Writing for free, indefinitely (Mistake #75)

I will say upfront that the decision on whether to write for free or not is yours and yours only. 

As someone who has been making his living from words for 16 years – writing, translating, editing, proof-reading, tutoring – part of me, admittedly, thinks giving away words for free undermines the business in which I’m in.

But the other part of me acknowledges, perhaps a bit grudgingly, that sometimes it either needs to be done, or is more excusable.

The usual reasons to do it mainly focus on new writers: exposure, profile, reader feedback, writing CV / portfolio, career. And these are valid. Others might include: for a charitable cause, for the sheer pleasure of it, or for a freebie of some kind (tickets to a gig, in exchange for a review, for instance). Fair enough.

When have I done it? For a posh meal. As a favour. These blogs! Several times to promote my food allergy and intolerance books, including overseas.

When would I never do it? I would absolutely never do it in a situation where copyright in the work was required. I have never come across it, apart from in writing competitions, and this would be a disgrace.

For new writers, my feeling on the subject is that you should never be afraid to broach the subject of money (I covered this in Shy About Money) and don’t necessarily believe that there isn’t any money to give you (covered in Accepting “we have no budget”). Being professional about the issue of money, even if you’re not getting any, conveys the message that you are treating this business seriously, and earning for your words is one of your goals.

I think the inexperienced fear it will make them look mercenary, but it will make you look professional. In a nutshell: always ask, and ask in a way that makes it tough to say no. Note the difference here: 

“Is there any chance of a little something from the budget in exchange for my piece?” (easy to say no to) 
“For how much should I make out the invoice?” (tough to say no to)

Don’t rush into a decision, and weigh up all the facts. Can you afford it? Will it take a lot of time? Is everyone else on the project getting paid? 

When to stop writing for free (which, as the title indicates, you should)? Once you’ve done a bit of pro bono work for a particular client, and you’ve got what you could get out of it, it may be time to move on. Confronted with a resignation, you’d be amazed how many editors suddenly find a few notes in their back pocket. The turning point might be when you begin to feel taken advantage of: it’s a rotten feeling, recognisable by all, and it’s unfair to put yourself through it for long.

While I agree it’s a selfish decision and you must look after number one, I would, though, urge you to keep the writing community as a whole a close number two. I once commented on a blog (I think it was Patsy Collins’) that when we do accept no pay (especially when we do it without a fight), it does, in a small way, contribute to the idea among editors that there are writers out there readily prepared to write for glory or exposure, which can, I guess, only encourage a mean or cash-strapped editor to go looking for a few more of them.

But the more we say ‘no thanks’ and the more we press for money, the more likely the idea that budgeting for writers is really, really important will seep through to editors’ and publishers’ minds, which will, I hope, encourage a mean or cash-strapped editor to be more prepared to spend some money or harass his publisher for a more generous budget.

And this ultimately benefits all of us.

Comments 9

  • I think the only time I've willingly donated my time to a project was with the Alzheimer's Association. Beyond that, they're paying up.

    That said, it's not uncommon to have friends or relatives ask for help. You give that freely. I've done resumes for friends and for family. I've looked over essays (not written them — I draw a very strong ethical line) for nieces and nephews struggling in English classes. I've written guest posts for other blogs (not as a full-time gig, but as a one-off). To me, those are good free projects.

    It's tough when you're starting out to think of your skills as worth something. They are. If someone is willing to take you on for free, there's more than likely a few people out there willing to pay you, for the talent is probably there.

    Good topic, Alex. Never an easy line to draw, either.

  • "If someone is willing to take you on for free, there's more than likely a few people out there willing to pay you, for the talent is probably there."

    Excellent point, Lori – thanks for the comment!


  • Thanks for the post, Alex! Love your spin on things.

  • The former chairman of my writing circle was adamant that you should never write for free. But maybe this sometimes ignores the real world situation prevailing at the moment and of course the online situation. But I agree it is up to the writer.

  • Thanks for the comment, Rob.
    I wonder whether any beginner writers have held out and never written for free – despite multiple requests / offers – and eventually 'made it'?
    Be interested to hear…

  • It may well have been on my blog that you made that point. I post details of free to enter writing competitions and other publication 'opportunities'. Some of these don't offer a cash reward. As you say, it's up to the individual writer if they want to take part.

    My own opinion is that although it's sometimes OK to write for no money, it's never OK to write for nothing at all. If the writer feels they're getting something in return – publicity perhaps, or a posh meal (I'd definitely consider that!) or maybe it helps their favourite good cause then that's a kind of payment. Even the warm fuzzy feeling of being published for the first time might be worth the price of the writer's time and effort.

  • "… although it's sometimes OK to write for no money, it's never OK to write for nothing at all"

    I like that quote a lot!

  • It is amazing how many publications, especially online, who expect writers to write for free. I was even surprised to find one of the national newspapers expecting travel articles for free. Now, surely they have a budget? That said, I have written for free, but only because I was getting something valuable out of it.

  • Thank you for all the wonderful information, and advice that you have supplied in your 'Mistakes' blog. I find them invaluable.

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