Is Writing For Free Ever OK? There's A Fine Line Between Exposure And Exploitation

Writing is a tough gig. There's just no way around that. Whether you want to write in print for a magazine, or for your favorite website, there's a lot of time and work to be done before you get there. One of the biggest controversies in the writing community is the idea of writing for free. It sounds simple enough to tell someone, 'Never write for free,' but the reality is more complicated than that. In a perfect world we could maybe tell writers never to write for free, but in the real world, we have to make sacrifices from time to time.

The unfortunate reality for many writers is that you have to write for free in order to get the clips required to pitch yourself to editors for paying gigs. In our wildest dreams, a simple pitch about how awesome we are would open all the doors we'd ever wanted. But truth is, most pitches get ignored, rejected, or lost in e-mail. Editors receive pitches upon pitches upon pitches, so it's hard enough to stand out, and it's even harder to convince them you're a decent writer when you haven't got anything to show for it.

In our wildest dreams, a simple pitch about how awesome we are would open all the doors we'd ever wanted. But truth is, most pitches get ignored, rejected, or lost in e-mail. 

Now, of course, there are some people who can skip the 'writing for free' part and still succeed. Generally, these people are:

  • Living in or from New York City
  • Attending (or have attended) reputable high schools and colleges
  • Folks who have been exposed to the arts
  • Dependents of parental figures or family members with networks of their own
  • Heterosexual, cis-gender, white men

The advantages above gift them credibility to editors, which is not to suggest that their work is poor or that they're undeserving of success. Rather, it just creates this, I hate to use this word, unfair lack of balance. Imagine the writing industry is a Triathlon and some people don't have to do the swimming part, while you have to swim, run, and bike. It's only natural to resent people who have to do much less to succeed at what you want to do. Now whether or not we should be ok feeling resentful is another issue.

So what I'm saying thus far is that some people have little choice other than to write for free. You can pitch editors all day and night, trying to convince them you're a decent writer, but some, naturally, want to see proof that you are. In this case, a blog might also serve as a writing sample, but at the end of the day, that's still you writing for free. On one hand, you own the work you're writing for free. On the other hand, writing for free for publications with credibility and lots of followers is more likely to yield you results for some editors. In the end, it's a difficult choice.

On one hand, you own the work you're writing for free. On the other hand, writing for free for publications with credibility and lots of followers is more likely to yield you results for some editors. 

I wrote for free because I didn't have networks, didn't go to a fancy school, had no family members with professional networks — and the few who did were all outside of my industry — and started seriously reading and writing so late in life that my voice wasn't brilliant enough to impress editors if it stood alone on my blog.

I did a little bit here and a little bit there, and soon enough I was able to pitch editors with clips, which showed an immediate, positive difference for me. It sucks because I wish I could say I owned all of my work and respected my craft enough to demand pay for it, but I was poor and needed to start my journey sooner rather than later. I couldn't risk trying to create my own path because failure wasn't an option for me. I was already living with my grandmother at the time and paying nothing wasn't going to work mentally, emotionally, or spiritually work for me for very long.

 It sucks because I wish I could say I owned all of my work and respected my craft enough to demand pay for it, but I was poor and needed to start my journey sooner rather than later.

So yeah, I wrote for free. I don't love it but I wrote some amazing things in those days because I utilized each platform and tried my best to own the opportunity so I could brag about it later to potential employers. Exposure certainly didn't pay more bills nor put food on the table, but it paid off in the long run.

I don't want to say that writing for free is how you 'put in your time' in the writing industry, but I will say that writing for free helped me, a kid with average grades, who grew up in the writing media desert of Philadelphia, with no connections, become a writer who gets paid to write things that they like for publications they like.

No shade to people who found their path in other ways. I know my way is not the only way. I just want to acknowledge for myself and for others, that for some people writing for free is the only way in. Writing is much more elite than people would like to admit.

At the end of the day, it's all up to you. There is no shame in writing for free nor is it wrong to demand pay when you feel like you've worked hard. So much about changing this divided, privileged industry demands on the people in power, which as many of us know, generally does not bode well for those of us not in power.

There is no shame in writing for free nor is it wrong to demand pay when you feel like you've worked hard. 

In the meantime, all we can do is what works for us. Write for free if you have to. Look for paid gigs if you're confident. Look for paid gigs even if you're not confident. Take a chance. Pitch. Pitch. Pitch. And draw your line as a writer, as a professional. Know when to say yes and when to say no. Do all that, and the writing part will be easy.

Image: Unsplash/Olu Eletu

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