Will Writing for Free Hurt Your Writing Career?
Storytelling Communications

Will Writing for Free Hurt Your Writing Career?

I have a confession to make. My very first post-school writing credit was something I did not get paid for. When I was starting my writing career, I contributed a short story to an anthology. To be fair, I was supposed to be paid a share of the royalties split with all the authors in the book. Unfortunately, the publisher went out of business, and the book made so little money that the royalties were not worth processing and were donated to charity. I imagine the money paid for a few reams of paper and a box of pens before it ran out. What did I get out of the deal? A publishing credit and a copy of the book to display on my shelf. Would I do it again? I don’t know.

A Chance to Gain Experience

Writing for free is a hot topic these days, and it has been particularly since Nate Thayer and The Atlantic got into a publicized debate after he was asked to contribute to the site for free. According to Mediabistro, journalists around the country began weighing in, and they were fairly split on the issue.

Many people consider unpaid writing to be akin to unpaid internships, as Ann Friedman does at the Columbia Journalism Review. This is a good analogy in some ways. Young or inexperienced writers work for free in exchange for experience, exposure, and a chance to hone their skills. But let’s not forget the growing debate about the ethics of unpaid internships. It’s possible this type of unpaid work is going the way of the dodo.

Who’s Making Money From Your Writing?

Many publications ask for free writing because they can’t afford to pay their freelance contributors and they consider the exposure that the writer receives to be good compensation. After all, you’re building your portfolio and personal brand by writing for them. But consider this conundrum: a smaller publication probably legitimately can’t afford to pay you. But if they’re so small, will you really further your writing career by giving them content? A larger publication will give you more prestige. But if they’re so big, can they really not afford to pay you?

Another factor to consider is how you’ll feel when you write for free for a successful publication. If the site is making money and you’re not, you may begin to feel resentful of the time you donated to write that piece. Derek Thomson at The Atlantic states that saving money by not paying freelancers frees up money for staff writers. It’s great that the publication wants to pay its staff as much as it can. You’ll have to think carefully about this, however, before you contribute free writing to a site that pays for some of its content.

Your Best-Quality Work

Your time is valuable, and you may not want—or be able to afford—to spend days researching and crafting a piece for free. Remember that all time spent on unpaid work is time that you’re taking away from potential paid opportunities. It’s tempting to compromise and think it’s okay to write lesser-quality content for free and save your hard work for paying gigs. Don’t do that. If your byline is on a piece, your writing should always be of the highest quality you can achieve. Your readers don’t know if you’ve been paid, or how much. All they see is your name and your content. Don’t damage your personal brand by submitting anything you don’t stand by.

“If your byline is on a piece, your writing should always be the highest quality you can achieve.”

If you decide to write for free, you may decide to only cover topics for which you already have a solid knowledge base. This will help you minimize your unpaid writing time while still producing high-quality content.

So, should you write for free? I can’t tell you. When you’re starting your writing career, you may see it as a way to gain experience and exposure. Just make sure you’re getting something out of the deal, whether it’s money, prestige, exposure, or new connections.

Interested in building a writing career that pays? Join Skyword’s community of contributing writers to get connected with the world’s best brands.

Recommended for you