When a Freelance Writing Job Doesn’t Pay

There is perhaps no other topic in the freelance writing world that generates more controversy than the concept of writers writing for free. Bring it up and lines in invisible sand are drawn, commenting spikes and in the case of Harlan Ellison, a few F-bombs are dropped.

It’s understandable. Shady publishers and editors prey on vunerable writers who want to see their names in print. Writers are constantly burned by “write for free now and earn later” promises in which “later” never comes.

However, in the angry buzz of the debate something gets lost. Choice and education. There will always be writers who consider using their talent without traditional compensation. Instead of helping writers make informed decisions, we  as a community often take the abstinence-only approach – IT’S WRONG, NEVER DO IT.

Is it really free?

The first step to weighing a work-for-free option is to look at whether the project has any compensation opportunities. Writers work in exchange for items and services all the time. A little web content work in exchange for a new website. A little PR work in exchange for lessons from a yoga studio.

Just be sure that you follow three simple rules when bartering services:

  1. Set clear boundaries. Define the services you will provide and the services or products you expect in return. This prevents misunderstandings and keeps either party from taking advantage of the “freebie” situation.
  2. Determine cost. It should be expected that your standard rates are used for services you provide.
  3. Put it in writing. This is not only helpful for tax and business record purposes, it makes the transaction official and binding.

Is it for the greater good?

Wielding a hammer may not be some people’s idea of how they want to volunteer, but wielding a keyboard may feel just right. Providing writing services to help a charity or organization is a good thing. Sweating over a keyboard or a hot stove both take time and effort and each can be a great help to someone in need.

Are you prepared for the lack of payoff?

Writing for exposure. *Sigh* That’s a tricky one. Certain publications swear by it, but when their blog only reaches 12 people and four of those are family members, the “exposure” doesn’t help a writer one bit. Then you have the Huffington Post model: huge reach and definite opportunities for exposure. However, when the publication makes a deal for a large sum of money, whether it’s for advertising or through the sale of the blog, there will be writers who feel slighted when left out of the monetary windfall.

There is, of course, the possibility that exposure may never come. Before you get into an “exposure” deal,

  1. Use metrics to define success. How many blog hits, how many subsequent work requests, book sales, etc.
  2. Recognize and get comfortable with not being able to eat, spend or pay bills with exposure. Exposure has to translate into dollars through other avenues to be successful.
  3. Have a time limit and exit strategy. Give the exposure enough time to produce results, but have an end date in place if it doesn’t show signs of panning out.

Can you afford to do it?

Whether working in exchange for goods and services, as a volunteer or for “exposure,” carefully weigh the costs of the commitment. There are time costs, including time away from other business-growing opportunities, i.e. querying, working on gigs for other clients, etc. There are also actual costs: electricity, Internet, the standard writing rate… This is one of those tough choices that a writer has to make from a business perspective, especially if the project will be ongoing.

Most of the time I’m against writing for free. It distracts writers from doing things that can both further their careers and enable them to pay bills. Writing for experience can be accomplished while making money – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. There are, however, situations in which free can work out for writers though they are not as common as “job” listings would have you believe. It’s a personal, business decision that should be made with research and with realistic expectations.

Have you written for “free?” Why or why not? What other things should writers consider when weighing a non-traditional pay option?


10 responses
  1. Carol | Make a Living Writing Avatar

    I have written for free, and still do. At this point I’m looking for HUGE, prestigious exposure on a very popular site…as in my guest posts for Copyblogger.

    But that aside, I find mostly, if you look, you can GET PAID to appear in some places that give you great visibility too! So why not search out those opportunities instead.

    The whole sales speech about “but you’ll get great exposure” usually doesn’t wash. You’re helping to build their business, and you should get paid.

  2. Jennifer L Avatar

    As a general rule, I do not write for free. My exceptions–and they do exist–are for my church and for a couple of nonprofits that I enthusiastically support.

    But recently, I was approached to do some blogging for a publication for “exposure” and links back to my personal blog (which I don’t make any money from, by the way). I sighed, asked if there could be some payment involved, and then thought long and hard about it. I finally decided to do it anyway because it 1) doesn’t involve any reporting and interviewing, 2) it gives me a nice little line to put on my resume, which hopefully will help me land some (paying) assignments in the future, and 3) the time frame requirements aren’t too ornerous.

    Overall, it was a good decision. But would I take on another free gig? No. I need more paying gigs. And I like to believe that I’m worth it. (I hope!)

  3. Star Avatar

    it 1) doesn’t involve any reporting and interviewing, 2) it gives me a nice little line to put on my resume, which hopefully will help me land some (paying) assignments in the future, and 3) the time frame requirements aren’t too ornerous

    Let’s hope by the time you are considered worthy of hire there is money to be made. Working free (except for church or something) brings down the whole mess–the five-buck jobs already have. Let’s take the FREE out of freelance! If there is anything left to save. We offer a service! We are entitled to be paid! We take risks being out here for hire on demand, or starve on lack of demand! Stories like this make me ill. I found this site through a google ALERT, but have long since left it. Nothing personal–but come on!

  4. Rebecca Avatar

    Guest writing is one way ‘new’ freelance writers can gain exposure. They can slowly build their portfolio and provide sample writings to business owners and editors. As writers build their portfolio, they may realize they enjoy writing for specific niche markets. If they have samples, their ‘free writing’ could provide them with a great ROI. Sometimes one must weigh the pros and cons of writing for free. It could pay off in the long run.

  5. Krissy Brady | Sell Crazy Someplace Else Avatar

    I don’t mind writing for free occasionally, but would obviously never make a habit of it. For example, low budget or non-profit literary publications that I believe in, or guest posts for blogs that I enjoy following. I have to have some sort of an attachment to the publication. It can also be a great way to break into a niche market to build a few clips before querying to higher-end publications, but definitely something to tread carefully with.

  6. Derek Thompson Avatar

    I think it depends on the individual writer and the way they view their craft. Would you expect an artist to paint something for free and give it away or a composer to produce new music for gratis? No. Would you expect a plumber to work for free in return for ‘exposure’? Of course not. I think the difficulty is that the internet has given the impression that anyone can write and then writers buy into the idea that they need to justify their craft.

  7. Cathleen Avatar

    If a website has to tell you that you will gain “exposure” from writing on their site, that alone is a red flag. If they are really big then people are jumping at the chance to write for them free-or not. If they have to beg for freebies, it probably isn’t much of a steppingstone. Just my opinion.

  8. Richard M. McCord II Avatar

    There are times when you want to write for free. For example, I am not getting paid for this post.

    The point being: just as politicians get votes by going places just to be seen and heard, writers should use that same tool. I will not write full articles for free, but I will comment on articles, or visit blogs and forums, and make my presence (and opinion) known. If you manage to capture a person’s interest in one subject, they may very well reach out to you to find out how you feel about something else- leading them to your website, your list of books on Amazon, etc.

    This is why organizations like having movie stars speak out for their Cause. You like Actor X in his movies, therefore you should get behind whatever Cause he is speaking out for. That very same mechanism can be used by writers to drum up popularity with readers, and possible employers, without having to spend a great deal of time “wasting” your writing efforts on free jobs which should have provided compensation. Visiting blogs, forums and other social sites and sharing your very short opinion could lead to you being asked for a paid, full write-up on that, or other, subjects.

  9. Lisa Avatar

    I very rarely write for free, but will shortly be doing a local Patch.com theater blog. Why? Am looking forward to (1) helping out the community theaters in our region, along with the actors, directors and kids involved and (2) am looking forward to the comped tickets to shows that I’ll be reviewing, which will likely be worth hundreds a year!


    1. JoaJoan Norton VMD DACVIMJoan Norton Avatar

      I have done some “semi-free” writing, where I write an article in exchange for a free ad in that issue of the magazine. I accepted this job because I am looking to build my portfolio, gain exposure etc. This practice has a negligible ROI for me as I do not have many products to sell and most are very low dollar, so the ad will never bring in as much $ as I would make if I were getting paid for the article. Now that the first article has be submitted the editor is very happy and wants to talk about a series of pieces. I would now like to transition from an “ads as payment” to cash as payment for future projects. Any advice on how to broach the subject with the editor?

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