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Should You Write for Free?

Product sampling isn't just for tangible items. Help your writing business with a little sampling of your own.

Do you think like a marketing manager from Procter & Gamble? If you want to grow your writing business, maybe you should.

Package-goods companies, like P&G, often include in their marketing efforts a practice called product sampling. Essentially, this is giving away a sample of the product in hopes of enticing new paying customers.

What does this have to do with the writing business? Plenty. Sampling, or writing for free, is a way to introduce your writing to potential clients, build new relationships, establish good faith and potentially garner new business.

Some believe that giving away any writing establishes a precedent for editors or clients to expect such from other writers, thereby diminishing the lot of all writers. But done wisely, giving away samples of your writing can ultimately make you a more valuable member of your clients' teams.

Here are quick tips to widen your horizon by writing for free:

Offer to write for free for those publications that are hard to break into. If they aren't interested in your work after your initial article runs, move on. When you do write for free, make sure you get a bio box or some other promotion of your services.... Write articles on speculation—this shows editors you're willing to write without a guarantee of payment. Don't write for free for those publications that obviously have the budget to pay.

When you should try it

Writing a one-time article for free or for a reduced fee can shorten the curve to break into a new publication. You can keep the conversation with the editor or client going longer.

I recently met the editor of an industry trade publication that I thought would be a good fit for a potential writing gig in my content area—small or home office (SOHO)—and to whose audience I wanted to showcase my work. Writing for them could not only become a significant source of income for me, but also get my name into their newsletters, Web sites or marketing publications—and in front of their constituents. That would mean further marketing opportunities for my writing endeavors. See a pattern here?

But first, I had to get into the trade publication. Problem was, the editor pleaded poor. Thinking quickly, I offered to write for free an article on a topic we already had brainstormed. I already had the research, and would only have to invest about two hours writing the piece. This made my editor a champion among her bosses—she got an insightful and free article for their use. And as I customarily retain all rights to almost all my work, I was free to publish or resell the article elsewhere.

What's more, a bio box at the end of the article identified me as a contract writer and SOHO industry expert—prime marketing mojo for a humble writer looking to spread the word about his services.

When to write on spec

Writing on spec, or speculation, is another way you can build rapport with editors and get your foot in the door. In this situation, you research, write and submit an article. If the editor likes the piece, it runs and you get paid a pre-determined fee. If the editor doesn't like the article or your style, it doesn't run, and—depending on the agreement—it remains yours to shop around elsewhere.

Again, like the sampling approach, writing on spec shows good will: You invest the time to write with no guarantee of payment, and you build a relationship. Good editors—who should be viewed as partners in your career—will recognize this and participate.

Once you do have a client on board, the good karma doesn't end with the first paycheck. Quite often, I'm asked by an editor or client to do a little research or light legwork to investigate an idea—either for use in a story or project he or she is doing, or as a bit of prospecting for future work. In fact, what is a good query letter if not legwork and research done in hopes of landing an assignment? It's just not as polished as a finished assignment.

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When to limit freebies

All this good mojo aside, there are limits to giving away my services. This practice should be reserved for breaking into niche, hard-to-enter publications, or into those publications where residual benefits—like exposure before a hard-to-reach audience or your name on a clip from that publication—are worth the investment. It might be to help out an editor who's already blown his or her budget on other stories—including yours, but who needs a piece written.

It should not be a way for a publication to get some free content. You're running a business, not the journalistic equivalent of a soup kitchen. I do not write multiple free articles for the same publication. This is a one-time offer. If the publication isn't interested or doesn't find your work suitable after the initial article runs, then shake hands, bid adieu and move on.

Neither will I write for free for a publication that has the budget to pay, like a consumer or industry magazine whose editor is only looking to see what he or she can get for free. I might write on spec, but not for free. That would lower the lot of my writing colleagues and myself.

Similarly, I have walked away from paying gigs that had other elements I considered untenable work conditions, such as too low a fee, the loss of all rights to the work or some combination of both.

Though I studied journalism in college, some of my best skills come from the power of marketing. And some of my best marketing lessons have come from the supermarket aisles, where companies have given away samples of their products.

If it's good enough for Procter & Gamble, it's good enough for me.

From the August 2002 issue of Writer's Digest.

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