The question of whether a professional writer – or an aspiring professional writer – should ever write for free is one that comes up regularly in online groups and discussion forums, and it always provokes healthy debate.
One camp says no, never, absolutely not. A writer should never write for free: we should value our time and expertise; by completing work without payment we’re undercutting other writers; and besides, no-one can pay the rent with ‘exposure’.
The opposing camp would say that writers – especially those who are new to the business – need to build their experience and portfolio and writing for free is often a good way to do that.
Ever keen to find a compromise, I find myself sitting somewhat awkwardly between the two camps.
Should you write for free on a long-term basis, for publications that turn a profit? No.
Are there times when it’s absolutely okay to write for free? Yes, of course.
Each writer will have their own rules about when the ‘okay’ times are, but as someone who has completed a combination of paid and unpaid work over the years I thought it might be helpful to share mine.
1. If you’re starting out and you’re keen to build a portfolio on a particular topic.
When we first moved from the UK to Tasmania, I was approached to write for a fairly new online lifestyle site called Vrai Magazine, which didn’t offer payment for pieces. Since I was new to Australia, still getting a sense for the publishing landscape, and trying to establish myself here as a writer, I agreed to write two pieces for them for free. This allowed me to work on a couple of pieces about Tasmania that could be included in my portfolio to demonstrate proficiency in travel writing.
When Vrai approached me to write a third piece, I politely declined, letting them know that as I was now full time freelancing I couldn’t spend time working for free. They were very understanding, and never asked again.
Meanwhile, those two pieces led to other paid work with better known publications and organisations including Time Out, The Simple Things and Tourism Tasmania. Those few hours of free work early on in my time here have now paid for themselves many times over.
2. It’s for a cause you strongly believe in.
Back in the UK, I did quite a bit of volunteer work with Save the Children: attending campaign launches, advising on blogger outreach, and posting regularly about their work on my own blog. It was very easy to adapt those blog posts for publication elsewhere – for sites like Huffington Post, which at the time didn’t pay the majority of their writers – and reach a new and bigger audience than I could through DorkyMum.
I never minded doing that kind of writing unpaid, firstly because it benefited me to get a by-line at a publication with high name recognition, and secondly because I was never going to be standing out on the street shaking a bucket (talk about an introvert nightmare!), so it was my way of making a valuable volunteer contribution.
Blogger outreach by charities doesn’t seem to have taken off in Australia in the same way that it did in the UK, but if I was ever approached by one whose values aligned with mine, I’d be happy to say yes. I should be clear though, that’s in relation to blogging and feature writing. When it comes to copywriting and producing content for not-for-profits to use on their own websites or promotional materials, that’s core work that should be included in their budgets, and while I always offer a discount, I don’t do it for free.
3. It’s for people you believe in.
The one site that I still write for – not regularly but semi-regularly – without expectation of payment is The Island Review. I know there is a wonderful team of people working hard on that site and none of them get paid: neither the writers nor the editors.
It’s a real labour of love, and yet it’s also a place where I’m really proud to have my words because everything they publish is really good. It’s a place where I can send experimental work – like my poem Tasnamia – and where I can read beautiful pieces like this one by Amy Liptrot. It feels like the exchange of being able to read good content for free and providing content for free is a fair one in this case.
(Others may disagree, but that’s the beauty of being a writer – you can make your own decisions on this stuff.)
So those are my three examples of times when I’ve felt okay about writing for free. It’s not something I do often, but it’s something I’ll always do for the right reason.
I think one thing that’s absolutely crucial if you’re a writer working for free is to be sure of why you’re doing it, what you’re getting from it, and how often you’re prepared to do it. Don’t let anyone take advantage of your generosity.
The other thing that’s important is for editors of non-paying publications to find ways of showing that they value their writers’ time and efforts. Sharing a writer’s pieces on social media, including a biography with a link to their website, and recommending them for paid opportunities elsewhere are all good ways to demonstrate appreciation.
It could even be something as simple as a hand-written card in the post to say thank you. That’s something I received from an editor a few years ago that touched me so much it’s still pinned above my desk on the cork board.