Free writing can be a wonderful exercise where a writer sits down and writes without inhibitions. Writing for free, however, may be a completely different matter. Freelance writers can often be asked to write for free and/or produce "speculative/spec writing" and this can confuse and frustrate many a prospective, new, or established freelance writer.
When you consider a freelance writer's time, effort, and subject matter expertise, they should be paid a fair rate. Routinely, however, a freelance writer will be asked to create without compensation.
Novice freelancers or writers writing more for fun may be better able to accept unpaid work; however, more established writers can be more serious about their profession and need a steady income to keep the wolves from howling at their door. In my case, I—admittedly—have written for free and will still consider speculative opportunities—given a time and a place. It's all about being selective and determining other values (i.e. asking myself the question, "What's in this for me?"). Writing for free is not always detrimental.
Before completely dismissing the idea of writing for free, take a few minutes to weigh the pros and cons.
8 Pros of Writing for Free
- Introduce yourself to a new client/editor and begin to build a trusting relationship—When first stepping out as a freelance writer, I approached the editor of a local newspaper. He understood my desire to gain experience and appreciated my enthusiasm but found it hard to rely on an unproven novice writer to provide quality content on-time. Our conversation could have ended quickly, but by offering to write for free, I convinced this editor to take a chance on me—there would be no obligation on his part to accept and/or publish my stories if they were not up to his standard.
- Explore other areas outside of your own niche—Freelance writers often develop a niche or a certain subject they prefer to write about. While it can be a good thing for a writer to become a subject matter expert in one or more areas, it can also be beneficial for a writer to branch out and explore. While I write primarily about senior caregiving these days, I have also been known to pitch and accept other story ideas. Writing for free could be good persuasion for a client/editor to take a chance on a writer with less, or no, related experience.
- Gather tearsheets (published writing samples)—These will help freelancers start or build a writing portfolio. Freelancers can show their writing samples to others offering them work as proof of their capability.
- Gain assurance as a writer—As mentioned, my early writing was done for free for a local newspaper. It wasn't long after seeing several of my stories published unscathed when my self-confidence increased to the point where I could approach other newspapers and question those editors about offered payment.
- Promote yourself and your other written work—As a published book author, I have written related articles and insisted on a closing bio including my name, book titles, and website. Writer bios are often standard with paid work as well—these will help readers learn more about the writer, find other material written by the writer, and connect with the writer if they wish to do so.
- Receive continual name recognition—Every freelance writer will go through dry spells with fewer paid writing assignments. In this case, a freelancer could focus on spec work to keep having their name published/posted. More publication credits lead to more readers and more recognition of a writer's name. Those readers may never know if a story was provided for free and may become paying clients or refer freelancers for other paying projects.
- Collect references/testimonial letters—By submitting quality work and being dependable, it is reasonable for freelance writers to expect references and testimonial letters. Positive "word-of-mouth" feedback can greatly help a freelance writer being hired for other work.
- Increase opportunities for paid writing work—A client who accepts unpaid written work may realize the freelancer's value and could offer a fair rate for continued work.
3 Cons of Writing for Free
- Lack of income—This is the most obvious drawback for a writer agreeing to write for free. Groceries need to be bought and bills need to be paid. Collection agents may not be too understanding of or patient with writers not generating an income.
- Devaluing your work—A client expecting a freelance writer to write for free is demeaning to the writer. That client is not recognizing the writer's time, effort, and/or expertise. Additionally, a writer will have other expenses (e.g. office supplies, long-distance phone calls for article interviews, vehicle gas and servicing, etc.) … It is unfair, unreasonable, and unrealistic for a writer to continually pay for these expenses out of their own pocket.
- Devaluing the work of other writers—Taking the above point one step further, a client insisting on ongoing spec work from a writer is also shaming other writers. If one writer could work for free, then all writers could work for free could be an easy assumption to make.
Bottom Line on Writing for Free
With sharing more "pros" than "cons" for agreeing to unpaid work, it could seem that I am a supporter of spec writing. The thought of this does, however, make me bristle—specifically when the freelancer continues to work on this basis.
As a few final thoughts, as a rule-of-thumb, don't accept any unpaid work where the client will financially benefit from what you produce. If the client can profit, there will be more money in the pot to share.
Remember that freelance writers may not approach spec writing with the same seriousness as paid writing. While it may be tempting for a freelancer to rush through a free project, I would recommend taking your time. With my own writing, I consider my name as my brand, take pride in what I produce and deliver, and believe that shortchanged work discredits me and could hurt my reputation. Therefore, when writing any story, I always strive to write the best story possible. Readers can determine the difference between quality and shoddy copy and can judge the writer accordingly.
Look before you leap. Before jumping into any writing assignment, freelance writers would be wise to ask, "What is your budget for this writing assignment?" I shared this advice with a fellow writer and his response was, "This is brilliant as it avoids the awkward question of, 'How much are you going to pay me?' Had I thought to do this I would have likely gotten paid for my most recent article. But being fearful I would lose the assignment, I didn't ask."
Understand that clients unwilling to pay may simply be unaware of the writer's credentials or be unable to pay freelance writers for their work (i.e. non-profit associations). In this case, a writer should weigh the opportunity carefully—can the client be gently educated or is there a strong belief in/support of the association's cause to warrant not being paid?
Remember that freelance writers are under no obligation to accept work from a client. If the terms are unfavorable, the writer can choose to look elsewhere.
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