There is a huge debate about whether or not writers should write for free. My thoughts about writing for free are rooted in my background as a marketer and an entire field of marketing called content marketing that companies are desperately trying to understand and integrate with social media and traditional marketing tactics and strategies.
To me, writing for free and allowing that content to be published on websites and in media that will help build awareness, recognition, and loyalty to a brand equates to free advertising. Rather than investing hundreds or thousands of dollars into advertising placement and creative, you can invest your own time and your own creativity into building awareness, recognition, and loyalty to your brand using your own words and choosing your own “placement” for those words.
The key of course is to evaluate free writing opportunities to determine whether or not they can help you reach your goals in the short or long term. For example, writing for well-known and popular websites and blogs can help you boost authoritative incoming links to your blog, which helps with your search engine rankings. Furthermore, writing amazing, shareworthy content that people want to talk about and share with others online helps to further boost your online platform and drive more traffic to your website, assuming you’ve set up a core branded online destination that all of your content leads people back to. Writing content for free with a strategic marketing plan in mind does far more for building a business than the time it takes to write that content.
With that in mind, everyone has to start somewhere. Is there value for beginner writers to publish content on free article sites and other sites that have reputations of publishing low quality content? Looking at it from a marketing perspective, my answer is — it depends. Does the site have strong linking potential that can bring more attention to your content than you can get on your own blog or website? If so, it might be worth it to publish some content on that site and drive some link juice for your own branded online destination. If the free site doesn’t have a strong presence of its own that has the ability to draw attention to your content, then there is little benefit to publishing content there. You’d be better off writing your own high-quality blog and seeking out guest posting opportunities on larger, authoritative blogs to build your online presence and links back to your branded destination.
Bottom-line, there is more to the argument of whether or not a writer should write for free than the simple debate of how much your time is worth. There are few occupations where you can prove your own abilities and worth thanks to the ability to publish content online. Writing is one of them, so think strategically and choose writing opportunities that lead you to your ultimate goals. If writing for free to raise your online exposure, build incoming links to your own branded destination to boost search traffic, and demonstrate your skills and talent will help you build your career (and I’d be hard-pressed to find any business or entrepreneur who could argue against those three objectives), then you should integrate the best opportunities into your marketing plan. Free advertising is something companies looking to grow would be crazy to miss, and if you’re trying to grow your writing business, you shouldn’t discount it either.
Of course, being strategic in choosing free writing opportunities is the key. You always want to make sure your brand is associated with sites and other content that is representative of your own brand promise. Building incoming links to enhance your online presence and boost your search engine rankings in order to generate more traffic to your website and more business is important, but you should never sacrifice your brand promise by confusing consumers and clients. Always make sure free writing opportunities truly benefit you and your business before you dive in.
Finally, while there may come a time when a free writing opportunity is too good to pass up, you should try to only accept free writing opportunities that allow you to retain ownership of your content.
Great post. How vividly you have tackled this oft-repeated question in the minds of the freelancers. Yes, it does pay to write free articles for some of the top-notch sites, provided one gets the chance. Those free articles are worth the effort.
Great reading this post.
Bob McDonnell says
I agree there can be advantages to doing some writing for free. One has to weigh the return they will get.
What bugs me is a local regional publication that will not put a web URL in the byline when you write for free. It would cost them noting, and get me the exposed I seek.
I have come writing friends who absolutely will not write for free, so I know there is a wide range of opinions. I look forward to hearing what others say.
Susan Gunelius says
I completely agree with you. Writing for free without getting some kind of link to your website or an opportunity to provide details where readers can learn more about you isn’t very helpful. While it could be used in a portfolio as a clip, it doesn’t help in advertising/marketing your business.
Debra Stang says
I’ve been writing for nearly ten years now. When I started out, I wrote for free regularly, but never felt I got any benefit out of it. Potential employers knew as well as I did which sites published anything that was submitted, and if anything, my having written for those sites was a strike against me.
Nowadays, I only write for free if a not-for-profit asks me to write a short project for a cause I believe in, or if I’ve agreed to do a post for a friend’s blog or web page.
Otherwise, I’m a show-me-the-cash kinda gal.
Writing for free is the best way for a beginner to get his/her name and work out there. As they say, one has to start somewhere, and a resume and portfolio has to have content. There’s no other way around it.
With that said, though the aforementioned opinion is certainly true, a writer has to realize also that there are many magazines, e-zines, etc. out there that will use this line of thinking to their advantage, primarily to get freebies all of the time. Writing for free has to stop somewhere, primarily when a level of experience has been reached. We all, just as any publisher, have to put food on our tables.
Also, one has to realize that a reputation exists for writers. If a journalist/writer gets a reputation that he/she will gladly write for free, then publishers will easily feel the desire to keep that record going. Know your limits, and have some pride and respect in yourself. There’s no reason why publishers should be in business to make money while writers go poor.
Susan Gunelius says
Brian, That’s a very valid point, but writing for free is an excellent form of marketing and advertising. Of course, I’m a marketer and a professional writer, so I probably look at it from a different perspective than most freelance writers. I just wanted to put the point out there that writing for free doesn’t have to just be a form of working for free. There are actually huge indirect marketing benefits that companies are desperately trying to leverage through social media marketing and content marketing strategies. Writers are fortunate in that we have an advantage when it comes to content marketing — we already know how to write content that adds value and can be an excellent representation of our brand promises. The social web has opened more marketing opportunities to grow a writer’s business than ever before, and it’s very exciting! Accepting free writing assignments for specific strategic purposes can be a very good way to boost an online brand and build a business of any kind — not just a writing.
That’s all well and fine. However, my comment was for freelance writers who write general (or specific content) articles *for* the publisher, not for personal gain. If the content is specifically for an online brand that they advocate or for their business then the writing benefits them. It’s completely different when one is writing content for personal gain. I think people know the difference between what benefits them and what doesn’t.
Your advice is great for those who are aspiring to make it in the tough world of writing. Yes, writing for free is like free advertisement. I think, there are nice sites on the Web where they pay newbies a certain fee for the traffic their contents can bring. I’d say, that’s writing with the benefits. The screening process though can be stringent and you really need to prove not only you passion for writing, but also a keen eye for a grammatically correct copy.
If the publisher is going to benefit from your work, why shouldn’t s/he pay for it? My work has value. I’ve done pro bono work for good causes, but I would never write for free otherwise. Doing so makes it easier for that client to not pay (or to underpay) other writers. It brings down the whole profession.
I write a weekly column for free in a major regional newspaper. I got the position by taking a volunteer blogging position on one of the newspapers websites and they began publishing me in the newspaper weekly a few months later. I knew when I decided to take the blogging position that several of the other bloggers had gotten columnist jobs out of the position, so it was a calculated move.
I have found that being able to say that I have a weekly column in a major paper has really helped my writing career alot. I have gotten several gigs because of this. In addition, I eventually got hired to do freelance work for feature stories for the paper. I have learned a ton from working with the editors and doing the feature stories.
I am positive that when I look back on my career in 10 years, that I will feel that taking the free blogging job was a pivitol move and eventually got me where I wanted to go. On the flip side, about the same time, I wrote a few articles for a free regional magazine. I stopped after a few months because I did not feel that I was getting exposure or learning something that made the time worth it.
So, I totally agree with this article. I think that writers should never write for free (aka getting nothing in return), but I don’t think that they should always look at money as the only payment – it could be clips, exposure, or experience.
Nathan Segal says
There are two main aspects to this discussion. Writing for free to promote your web site, in which case a resource box is essential, or writing for free if you want to begin a career as a freelance writer. With the latter, this is how I starting working as a freelancer. Once I had a few articles that I wrote for free, I was able to use those to find paying assignments. It is a good way to go if you do not have any writing credits.