Diary of a First-Time Writer #3 – A Quick Note on Working for Free

So I’ve talked about doing something to get your work out there and get yourself noticed. One obvious way of doing that is putting your work online and, if you start trying to get your writing published online, sooner or later someone will offer you a chance to contribute to their website – usually there won’t be payment involved but instead it’ll be sold as an opportunity for exposure or to get noticed.

So should you do it?

First off, if you are considering working for free, this website is essential reading


Practically speaking, I’d always be cynical of anything that claims to give you “great exposure” or “raise your profile”.   A lot of websites and publications that make such claims do nothing of the sort and the problem is that, once websites realise there’s a market of aspiring writers who are happy to work for free to gain opportunities, any incentive to pay writers to write disappears.  So, rather than improving their chances of getting paid work in the future, writers who work for free actually tend to lessen the amount of paid work around and thus create a situation where nobody gets paid.  Except perhaps the website via their adverts and sponsorship deals.

What’s more, if you want to showcase your writing, it’s really important that you write things that you actually want to write and show what you want to do.  There’s absolutely no point in trying to showcase yourself by writing something that doesn’t play to your strengths.  It’s far better off to create a blog and use that to write things that you really care about.

The other essential thing to realise is that, if you do try to get an agent or sell a book or even a freelance article, you’re going to be judged on what you propose and what you do on that piece of work alone.  Whilst it doesn’t hurt to have some examples of previous work you don’t necessarily need it and, unless your blog or something you’ve written really catches fire on the internet, it’s probably not going to make that much of a difference what websites you’ve written for.  (This is a little bit different if you want to write journalism but I still think a good blog of your own is going to make a greater difference than bits and pieces on other websites.  This can change if you can become the editor of that website of course!)

Which isn’t to say you should never write for free – I’ve written academic articles for books before which I didn’t get paid for but I was interested in subjects in question and it was a chance to see my work published in a book, which was ace.  And, if you write for, say, an online music or film magazine you might get given free stuff to review or the chance to interview people you admire.  So you might be getting something out of it that isn’t actually money.

But you should ask yourself the following questions:

1)    Would you write this anyway?

2)    Is this how you want to come across as a writer?

3)    Is someone making money whilst you’re not?

Having people read your writing is great and there’s obviously something brilliant about people wanting you and wanting to see your work but the bottom line is that anytime you’re not being paid to write then you’re doing it as a hobby rather than work.  So treat it on these terms and make sure you’re enjoying it!

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