Writing is work. And for some lucky writers, it becomes a profession, a way to trade words for dollars to make a living. Freelance writers often work by the mantra Never write for free — it tends to lower the amount that publications and sites are willing to pay for content, and it takes time away from paid writing, so the prevailing wisdom is to steer clear.
Yet for those of us who are less established, writing for free is sometimes a temptation and sometimes even a necessity. I’m not willing to give the blanket advice of “Sure, writing for free is no problem!” but here are two cases where it makes sense and two where it doesn’t.
Personally, I find myself writing for free:
When it’s social media. If I’m putting words into my computer that other people are going to read, to me, that’s writing. So I count Twitter and Facebook as writing I do for free. I was on a panel recently with several other authors, and when the conversation turned to social media, they each said they didn’t find social media worth their time. Which is fine! It’s a choice. I choose to use it to connect with readers and other authors, but I’m always mindful that this is writing time, and I’m using it to further my professional goals (while, of course, having some fun).
When I’m expanding my reach. At this point, I’m primarily a novelist, not an essayist, and no one’s going to mistake me for Meghan Daum or Roxane Gay. Pitching essays to highly competitive magazines or websites is both time-consuming and low-yield — it can take two months to hear a no, and it’s almost always no, if I even hear back at all. (Queriers, sound familiar?) So I’m building a portfolio with outlets that pay less, or even nothing, as long as they reach the audience I’m trying to reach.
Here’s when I pull myself back and say no, either it’s paid writing or it’s no writing:
When unpaid writing time cuts into my paid writing time. At this point, I’m primarily a novelist, and my third book for Sourcebooks is due to my editor in a few months. If I spend too much time pitching and writing listicles and guest posts as well as keeping up a stream of content on social media, no matter what audience those activities get me in the short term, in the long term that audience will go away.
When the same content would yield either more readers or more dollars elsewhere. I love to write guest posts for book bloggers, other authors, writing sites — especially this one! — but there has to be a limit somewhere. If I’m invited to guest blog somewhere, I do usually do a quick survey of the blog in question to see whether it appears to have an active group of engaged users, whether that means a lively comment section, Twitter followers, YouTube subscribers, etc. If my time is constrained (see above about the deadline) I may choose to decline the invitation.
Q: Do you write for free? Under what conditions?