Creative Stuff, For Writers

When it’s OK to Write for Free

If you’re in the creative industries, you’ve likely encountered the following:

“I can’t pay you, but it’d be great exposure!”

When you hear this you should turn and run.

Most of the time.

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Here are some of the reasons a client might not pay you:

  1. They think the opportunity will boost your career so much that payment is unnecessary
  2. They assume that you love what you do so much that you’re happy just to be asked
  3. They believe that hitching your writing to their brand is compensation enough

It boils down to something I like to call ‘The Byline Bribe’

When you’re a young writer, building up a portfolio, it’s easy to be swayed by the idea of simply getting your name out there at all costs.

But seeing your name in print doesn’t put food on the table.

Exposure is good, yes, but money is better.

And undervaluing your talents only does you and your fellow writers a disservice.

Because if everyone starts working for free (or for pennies on the dollar) there’s a race to the bottom and no-one wins.

Not the client, not the writer and definitely not the writer’s bank account.

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Having said that, there are (a few) times when working for free is acceptable.

When you’re a student.

Back when I was getting my journalism degree, I made contact with a few magazines and newspapers to find a home for my work.

I had very little training and zero experience so there was no way anyone was going to give me a paid gig. At least not until I’d proved myself.

So I submitted little bits and pieces  – music and book reviews, news pieces for the local paper – nothing too onerous or time-consuming.

If I’d stayed with one publication and consistently produced good quality copy then I’d have asked for money down the line, but at that point it was entirely appropriate to work on a volunteer basis.

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When you’re certain it will lead to better things

This one’s tricky.

Because if you’re going to give up your time, energy and skills for free then you have to be absolutely sure that it’ll pay off in the future.

If the outlet is so well-known and respected that having your byline in there would seriously jumpstart your career then do it.

Or if you want to sidestep into another industry and have been struggling to find a foothold. Do it.

Weigh up how much time and resources you’d have to invest, and how much you stand to benefit.

Communicate with the client to underline the fact that you don’t normally work for free, and will only do so if they can prove a benefit.

Perhaps work out a commitment with them for the future.

Spend some time carefully reflecting on your options and weighing up the pros and cons before jumping in.

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When you absolutely love it

I’m a regular contributor at a blogging site. It doesn’t pay. It doesn’t get my name in front of the right people. It won’t further my career.

But it’s really fun.

When you write for a living, it’s easy to forget that it can also be an enjoyable hobby as well as a pay cheque.

Sometimes it’s important just to write for the love of it.

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