This past year, I finally gained the courage to launch into a full-time freelance writing career. While I’m happy, I feel a bit guilty because I arrived in part by breaking the first rule of freelancing: Thou shalt not work for free. By sharing my story, I hope that other aspiring freelancers understand the rare cases where writing for low or no pay can improve your shot at future paid writing gigs.
Anyone who’s dipped their toes into the freelancing pool knows that writers are subject to more scammers than you knew existed. Sometimes it feels as though an aspiring writer is a frightened fawn, unprotected in a forest full of hungry wolves.
Many writers settle for low pay, assuming that their work isn’t worth a monetary reward, and agree to write that 500-word post about the 10 Best Ways to (insert here), hoping that it leads to something better. Others find themselves in the ghettos of the content mills, writing uninspiring SEO garbage for barely enough to buy lunch.
First, admit that your writing has value, then kick these types to the curb. This type of free writing won’t lead to better opportunities.
My Freebie Exception
When starting out, I found myself in a situation familiar to many beginning writers: I had no clips. I pitched and queried my heart out, with not so much as a response from a paying market. Meanwhile, I found myself interested in local politics and showed up regularly to any political gathering that I could.
That’s when I had a light-bulb moment.
One of the rallies I attended concerned homelessness issues in the city of Boston. I was familiar with a local publication, The Spare Change News, that focused on news affecting the homeless. Figuring that they would be interested in the rally, I emailed a quick pitch to the editor. Within a half hour, he answered me back. I wrote up a summary of the rally, interviewed a few folks and jumped in elation as I finally saw my name in print.
Since then, I’ve attracted regular clients in the journalism field using my Spare Change clips. I hadn’t originally intended on using the article for anything. I just wanted to write. But in this case, volunteering my time paid off.
When to Write for Free
There are always times when it’s okay to break the rules and writing for free is no exception. But if you’re going to write for free, the work should satisfy the following conditions:
1. You personally support the organization
Many small non-profits genuinely don’t have funds to pay writers. These organizations rely on volunteer work to carry out their operations. Just as in any volunteer work, donate your writing time if you support their cause.
2. The organization doesn’t profit off your work
No one should make money off your work if you don’t. It doesn’t matter if your work will be read by thousands. By providing free work, you enable the race to the bottom to continue, diminishing your chances for good-paying work in the future.
3. The work will benefit your portfolio
Make sure that the task aligns with your writing goals. If you aspire to be a healthcare blogger, it makes no sense to take on a free job writing about Pokemon Go. Think about the clips that your ideal client would like to see.
Your time is the scarcest resource of all. Value your time as you would your money and never allow others to take advantage of your talents.
Bio: Joel Foster is a Tucson-based freelance journalist, blogger, and screenwriter. He mainly lives in the shadows as a spooky ghostwriter so you may have read his work and not even known it. You can find him at https://joelfosterblog.wordpress.com/ or on Twitter @Foster978.