Writing For Free: Is It Worth It?

Last summer, around the same time that I began to seriously pursue my dream of writing about travel for a living, I started following several travel blogs.

One of those sites was Written Road – the blog with the “inside scoop to the travel publishing world” — and in July, not long after I started keeping up with Nicholas and Abha’s posts there, an interesting debate got going. The question was: should aspiring travel writers offer their services for free?

River Typewriter
© f/1.4

(Almost) One Year Later

At the time, I came down on the side of the write-for-free folks, but since I didn’t have much experience with paid (or unpaid!) travel writing at the time, I wasn’t certain that I was getting it right.

Now it’s almost one year later, and my, how things change.

I’ve just quit my job, given notice on my apartment, and plunged headlong into the world of full-time freelance travel writing — months, if not years, sooner than I had expected. And I’ve gotten to this point through a mixture of paid and unpaid writing jobs. Thinking back to that debate over at Written Road recently, I wondered: Had writing for free substantially helped to advance my career? If it had, did that mean that writing for free was “worth it” for all the other aspiring writers out there?

The answer to the first question is: “Yes, absolutely.”

The answer to the second question? “Well”¦ it depends.”

Clips, Contacts, Exposure and Expertise

When there’s no money changing hands, what’s in it for the writer?

Clips, for a start. No paying publication is likely to take a totally untested writer seriously — particularly if they only accept queries. Clips or no, if you have the talent you can always blow an editor’s mind with an amazing on spec submission, but a query letter accompanied only by your twelfth-grade write-up of the city basketball championships is unlikely to land you an assignment. Writing for free for a small community paper or (more likely) an independent web magazine will give you published pieces to attach to your queries as writing samples.

The next two prizes, contacts and exposure, go hand in hand. The online travel writing world is much smaller than you think. If you’re writing for a site with even moderate traffic, chances are an editor of a paying publication may be reading your work, and — if they like what they see — remembering your name. Even more directly, the editors of these small, non-paying web magazines often have contacts higher up on the revenue scale. If they like the work you do for them, they’re more than likely to help you out if they’re able, with a recommendation or an introduction. My (unpaid) work for Vagablogging has already more than paid for itself, thanks to an introduction to the features editor at one of Canada’s largest newspapers.

There’s a “but” coming, though.

While writing for any website will give you clips and some exposure, not all unpaid writing gigs are equal. Obviously, the greater the reputation of a non-paying publication, the more benefit to you as one of their writers. If you’re writing for that cool indie site that everyone who’s anyone is reading, then you’re getting more than just a writing sample — you’re getting a reputation you can build a career on.

Need an example? For awhile now I’ve been contributing movie reviews to Not Coming To A Theater Near You. The site doesn’t pay, but it is becoming a minor name in the small world of film criticism, and has gotten kudos from publications as diverse as Bitch, Nerve, and Entertainment Weekly. Recently, all the good buzz paid off when one of our contributing editors was recruited as a film critic for TimeOut London. (As the creator of the site put it: next time we see Tom, beers are on him.)

So the key is to choose wisely. Write for sites that impress you, and that you think will impress others. Equally important: when writing for free, you should be writing about the things that you really want to write about.

Pen on paper pad
Killing Writer’s Block © Mayr

Which brings me to the last benefit on the list: expertise. Writing for free can often be the quickest and easiest way to build up your expertise in the field(s) of your choice, to improve your chances of writing about the things you care about down the line. Going back to the example of movie reviews: I knew I wanted to write about movies, so I started a blog about my favorite genre. I used the clips from that unpaid exercise to land a higher-profile gig with Not Coming To A Theater Near You. Then I used those clips to help get some of my earliest paid writing assignments. And I now get paid to write about travel movies for World Hum!

Give some serious thought to what you really want your writing to be about. Green travel? Budget travel? Art museums around the world? If you can find a site (or start one yourself) that lets you write about the subjects that inspire you, then it may well be worth writing for them, even if they don’t pay. If they have a large readership and a good reputation, even better.

Exploitation and Solidarity

I was distressed by the idea that by writing for free, I might be the freelance travel writing equivalent of a scab.

Many of the objections to unpaid travel writing in the original Written Road thread dealt with the idea that writing for free a) exploits the writers themselves, while web editors profit, and b) undermines the efforts of other writers to get paid for their work. As grand-niece to a whole family of General Motors assembly line workers, I’m a good union girl — and I was distressed by the idea that by writing for free, I might be the freelance travel writing equivalent of a scab.

Again, the solution is to choose your unpaid gigs wisely. Does the site have more ads than content? Does the editor have a day job, or is she living entirely off the profits from your work? Many of the highest-quality online travel sites are labors of love, and no one is getting rich from them. I don’t think that contributing to those sorts of sites can be described as exploitation.

As for the idea that writing for free drives down wages for paid gigs, well, I’m still not sure I know enough about the industry to say for sure. But the “labors of love” that I described above are certainly not in direct competition with paying publications like Conde Nast Traveler — I’d be surprised if any big-time glossy magazine editors sit around thinking, “But Mike from Vagabondish doesn’t have to pay his writers ”¦ So why should we?” Volunteering to write for free for a pub that has money, and that ordinarily pays writers — now that would be driving down the market.

Full Disclosure

Today, even without the safety net of my day job, I still make time for several unpaid writing gigs — ones that meet the criteria I’ve described above. They include Vagabondish, Vagablogging, Not Coming To A Theater Near You, and two of my own blogs, Chick Flicks: The Good, The Bad, and The Fugly and The Soul Archive.

For more on the pros and cons of writing for free, check out Abha’s follow-up post to that original Written Road debate, Should You Write For Free? WR Asks The Experts.

13 Responses

  1. Jamie

    Thanks Eva for such a thoughtful post about such a volatile issue. For me, writing well is it’s own reward. What’s even more gratifying is earning money doing something I like so well I’d it for free.

    Reply
  2. Cass

    Thanks for such a great article! As a writer, you could say I’m just starting out, but this article was great in highlighting some great ideas and ways to get started, and where it could lead!

    Reply
  3. Amanda Kendle

    I agree with pretty much everything you say, Eva, and personally I never write for free and I never have. But I have definitely written for very little when the potential benefits were there … and I hate negotiating about money so I’m still probably worth more than I charge :-(

    Reply
  4. Hal

    Great insights, Eva. I’m certainly no expert, but I’d say exposure alone is justification for unpaid work. If you’ve got talent and put it out there often enough, it’s bound to lead to something more.

    Reply
  5. M.J.

    Eva, great article! It has lots of good advice for writers. I especially like your section about exploitation.

    Unfortunately, I can say there are scabs in the industry. I know of one case where a so-called web publishing company fired a good portion of its writing staff and used cheap content instead.

    I doubt this is the case with most companies but it certainly made me re-think my ethics as a writer. If I’m submitting my writing to websites like Ezines or Helium, I have no control over who is using my content and how.

    Another reason not to work for free: If you want to join a freelance writers association (which is great for networking and finding gigs), you’ll need to prove you’ve been paid for your work.

    Reply
  6. Will

    So…when you say free, you mean for no monetary compensation.

    Every writing gig you take though, you expect some sort of…payment, whether in the form of money or exposure or hell, even something as simple as emotional satisfaction. My answer to the question…Well, mom was right. You’ll only get out of something what you put in to it.

    Reply
  7. Anil

    I think that a blanket statement about sites that don’t pay taking advantage of people doesn’t acknowledge that (a) many people like to write as a hobby in their spare time and are happy to have their writing published on the net, and (b) many of the sites are run by people as a hobby in their spare time.
    As far as I am aware, none of the people that have contributed to my site is looking to earn a living through writing. Most of them have their own blogs, travel-related or otherwise, and I include feeds from these alongside their articles. I don’t think this is exploiting them…if my site was making me a heap of money through advertising it would be a different matter.
    I understand the concerns professional writers have about being undermined, but I think we need to make a distinction between people looking to earn a living from writing, and the many extremely competent ‘amateur’ writers out there who simply want their writing to be read by as many people as possible.

    Reply

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