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Writing for Free

2011 September 24

As I have written elsewhere, it is difficult for a person to earn a living as a freelance writer. It is not impossible. I did it for many years, but I had to work very hard, always thinking about where my next job was coming while scrambling to meet the current-contract deadline.

Although I’ve written for magazines and newspapers, and in the early years got paid well for those articles, I made most of my money from contract writing for governments, corporations and non-profit organizations. Contract writing paid the bills and put food on the table. Why? Because I got paid for the actual amount of time I put into the project, not just the words published.

Although being paid by the word by periodicals was technically supposed to cover my expenses, it never did. Twenty-cents-a-word, which is the going rate for many local or regional publications (and has been for decades), barely pays for the time it takes to decide on a project, locate information sources and fire up the computer, let alone actually research and write the article. Yet, that is the rate many of us are paid. Why do we accept it? Because it is often the only “gig in town” for the subjects we like to write about.

Sure, there are $1-a-word and higher rates around for some national or international publications, and I’ve written for some of them. However, the competition for space is intense and you cannot depend on getting an assignment every time you think you have a good idea.

Now, with the advent of the Internet and the World Wide Web, there are a lot more writing opportunities. However, many of those opportunities pay very little if anything at all. I am often approached by web sites to send them stories, either new or previously published, without any mention of how much they are willing to pay. When I question them about fees, they quote me some low-ball figure (“beer money” as one publisher told me) or tell me that publishing with them for free will increase my media profile (as if their site is God’s gift to public relations).

So, the question is often asked, especially by writers trying to break into the business, “when should I write for free?” My glib answer is “never”, but if truth be known, that answer would by hypocritical on my part. I often write for free, especially for non-profit organizations with whom I’m associated. However, I do this as sparingly as possible, always placing my “paying” projects in highest priority. That is what you must do if you are truly trying to become a so-called “professional”, i.e., earn a living from your writing.

But if you are trying to break into the business and have little or no record of publication, writing for free on the Internet or in low-budget printed publications is a temptation. Having publication credits on your resume is important. I just caution that you should make sure the publication truly cannot afford to pay you (struggling non-profits being the best examples) and that you receive ample credit for your work and that you give them “first-time rights” only. In other words, you want to be able to sell that piece to another publication on the remote chance they see it and wish to reproduce it. Understanding your copyrights is fundamental to being a successful writer!

So, how do you know whether a publication cannot afford to pay you? Do your research. Are they truly not-for-profit? On the website where your piece will appear, for example, is there advertising? If so, who is advertising? Many sites—especially for-profit businesses—requesting writing pieces for little or no fees have advertisers whom you know are paying big bucks to be there. If your writing is going to help drive visitors to their web site (and hence to the sites of the advertisers), why are you not getting a piece of that advertising revenue? Sure, such exposure might be beneficial for your business profile, but should you be subsidizing a business with your free writing? You know the business paid good money to have the web site developed and pays a fee to have it published; why should your writing not be part of that cost? If they cannot afford to pay for your writing, perhaps they should not be publishing it.

The bottom line for me is indeed the bottom line. I have only so many hours in the day/week/month to do my writing. Although I want my work to be published and read (whether in print or on the web), I also want to make money from it. Thus, I only do minimal “free” writing. It has to be for non-profits, it must not interfere with my for-profit work, and I must be committed enough to do a good job for minimal research.

How much free writing you do is a personal as well as a business decision. If you must put food on your table with the money you earn from your writing, then business trumps personal much of the time. The development of a business plan (where you establish goals and objectives and plan how to reach them) will back this up. If, however, you are not concerned about making a living—perhaps writing as a hobby or to supplement your income—then writing-for-free may indeed be beneficial, if just to get your name in public view.


From → The Biz

  1. Great post, Don.

    It is such a difficult situation that you describe, and unfortunately … many of us writers find ourselves in a situation similar to what you describe.

    I might just mention that just b/c a site has advertising, doesn’t mean the advertising has been paid for. I know of more than one site that has given gratis advertising just to make it “look” like they have paid advertisers in the hope it will indeed attract some.

    May we all get paid with much more than … exposure.

  2. Good point, Doreen. And that’s why we need to do our research. Some of the sites I’m talking about receive a fair amount of revenue from the clicks their advertisers receive as a result of the number of visitors to the web site. Why do they come? To read the articles. The writer should be paid.

    • Right on, Don! I’m totally with you on that.

      It’s gotten so hard now to make it in the periodical market. You can no longer resell, as most markets buy all rights (incl web rights) which makes the article unsalable to other markets. And so many online markets pay such peanuts it’s hardly worth the while. But then that “exposure” thing comes into play and we sometimes make decisions today that we never would have made only 2 years ago.

      I’d been hoping that making the move into book writing would free me up from succumbing to the “game” but unfortunately … it hasn’t.

      Yours in solidarity,

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