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Should You Ever Write for Free?

Should you ever give your writing away to a publication? There are times when you can indeed write for free.

"No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money," the 18th-century author Samuel Johnson once declared. Well, call me Blockhead. Even though I consider myself a professional writer, I've written for nothing in the past and strongly suspect I'll do it again.

Why would anyone write without the prospect of a paycheck? If you're just starting out, writing for publications that can't afford to pay you is one way to build a portfolio of clippings (published samples) you can then send to editors who do pay. Clips from publications that don't pay are better than no clips at all. And chances are, the editors you send them to won't know, or even care, whether you were paid.

Once you're established as a writer, you may still want to do the occasional free piece for your alumni magazine, club newsletter, or whatever—simply because you're a good sport. Other times you may decide to let a no-budget publication reprint a piece that has appeared elsewhere (and that you at least got some dough for the first time around). You may also find that giving an article to a small newspaper or trade publication can be an effective way to publicize a new book or other paying project.

Just don't let yourself be taken advantage of. Any publication that can afford to pay you should pay you. Otherwise, we're all blockheads.

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