first samples or building your reputation in a new field, free is more of a sure thing.
3. You can make demands.
When you’re writing for free, you have more control over what you’ll do and what you’ll get in return for your efforts. Of course, your client will have standards and specs you’ll need to adhere to, but you have more leeway to ask for a byline, negotiate the deadline, or request PDFs of your work.
4. Your writing will kick butt.
When you’re writing for a cause or business you love, on a reasonable timeline, you get the chance to show off your creativity, writing skills, and ability to generate ideas. Those are the kinds of samples you want in your portfolio.
5. You only need to do it a few times.
With the content mills, bidding sites, and blogs that pay yucko rates, it’s easy to fall into the trap of churning out assignment after assignment, because the only way to make good money is to write in volume.
Soon, you’ve forgotten that you only started writing for cheap to get a few samples, and are caught in the vicious cycle of mill work. And the longer you do it, the harder it is to climb out.
When you choose to write for free to get clips, you’re able to set limits on how much you’ll do. For example, you may decide you want to become a pet blogger, so you’ll write for free for two animal-related nonprofits and your local independent pet supply store and then use those samples to go after well-paying pet gigs.
When You Should Write for Free
Here are the three situations where you may want to offer your writing services gratis.
1. You have no samples at all.
You’re a rank newbie and have zero writing credits to your name. In this case, it makes sense to do a few free gigs to build your portfolio.
2. You’re looking to break into a new field.
Say you’re a health writer but you’d like to write more about entrepreneurship. You have plenty of samples showing you can write fluently about gluten intolerance and the dangers of Crossfit, but when it comes to business writing–you’re starting from scratch. This is a good time to write for free.
3. You want to switch things up.
Maybe you’ve written dozens of articles or brochures or case studies, but you’ve never written a blog post–and in your heart you really, really want to become a paid blogger.
Blogging is an entirely different skill, and you’ll need to prove you’ve got what it takes. Do a little writing gratis and soon you’ll have blogging samples to show to your prospects.
Who to Bestow Your Free Writing On
The last thing you want to do is offer the gift of your writing to some greedy conglomerate that’s going to turn around and make thousands off it–a business that can actually afford to pay writers. That would make you feel all angry and sad at the same time.
Instead, try approaching:
Chances are, there’s a cause you believe in that has a non-profit organization attached to it. For example, check out charities at Charity Navigator [www.charitynavigator.com], especially their list of Top 10’s–like “10 Highly Rated Charities Relying on Private Contributions,” “10 Highly-Rated Charities with Low Paid CEOs,” and “10 Charities with the Most Consecutive 4-Star Ratings.”
2. Local small businesses you frequent and love.
That little shop downtown that sells handmade soaps, your local co-op grocery store, and the café you visit three days per week that serves farm-to-table cuisine–these can make great prospects for your free writing.
3. Friends and relatives who are getting their businesses off the ground.
This is a super way to gain writing samples while helping your loved ones. And, they’re the most likely of all the types of clients to give you free rein on your work!
What You Get From All This
You’re not writing for free for your health, right? You want something out of the deal.
Of course, you’ll get samples. But also be sure to request:
A byline on an article or blog post, or credit on other types of written materials, will give your sample more credence.
Let your client know that in exchange for your free writing, you expect them to write a testimonial you can run on your website and use in your marketing materials.
Ask the client if they can recommend you to any of their colleagues–preferably ones who pay for writers.
Okay, now you have two or three samples. It’s time to stop writing for free.
Use those samples to land paying gigs. After all, now you can say, “I’ve written attention-grabbing, effective posts for X, Y, and Z.” That’s what you were after, and now you have it.
Offering your writing skills for free–if you choose the right clients and do a great job–can lead to writing work that pays so well, you’re not even tempted to bother with the content mills, bidding sites, and junky blogs.
How about you: Have you ever written for free in a strategic way? How did it work out for you? Let us know in the comments below!