Should You Ever Write For Free?

When you’re trying to eke out a living as a freelancer, the words “no pay” are likely to make you …

When you’re trying to eke out a living as a freelancer, the words “no pay” are likely to make you shudder and run in the other direction. After all, time is money, and the number of hours in a day is, well, finite.

The fact of the matter is, sometimes it’s worth it to write for free.

Before you roll your eyes and click one of the “related links” below, hear me out. If writing is more than just a job to you, there’s a good chance you’re passionate about it, or some form of it. 

As a former opera singer (hi, remember me?) who lost her love of singing in a scramble for rent, please don’t allow your need to make money writing overshadow why you started writing to begin with.

Sometimes we do the thing we love for free, even when it’s our main source of income. Because it’s still the thing we love.

Here are five times you should write for free:

Building your portfolio

When you’re first starting out, there’s only one thing that will help you improve: writing. A lot. I can’t overstate this, you need to write every day, and not just in your journal. 

No matter where you are in your career, you should continue reading the type of writing you want to do, whether it’s longform journalism or personal essays, white papers or thought leadership. At the beginning of your writing career, though, you should practice the style as well.

Getting a few clips early on in your niche can help you secure higher paying clients, and it can help you gain confidence for your first few gigs.

A cause you believe in

Not all non-profits have the budget to pay a freelancer to write copy for their website. Or perhaps they have enough to pay for the basic web copy, but not a blog, which would give them higher visibility.

If it’s a charity you’re passionate about, or a cause you really want to support, why wouldn’t you want to help?

Think of it this way: you could donate some of the money you earned writing to this cause, or you can donate your actual writing to this cause. It’s also mutually beneficial, because you can add it to your resume under the volunteering section.

The chance to work with a really good editor

When I was still really early in my essay-writing game, I started sending pieces to a website I knew didn’t pay.

Why?

Because the editor freely gave feedback, and when a piece was close to being good enough to publish, she’d work with writers to tighten up their work. She was known for being hard on writers, but she was also known for her ability to help carve out a better essay. To find the diamond in the rough, as it were.

To find the diamond in the rough, as it were.

The first few times I submitted, I received kind “Thank you, but no” replies. I decided to ask for feedback, and when she confirmed I was ready for it, she let me have it.

Thanks to her editorial direction, I am a better writer today, and I still occasionally write for that site–for free–because I want to give back, and because I know she’ll kick my butt if my writing isn’t up to snuff.

Building your email list

If you ever want to publish a book, you’re going to need a platform. Contrary to popular belief, your job as a writer doesn’t end when you finish writing the last word in your book. That book won’t sell itself, and don’t expect your publisher to do much to help.

How do you build a platform? Aside from writing for The New York Times and Vanity Fair, you write free content and give it away. A weekly or monthly newsletter that’s good enough to have people coming back for more, to get them to hit subscribe when they come to your website.

Preparing to launch a course

If you’ve spent enough time writing for mid- to top-tier publications or companies, there’s a good chance you have some wisdom to share with writers who are just starting out. Residual income is a fantastic income stream to open up, but how do you build credibility to attract writers to take your courses?

You offer tiny morsels of what you’ll teach, for free. 

People want to be sure that what they’re paying for is worthwhile. When you’re a New York Times bestselling author offering one of those masterclasses on Facebook ads, you already have the credibility.

If you’re not a bestselling author? You’ll need to prove you’re worth the investment. When writers see improvement after following the advice you give on that blog post you wrote, they’ll be more willing to shell out however much you’ll charge to teach the in-depth version of that blog post.

My final thoughts on writing for free

A few years ago, when I hit a certain level of income, I decided that writing for free was beneath me.

Looking back, I can see that was still the hubris of a relatively new writer. It turns out that occasionally being generous with your writing benefits not just those reading, but you as well.

Ready to Start Your Own Freelance Writing Business?
Join Contena

Keep reading

More >
shares