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Should You Write for Free?

writeforfoodA lot of online publications are looking for writers. Some of them pay for articles, many don’t. Some offer other incentives: future opportunities to edit, recommendation letters, college credit.

Here are some reasons to write for free:

  • You can develop writing samples (often requested by employers looking to hire creative talent).
  • It’s fun.
  • It can develop your voice, and gain the skills and experience you need to get paid to write.

Here are some reasons not to write for free:

  • It can take time away from paid employment or other career-building activities.
  • It’s not fun.
  • Your writing is worth something.
  • These publications only flourish because people are willing to write for free.

Here are some questions to ask yourself before you agree to write for free:

Will the work you produce make you more appealing to employers? The answer to this question will depend a lot on your goals.  If you hope to get a job with a high-end advertising firm, the link to a Black Sheep article might not help you much; if you want to break into screenwriting or entertainment, it’s a rare opportunity to showcase your cutting-edge vulgarity. If you’re not sure, practicing your skills with different kinds of content will help you figure out what kind of writing brings out your best.

Will it be fun?  If you enjoy writing for an audience–and it gives you the same entertainment value as other things you do for fun–then why not?

Is it the best use of your time? Writing for yourself through an outlet like The Medium, creating your own blog, or curating your own website are ways to get writing samples and develop your voice. Your labor has value, whether you’re being paid or not, so be strategic in how you use it.

Will you get editorial support and supervision to help you grow as a writer?  Some publications will publish anything, others are cultivating a brand and subject writers to a great deal of oversight. The former will help you develop your voice, but it might not give you much professional guidance; the latter will get you used to writing as part of a team, but it might limit your creativity. Think about the kind of structure that will best help you grow as a writer and choose your opportunities accordingly

Do you have a plan for transitioning from writing for free to writing for money?  If you’re doing it to gain professional experience (rather than for the fun of it), then you should set a goal to mark where “writing to gain experience” ends and “getting exploited” begins: a time limit, a number of articles, a next step (e.g., an editorship on the publication or a part-time job or internship that uses your writing skills).

Some additional resources to help you understand the economics of creating digital content:

Related issue: writing for content mills

Content mills are companies that pay for cheap website content. Opinions vary about the value of writing for them. Here’s a handful of perspectives: