Want to be a writer?
The good news is that there are endless outlets for folks who want to see their work in print (or in pixels) and are just getting started in the business. Science Daily estimates that 90 percent of all the world’s data has been generated in just the past two years – and a significant chunk of that is written. It’s writing. Someone wrote it. Why not you?
The bad news is that most of these outlets will exploit the crap out of you if you let them. Yes, I’m talking about working for free.
Here’s the first thing you need to understand about writing for free:
1. You are doing work.
Writing is work. It’s work no matter how much you love it. You are expending time, effort, and attention to create something that does not currently exist.
Here’s the second thing you need to understand about writing for free:
2. Your time, effort, and attention are valuable.
Yes, even if you’re having “fun.” You get a finite number of minutes per lifetime; you have a finite amount of energy to expend on things you do in your day.
Which brings us to the third thing you need to understand about writing for free:
3. It’s you giving charity.
Your time, effort, and attention are valuable. When you focus them to produce a piece of writing, that writing has value. When you give that writing away without being compensated for it, you are giving charity. It’s a gift. And like all gifts, you are not obligated to give it.
Naturally, a lot of companies realize that simply asking people to give them charity doesn’t fly. So “write for us for free!” is often (though not always!) masked with other terms, like “on spec” or my personal favorite, “for exposure.”
What do these terms mean? When should you write for free, and when should you avoid it? Here’s what you need to know:
For some reason, poetry is the most popular form of writing for gift purposes, although gift writing may also be in the form of fiction or a heartfelt letter. It tends to be deeply personal and not actually published.
Pros: Handmade gifts demonstrate caring! and attention!
Cons: It’s easier, though maybe not cheaper, to buy stuff.
When to do it: When you want to give a person or organization, whom you know and care about personally, something with individual meaning.
What to look out for: Is the recipient actually going to appreciate the time, effort, and attention you put into their gift? If so, go for it. If not, consider regifting that smelly hand lotion your aunt Edna buys you every Christmas.
Everybody has a blog these days, but not everyone updates regularly (see, for example, this blog). While it is possible to monetize a blog, you should treat it in its initial stages as a form of unpaid writing.
Pros: You’re passionate about a particular topic; you like noodling around with new ideas in a public space; you’re already using a bloggable platform to host other stuff, like writing samples or your CV.
Cons: Remembering to update your blog can easily get lost in the shuffle of other things you need to do. Moderating comments can be a pain. And there’s always the nasty shock of finding out someone else on the Internet has lifted entire sections of your blog without permission.
When to do it: When you want to establish your own writing “home” on the Internet; when you want to start building a reputation on a particular topic; when you just can’t shut up about a personal passion; when you want to retain creative control of your work.
What to look out for: Remember to update regularly, maintain a quasi-professional tone, and try not to let blogging get in the way of paying work.
Contests and “Nonpaying” Literary Venues
This form of writing “for free” most often pops up in the literary world: in literary journals, magazines, and the like. A great many literary journals don’t pay their contributors, mostly due to budget reasons; contests can be run by literally anyone, and some of them are quite skeevy in nature.
Pros: Many small literary journals are nonpaying but perfectly legitimate, well-recognized venues for beginning writers. Some small contests, especially those run by legitimate literary journals, also fall into this category.
Cons: Many literary journals pay. Many “contests” are scams.
When to do it: If you’ve done your research and you’re certain that (a) your resume will be bolstered by the line this contest/publication can provide and (b) your work is the right fit for the publication/contest. (If it’s the wrong fit, you’re wasting your time and annoying the editors.)
What to look out for: Contests that want you to pay to enter or that claim you won something when neither you nor anyone you know entered your work. The latter in particular are almost certainly going to pressure you to buy some very expensive certificate, plaque, or “anthology” full of similar suckers.
So you’ve been reading ads for freelance writers, and you’ve run across one (or more than one) asking you to send work “on spec.” “On spec” is a fancy way of saying “for free.” You write what they want, you send it, and they either decide to hire you or they don’t.
Pros: Believe it or not, “I might get hired” is not in the pro category here, because….
Cons: You probably won’t get hired. An increasing number of “on spec” demands are thinly-veiled excuses to scam free work from newbie freelancers. Even if you’re hired, you will probably never be paid for the “spec” piece.
When to do it: Don’t. Good clients – the kind who know how to work fairly with freelancers – will accept an already-existing piece from your portfolio. Good clients will actually prefer an already-existing piece if it is one you have placed successfully, and for pay, with another client.
If you don’t have anything in your portfolio? Write something in the same genre(s) the potential client is looking for. Don’t pretend you placed it for pay when you didn’t; lying to potential clients is bad, and the writing world is much smaller than you think. Simply send the sample or a link to your portfolio.
What to look out for: “Send us this piece and if we like it we’ll pay you” is “on spec” with a (still probably imaginary) cookie. Instead of “on spec,” get an agreement to be paid for a trial piece. They still get to choose whether or not to hire you, and you still get paid for the work you did, even if you don’t land the contract.
As you build a reputation through blogging or other means, you may get approached by a large outlet asking you to write for them or allow them to republish one of your pieces. They’ll explain that they can’t possibly pay you, but you’ll get “great exposure!”
Pros: If the “exposure” is worthwhile, it’s because the outlet has major name recognition. (The biggest name in the “for exposure” game right now is the Huffington Post. That’s a resume line people notice.)
Cons: If the “exposure” is worthwhile, it’s because the outlet has major name recognition – and thus has the ability to pay you, just not the will. In other words, “exposure” is charity at best and exploitation at worst.
When to do it: When you believe so strongly in the outlet’s work that you feel good about giving them charity, no matter how large their budget is.
What to look out for: Triple-check that you are merely licensing the outlet’s use of the piece, not handing over your copyright. Giving some one-time charity is one thing; padding their bottom line indefinitely is another. And insist that they link back to your blog or professional website!