Should Writers Ever Write for Free
Never write for free.
It’s something drilled into newbie freelance writers. Charge accordingly. Know your worth. Don’t sell yourself short.
But how does one know one’s worth when one’s just beginning?
There’s always that nagging voice that says you’re not worth anything, especially when you’ve been on the freelance writing wagon for a while, and it hasn’t moved an inch.
If you charge your perceived worth as a beginner and refuse to take a penny less, then it’ll be more difficult getting your foot in the door.
There always seems to be people with more experience willing to do the same job for less.
It’s all very well going the cold-emailing route, but it’s time consuming, dull, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll ever get a bite. Is that really the best use of your time?
So what do we do?
Surely the only options we have left are to either get a bit of experience working for $0.0025 per word or get to work pitching magazines for guest posting opportunities?
Why I avoid content mills (now)
Content mills can be awesome places to find freelance work for beginners. I’ve done it.
I actually made decent money for a while — someone wanted a whole load of info articles on household appliances, and they asked me to write them all. Great.
Unfortunately, there’s a finite number of white goods to write about, and that stream dried up quickly.
It’s not the content mills themselves that are the issue, it’s the input/output that I have a lot of issue with. Content mills are too limiting and stressful for the remuneration.
Sure, I could use those pieces to compile a basic portfolio, but not one that I was proud of, or that was niche-specific.
Content mills can be great if you need $10 in the next few days, but even then, that’s not guaranteed. Work ebbs and flows in a way that I, who thrives on routine and schedules, can’t deal with.
What about guest posting for free?
Guest posting can be a great way to add articles to your portfolio that best represent your skills.
You can write an awesome blog post or product review or whatever, and show potential clients what you can really do.
Some publications will even pay you for your piece but bear in mind that those magazines that have been featured in those ‘100 places that will pay you $100 for your writing’ articles are extremely saturated.
Editors probably dread those blog posts.
Guest posting is only useful if you can find a publication that is valued by your potential clients.
And it can take a lot of time and effort to find them — before you even go through the whole pitching process.
It’s not that I think that process is inherently bad, it’s that I’ve found that it interrupts my writing flow.
Rather than proactively getting on with working towards writing goals, I’m subconsciously waiting for the editors to get back to me. I get that little tight knot of excitement/nerves in my belly that dehydrates any creative juices.
When a month passes and I hear nothing, I’m deflated.
Even if they accept you, what have you really gained? A link to another publication you can put on your website. That thousands of other writers also have.
My point is that you have to put in so much (often unpaid) work to gain… very little if you go the guest posting route.
Think of the articles you could have written for your own site in that time.
Sample articles for free? Is that ok?
Sometimes I’ll apply for a freelance writing job and they’ll ask for a writing sample. Nowadays they’re often paid — great.
But even the unpaid ones can be worth doing — under certain circumstances.
If you have free reign to write whatever you want — great.
If you have to write a specific piece that you think you can repurpose — go for it.
But anything that’ll take up a lot of your time, and isn’t worth having on your personal website should be avoided. Take the time and write something for yourself instead.
Reputable companies shouldn’t require a writing sample, especially if they’re not willing to pay you for it. They either like the articles in your portfolio or they don’t.
You absolutely should write for free in these situations
- If you want to
Do NOT feel bad because you’re perfectly happy to write for free. Just maybe do it for yourself, on your own site, rather than devaluing your profession by offering to write 1000-word articles for a tenner.
Also, what about fiction? If you won’t write that great novel you’ve been thinking about since you were 13 for free, then you’re maybe not cut out to be a writer.
There’s a difference between writing an article for someone else for free, and writing for yourself.
You see, if you spend four hours writing an unpaid sample for someone else that doesn’t align with your niche, that time has been wasted. Is getting the job going to enable you to recoup your losses?
Your own website
I spent a lot of my time as a freelance writer not writing.
I was too busy trying to find people to pitch, email addresses, and researching how to make money quickly as a freelance writer.
It took a toll on my mental health. Pitching isn’t for the thinned skinned, and I like to take every single rejection to heart. Every rejection made me question my dedication to writing.
So I stopped pitching and concentrated on writing for myself. I eschewed social media and Pinterest and went the SEO route.
Getting traffic to my website gave me the confidence to go back to trawling the job boards.
And guess what? A lot of people that write the ads looking for writers aren’t exactly sure what they’re looking for. They have to read hundreds of identikit portfolios. You need to stand out.
If you put that your website got x number of newsletter sign-ups in a month, that will IMMEDIATELY set you apart from the crowd. Make it easy for the editors to pick you.
Yes, you’ll have to write for free, and yes, you’ll have to be incredibly patient.
But pitching becomes a lot easier. These companies will not care that you’ve only ever written for yourself before. All they care about is that you know your niche, and you get results.
I no longer care (as much) about rejection. I know that I could have added value to that company. In fact, I turn down jobs frequently if I see any red flags. It’s just not worth it. The time would be better spent working on my own site.
And, of course, there’s the potential to monetise. Add some affiliate links, maybe sell an ebook, or host some ads. Articles that you wrote years ago can generate a little (or a lot) of passive income for years to come.
So, should you ever write for free?
Absolutely, but for yourself.
Don’t think of it as writing for free, think of it as building a passive income stream. Passive income generation requires either a lot of work or a lot of cash before it starts coming in. You’re just in the setting-up stage atm.
It’s a lengthy process, and it does require a lot of work. But so does building a career charging $0.02 per word on UpWork, and that’ll burn you out a lot quicker. And on your own website, you can write about whatever you want.
I understand that I was privileged: I still worked my day job whilst I built my writing career. I would definitely advocate going the side hustle route, rather than going all in. It’s neither quick nor easy to gain traction as a freelance writer.
If you do have the option to build a personal website on the side of freelancing, I highly, highly recommend it.