05 July 2012
Recently somebody got in touch with me to ask my advice on whether she should write for free for a healthcare magazine, and I was reminded of this when I saw a blog this week asking for people to blog for free. The blog was asking for a volunteer to take on a regular shift (early mornings, weekends or evenings), and sounded very much like a part time job, only without the pay cheque.
When people are starting out, they usually do have to write for free to build up a portfolio of work. But both these examples made me feel uneasy. In the case of a magazine, everyone else gets paid, including the editor, designer, subscription sales team, and distributors, so it’s a bit much that the writers don’t. They’re relying on the fact that a credit in the magazine is good for career development, which it probably is. In a case like this, it’s worth writing for free if that’s consistent with your personal career goals, perhaps to compile a published portfolio so you can approach paid markets, or to build your reputation as an expert. If you're serious about being a professional writer, though, you need to find markets that respect your work and pay accordingly, so unpaid projects should be seen as stepping stones towards that.
In the case of the blog, a successful outlet might boost your reputation and give you some published credits that are widely respected. I didn’t feel that this particular blog carried much weight, though, so I’d recommend investing the time in setting up your own blog instead. If you’re going to make a regular commitment to research and writing, you might as well own the end result of that, and have credit for creating a new online destination, and not just becoming someone else’s unpaid intern.
This probably sounds a bit mercenary, and arguably a lot of the best writing was done for free. Most first novels and many important non-fiction books were written on spec, and there are plenty of bloggers out there who expect no payment in return for excellent work. Money shouldn't be the only concern in what you write, but if you're a professional writer (or aim to be), it has to be a significant one.
Ultimately, it’s a question of who’s asking you to work for free. If you want to work on something unpaid because you want to explore a new idea, medium or genre, go for it. Every writer needs to invest time in creativity and personal development, and in exploring new projects, some of which might not come to anything.
If someone else is asking you to write what they want to be written, you should have a clear idea of what you’re getting in return, and usually, you should expect it to lead to money sooner or later.
Unfortunately it happens all the time that people try to get you working for free...
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