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Writing for Free: Yay or Nay?

Blue colored pencils with shavings around them

“Never write for free!”

Do you know how many times I’ve heard writers and content professionals say that? Too many to count. And I’m guessing you have too.

I swear, I see some variation of it every time I sign in to LinkedIn.

And while I agree with the sentiment, I don’t think touting it as gospel is the right way to approach it. I think what we should really be saying is, “Never write without some form of compensation!” But that doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

So, what do I mean by that? Basically, compensation doesn’t always have to be monetary, and there are pros to writing without pay.

Skip ahead to learn about:

The pros and cons of writing for free

OK, so the cons of writing for free are pretty clear:

  • You don’t get paid
  • You work for free

And those seem like straightforward reasons not to do it, right? I mean, who wants to work for free? No one. We all have bills to pay and in a world where a small bottle of Coke Zero costs $3.50, we need every penny we can get.

That might leave you wondering what pros there could possibly be to writing for free. But don’t write it off just yet. There are actually some very real benefits to writing in exchange for something other than monetary compensation.

Still, I need to be clear before we jump in: I’m not saying you should write without any form of compensation at all. That’s a big no-no. Instead, I’m saying compensation can come in a variety of other forms and that you should consider them before immediately turning down an otherwise good opportunity.

So, what can writing for non-traditional compensation do for you? In the right circumstances, it can:

  • Help you to build your portfolio
  • Get you bios and backlinks
  • Build your online presence and brand
  • Position you as a subject matter expert
  • Expand your network
  • Improve relationship building

It doesn’t seem so awful now, does it? Those are some significant pros that carry a lot of weight in a variety of writing paths.

But you still need to eat, so you can’t always provide free content to whoever asks. You need to strike a balance and weigh potential opportunities carefully to ensure you only select the ones that will benefit you the most.

When to write for free

That may leave you wondering when you should write content for free. Here’s my advice:

  1. Select opportunities that offer relevant compensation. For example, I recently wrote a free piece for Jane Friedman in relation to the memoir I’m writing. Since I’m not well-known in the traditional creative nonfiction world yet, getting published on her blog was a huge deal. In exchange for my post, I got a bio and backlink, and the article was published on her website, social media pages, and in her newsletter.

    The piece was originally written for an assignment as part of my MFA degree, so I didn’t even have to create something from scratch. I just made a few adjustments and sent it on its way. Low effort, big reward.

    But, if, say, a random cooking blog or investment banking website wanted me to write for them for free, I’d probably say no because it’s not relevant to me. After all, that’s not how I’m trying to shape my career. Be conscious of the opportunities you pursue and ensure they’re providing you with compensation that directly relates to your writing goals.

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  2. Set clear boundaries. Doing a single piece for a website for free is fine, but if they want you to start contributing unpaid content every week, that’s a problem. When pitching free content, or reviewing a request from someone else, make sure you set clear boundaries from the get-go. Typically, I only write a single unpaid piece for someone unless I’m volunteering and the compensation is more geared towards being a good human over growing my career.

  3. Don’t do too much work. Ideally, contributing unpaid content shouldn’t end up with you spending hours researching the topic or crafting a 10,000-word whitepaper. Instead, the content should be something you’re already familiar with and that you’ve already written about so that you can access all the knowledge you’ve gained over the years to pop out a high-quality but easy-to-execute piece that doesn’t feel like another full-time job.

  4. Weigh opportunities carefully. Don’t just write for anyone and everyone. As I mentioned earlier, you probably won’t catch me writing free content for an investment banking blog. But you also won’t find my unpaid work on low-quality websites, even if they’re related to what I do. If you’re going to write for free, do it for established websites, blogs, influencers, and newsletters that carry weight in your industry.

    For example, if you do a lot of food writing, contributing to an influencer’s blog that gets good traffic and social interactions might be worth it. But writing for your cousin Susan’s brand-new cooking website that she just started last week after quitting her job as a lawyer to explore her passion for baking might not get you much more than some family credit. Especially if this is the fourteenth time she’s switched careers in the last year and has left a slew of abandoned blogs in her wake.

What to ask for in exchange for free content

Just because you aren’t getting money for your work doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be compensated. Here are some of the things I expect when I write for free:

  • A follow link to my website
  • Attribution and a bio (no free ghostwriting!)
  • A public article that I can link to, share, and take credit for
  • Shares on social media and/or in a newsletter
  • An accepted connection request on LinkedIn

Depending on the kind of publication you’re contributing to and the industry you’re in, your asks may differ, but don’t be afraid to ask for what you want in exchange for the time and effort you’ll be putting in.

Unpaid content: The verdict

Taking all the cautionary advice and examples into account, I say writing for free is a “yay” — in the right circumstances.

In short, writing for free can be a great option when:

  • You get something valuable in return
  • It’s low-commitment and doesn’t take advantage of your time or skills
  • It’s not going to take too much effort on your end
  • It makes sense for you to do based on your career goals, niche, and experience