When to write for free (and when to say no!)

My friend Kate over at This Mom Loves has written an awesome series on freelance writing.
Take some time and read her thoughts, suggestions, experiences (good and bad) and expertise here.

I have very little to add to what Kate said- we have had very similar experiences in our freelancing adventures with Kate and I both getting pretty steady freelance writing gigs (hers at a national magazine, mine at a newspaper) around the same time.

However, I want to tackle one question surrounding freelance writing that I get asked over and over again by new writers: When should I write for free? (or sometimes it's phrased as When should I ask for payment?)

A lot of freelancers will tell you "never ever write for free"- and that is a true answer.  Writers need to be valued and paid for their work; however, I think saying an unequivocal NEVER is a bit short-sighted.

Writing for free is not something I would do at this point in my writing "career" but it was something I did to help me get started. I understand that once you have been paid for a few articles writing for free is almost unthinkable- as it should be. But when you are just beginning to dip your toe into the freelance writing pool, writing for free may be something you entertain.

So when do I think you should think about writing for free?

ONE: When you have no experience
If you are just starting out and you do not have a single clip to show an editor, you may need to write for free. Look at a website that you love (UrbanMoms, YummyMummyClub, ElephantJournal, etc.) and submit a piece. You likely won't be paid for it, but you will be able to say you have been published and you have something to show an editor- that helps a lot when you're pitching!
Another option is to write an opinion piece for a newspaper. They will not pay you, but if they print it-especially if it is a national newspaper- you will be more likely to catch another editor's eye.
Truth: I wrote this opinion piece for the National Post for free. Three weeks later, I was asked to write this column for the Sun (for free). A month later I had a regular, paying columnist job. I would not have been offered that column if I hadn't written (2 columns total) for free.

TWO: When you need the exposure
Again, seasoned writers would likely never write for free even for the largest magazines, websites and newspapers across the globe (and they shouldn't). But sometimes exposure is what a freelancer needs to take the next step in their writing career- I am thinking especially of writers that didn't go to journalism school and do not have the credibility of a school to back up their abilities OR"experts" (teachers, psychologists, nutritionists) looking to up their clout and "expertise" through writing.
I have seen writers benefit greatly from writing one or two pieces for the HuffingtonPost, for example, simply because it gives them national exposure and (in some eyes) credibility.
Every once in a while "exposure" or name recognition is worth writing for free.

THREE:  On your blog
Yes, I said it. I really believe that writers need a blog- at the very least a viable online presence- when they are starting out. Although I have written before about how I often don't edit my blog (I SHOULD but, time!) any blog writing should be treated like a portfolio or an audition.
Write as often or as little as you choose but use your blog as a way to suss out ideas, share, make connections and practice your writing craft.
I received my first paid writing gig 3 months after I began Sleeping Is For Losers- the only clip I had to show that editor was my blog. She told me that reading through my posts gave her a good sense of my writing style and abilities,  and she took a chance on me! Four years later, I still write for that editor every single month!

So, yes you should write for free at times if you are just starting out- but I do have some rules:

RULE ONE: Set a limit
If you are writing for free for a publication on a regular basis, set a limit as to how often you will do it before requesting payment. This will be different for everyone but I would not write more than a handful of times for the same publication before requesting compensation. If they say they cannot pay you or they're not sure- WALK. Value yourself and your writing and refuse to write more than one to three pieces for free, no matter what the publication is!

RULE TWO: Always pitch"paid" first
I feel like I should BOLD and UNDERLINE this entire section because it's the most important piece of advice I can give!
Who cares if you're new to freelance writing? If you have a good story idea, do not give it away for free if there is the possibility of payment! PITCH, PITCH, PITCH! If, after exhausting paid publications (and following up with editors!), you still want to write the story and have it published, offer it to unpaid publications. But ALWAYS pitch paying outlets first. Writers (that's you!) deserve to get paid!

RULE THREE: When you feel irritated about it - STOP!
If you are frustrated that you are writing for free, then don't do it!!!!!!!
Trust your gut- if you have a few clips under your best (at least 2-3 to show an editor when you pitch) then don't write for free. Have enough courage to say no. As I see it, you only have so much time, creativity, imagination, etc. and you don't want to waste awesome story ideas on publications that refuse to pay you.

And to answer the question when should I ask for payment?  Always. Always. Always.

Before you write, ask what the renumeration is. If the outlet does not provide you with a contract (something paying publications- including online- should always do), ask the editor what they pay. Don't say do you pay your writers? Instead ask WHAT do you pay your writers? or WHAT is the renumeration for this piece?

If you want to be paid, then ask for it. If they say that they do not pay, walk away.

It's tough out there for freelancers. There are a lot of good writers and there is a lot of competition. But one thing I am learning is that you have to believe in your ability, and part of that means being able to say no to unpaid (or, even, underpaid) writing gigs. Freelance writing is a business and, well, you can't expect to stay in business long if you're not making any money!

Long and short: writing for free is not good- I don't recommend it- but occasionally it is worth it as it allows you to show off or "audition" your skills. Just do not get caught in the trap of undervaluing your worth as a writer and put very strict limits on yourself if you do, indeed, choose to write for free!

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