There is perhaps no other topic in the freelance writing world that generates more controversy than the concept of writers writing for free. Bring it up and lines in invisible sand are drawn, commenting spikes and in the case of Harlan Ellison, a few F-bombs are dropped.
It’s understandable. Shady publishers and editors prey on vunerable writers who want to see their names in print. Writers are constantly burned by “write for free now and earn later” promises in which “later” never comes.
However, in the angry buzz of the debate something gets lost. Choice and education. There will always be writers who consider using their talent without traditional compensation. Instead of helping writers make informed decisions, we as a community often take the abstinence-only approach – IT’S WRONG, NEVER DO IT.
Is it really free?
The first step to weighing a work-for-free option is to look at whether the project has any compensation opportunities. Writers work in exchange for items and services all the time. A little web content work in exchange for a new website. A little PR work in exchange for lessons from a yoga studio.
Just be sure that you follow three simple rules when bartering services:
- Set clear boundaries. Define the services you will provide and the services or products you expect in return. This prevents misunderstandings and keeps either party from taking advantage of the “freebie” situation.
- Determine cost. It should be expected that your standard rates are used for services you provide.
- Put it in writing. This is not only helpful for tax and business record purposes, it makes the transaction official and binding.
Is it for the greater good?
Wielding a hammer may not be some people’s idea of how they want to volunteer, but wielding a keyboard may feel just right. Providing writing services to help a charity or organization is a good thing. Sweating over a keyboard or a hot stove both take time and effort and each can be a great help to someone in need.
Are you prepared for the lack of payoff?
Writing for exposure. *Sigh* That’s a tricky one. Certain publications swear by it, but when their blog only reaches 12 people and four of those are family members, the “exposure” doesn’t help a writer one bit. Then you have the Huffington Post model: huge reach and definite opportunities for exposure. However, when the publication makes a deal for a large sum of money, whether it’s for advertising or through the sale of the blog, there will be writers who feel slighted when left out of the monetary windfall.
There is, of course, the possibility that exposure may never come. Before you get into an “exposure” deal,
- Use metrics to define success. How many blog hits, how many subsequent work requests, book sales, etc.
- Recognize and get comfortable with not being able to eat, spend or pay bills with exposure. Exposure has to translate into dollars through other avenues to be successful.
- Have a time limit and exit strategy. Give the exposure enough time to produce results, but have an end date in place if it doesn’t show signs of panning out.
Can you afford to do it?
Whether working in exchange for goods and services, as a volunteer or for “exposure,” carefully weigh the costs of the commitment. There are time costs, including time away from other business-growing opportunities, i.e. querying, working on gigs for other clients, etc. There are also actual costs: electricity, Internet, the standard writing rate… This is one of those tough choices that a writer has to make from a business perspective, especially if the project will be ongoing.
Most of the time I’m against writing for free. It distracts writers from doing things that can both further their careers and enable them to pay bills. Writing for experience can be accomplished while making money – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. There are, however, situations in which free can work out for writers though they are not as common as “job” listings would have you believe. It’s a personal, business decision that should be made with research and with realistic expectations.
Have you written for “free?” Why or why not? What other things should writers consider when weighing a non-traditional pay option?