The Renegade Writer

Why You Should Write for Free–and Like It

laptop woman happyBy Linda Formichelli

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:

1. Non-profits.

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:

1. Credit.

A byline on an article or blog post, or credit on other types of written materials, will give your sample more credence.

2. Testimonials.

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.

3. Recommendations.

Ask the client if they can recommend you to any of their colleagues–preferably ones who pay for writers.

Stop!

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!

Oct 15, 2013 Advice, Marketing, Money

41 Responses

  1. Holly says:

    Pro bono work is admirable in any profession. I’m glad you mentioned it for writers. There is no reason why we can’t volunteer for an organization or an individual. I would take that over any content mill anyway.

  2. Ding! Light bulb! It’s the kind of thing where I know I can do it, but the clients want *evidence* that I can do it. (And they’re right to want evidence before paying someone, so I’m not upset about that.)

    The other catch 22 is that the clients who can afford to pay will often choose the more experienced writer with a nice portfolo, but the clients who will take a chance on a new writer often can’t afford what my efforts are really worth.

    So I’m definitely going to try this approach to break into new industries and to diversify my portfolio in terms of types of writing. My portfolio now is all articles, blogs, and literary pieces. I need more business writing samples.

  3. Have you ever written for free in a strategic way? — Yep! I took an unpaid internship a while back, and the company was more than happy to let me use the work in my portfolio.

    I’ve also written guest posts for certain blogs, and I was able to use those to land paid gigs as well. :)

  4. I wrote a web piece for free for a well-known mag, cringing the whole time, because I felt like they were in a position to pay, but truth be told: I WANTED that credit so badly. I’m glad I did it, because it opened some doors down the road. A big name is a big name, and sometimes it’s worth more on your resume than it is in your pocketbook.

    • I’m glad it worked out for you! Smart move. Though I can’t STAND when big magazines don’t pay for web content, like it takes any less effort than the content that goes in their print magazine.

  5. Jim Schmidt says:

    GREAT post Linda! One of the best you’ve had in awhile. Along the lines of “passions,” but not necessarily nonprofits, I’d encourage your readers to consider submissions to magazines related to favorite hobbies or associations. For example, I love to collect antique medicines…there are two very nice hobby magazines in the field that I have been published in/submitted to…they don;t pay but I don’t mind: my writing helps advance the hobby and the magazines have very high production quality so they make for beautiful clips…on the other hand, I’m also an avid Civil War enthusiast and a history magazine asked me to provide some content, for free…I did a few posts and then thought what’s in it for me? They pay their print edition writers. When I asked, they said it provided exposure for my blog and books…maybe…but the NY Times also provides exposure (more, obviously) and they PAID me from my submission. You have to do what you are comfortable with. Keep up the great work!

  6. Cheryl Rhodes says:

    I’ve written for free about horse rescue and will likely do so again because it’s a subject near to my heart, not because I need the clips.

    Would I write a sample for free for a magazine or web page as I’ve seen other writers check in about – no way. Look at my clips and make a decision whether my writing matches what you’re looking for.

    You’ve hit on something that is very real out there for writers – the stiff competition and lots of low paying writing gigs. Mills and pay-for-clicks aside, there are magazines on the racks everywhere you shop and look at the Writer’s Market and see they’re paying .10¢/word or $25 or $50/article. Beats writing it for free I suppose, and magazines that don’t pay writers are sitting on the racks too.

  7. Melanie says:

    After graduating a few years ago with a major in music, I had a retail job and an unpaid internship in publishing. I added volunteering for my hometown’s historical society to the mix, which involved helping with PR and writing a regular (unpaid) column in one of the local papers. I had some reporting experience, but I believe the articles I wrote on behalf of the historical society played an important role in helping me land a job as a staff reporter at a community newspaper in another part of the state. I would think this strategy would work for freelancers who want to pitch history-related articles or contribute to local newspapers.

  8. Great post, Linda. I like how you kept to writing for free just a few times for charities/non-profits. This is a great way for beginners to gain a few clips for their portfolios.

  9. Dan Erickson says:

    I just write for free for myself at this point. I’m not shopping to write for others and no one is knocking down my door. I’m okay with that,

  10. Williesha says:

    I am actually brainstorming a future a blog determining the return on investment for writing for free. Mostly blogging stuff. I keep forgetting to check out non-profits.

  11. John says:

    wow, has “bend over” really become a common idiom in public communications? Not a criticism, just an observation. In total agreement on writing for free.

  12. Hey, Linda. I just bought your book, since I’m thinking of doing more freelance work. I plan on reading it this weekend. (Or at least, starting it!)

    My question to you is this: I have guest posted on several sites. When will I know when I have enough samples of my writing? Do my samples have to be on impressive sites, too?

    I have a list of these on my HIRE ME page on my blog. Since I am just starting out as a freelancer, I’d love for you to take a quick look and give me your impressions. Please… I know you’re busy, but I’d appreciate five minutes of your time! Thanks!

    BTW, I landed a paying gig on Carol Tice’s Blog…so I’m sure once I add that post (not yet published) to my list, it will be better! But, publication is still a couple of months away…

  13. Lorraine, there’s never a “right” number of clips to have to break into the markets of your dreams…and in fact, you need only ONE sample to prove you can write! I urge you to start pitching paying markets now!

  14. Halona Black says:

    When I started my writing business just this last May, I used my own women’s health blog to get my first few writing gigs on Elance. While I did not start that health blog for the purpose of securing writing gigs, maintaining the blog over the course of 3 years allowed me the opportunity to learn a lot about the business of blogging, how to come up with interesting content, and how to build an audience — all on my own dime. These are all qualities a blogging client is looking for in their writers. Once I had about 5 decent writing samples (for which I got about $9 for about 500 words…), I stopped using Elance and started using other strategies to find better paying clients.

  15. […] Why you should write for free — and like it [The Renegade Writer] (via @freelancersu) […]

  16. Suspecting I may be interested in the health writing niche, plus wanting additional samples, I wrote my first health-related article for an online publication that originally said they not only did not pay, but did not include a byline. I was a bit bummed (how would anyone know I actually wrote it?), but submitted a first piece anyway. They not only accepted it but asked me how I wanted to be credited, much to my surprise, so I asked for a link to my freelance website in my name, which they complied with. I’ve just submitted my second piece to them after receiving a go-ahead on the query, and may try for a third…I felt that, at that point, I’d be safe asking for a testimonial. (I’m fairly new at this gig; maybe I could have asked for one sooner?)

  17. Hi Linda,
    So much is about getting your name out there in any way that you can.

    I wrote a short post, several months ago, on this debate and my some tips on evaluating when it is worth it. I also gave an example of how writing for free lead to getting two of the stories published in a collection along with 50 dollars (25 per story). I hope you don’t mind my posting it here.
    To Free or Not to Free
    http://peterdmallett.wordpress.com/2012/11/24/to-free-or-not-to-free/

  18. Jordan Clary says:

    Great topic! I’ve always been a fan of writing for causes and for friends I believe in. I’d add your kid’s school is a great resource too. My sons are both grown and gone, but every year I present a writing workshop for their school’s lit jam. Still for free.

  19. […] Why You Should Write For Free And Like It […]

  20. Josh says:

    Nicely scribed post. I found your site through Copyblogger comments regarding the Direct Mail Campaign.

    I started writing for Demand Studios, Yahoo Contributor Network [YCN], Skywords, Examiner and Fiverr. Demand Studios and Skywords [Content Mills] took my time and didn’t say thank you. Writing for YCN and Examiner provide a platform for me to build my portfolio with “yukco” page view rates. And Fiverr, well, let’s say I’ve moved to Indonesia with poverty-level rates there, even though I call the sandy beaches of SoCal home.

    So, I feel violated at all this free work I’ve been giving out. Two years into writing and I’m just now learning the ins and outs of high traffic sites, unique pageviews, adsense and poverty level freelance earnings. Argh.

    Thought I’d share my experience with you.

    Josh =]

  21. Hi, Linda. Great post, especially for newbies who write for free.

    It’s been about a year since I started writing free content for my blog. I checked out content mills and decided this is a good temporary starting point for me.

    Most writers want to be compensated for their work from the beginning, and I’m no different, but I believe there are times in a writer’s life when you should write for free. I see it as a transitional stage. And writing for free actually feels good.

  22. Alicia Rades says:

    I love these reasons. I think under “Who to Bestow Your Free Writing On,” it should also include for influential people/blogs. If they’re accepting guest posts, it’s a great way to start building your brand and create quality writing samples.

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