When Should You Write For Free?

Vampires
Beware the vampires who suck writers’ blood…

The “writing for free” controversy is back.

So, let’s get something straight. When should you write for free? Ideally — NEVER.

Lynette Young has a post on Google+ on working online for free:

Working Online Does NOT Equal Free

I’ve been hearing a LOT (let me repeat – a LOT) of stories this week that large global companies in the brand / tech / retail sectors have been soliciting professional women writers and managers (but they seek out people they feel are “mom bloggers” with huge self-made communities) with propositions to moderate online communities.

For free.

A lot of the latest controversy on writing for free was sparked by journalist Nathan Thayer’s exchange with an editor from The Atlantic:

Thanks Olga:

I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years and am not in the habit of giving my services for free to for profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children. I know several people who write for the Atlantic who of course get paid. I appreciate your interest, but, while I respect the Atlantic, and have several friends who write for it, I have bills to pay and cannot expect to do so by giving my work away for free to a for profit company so they can make money off of my efforts.

This led to some articles on Poynter on writing for free…

* Atlantic is ‘sorry’ to have offended freelancer with request for free content

* Atlantic case raises question: When does it make sense to write for free?

Here’s my comment on that story:

There’s writing for promotion — writing “for free” — and then there’s commercial writing.

The Atlantic is a commercial publication. While the editor can certainly ask writers to write for the promotional opportunity, here’s what ticked me off about the original email messages to Nate Thayer.

The statements: “We unfortunately can’t pay you for it, but we do reach 13 million readers a month,” and “… I thought you’d be willing to summarize it for posting for a wider audience without doing any additional legwork.”

They’ve got 13 million readers a month, and can’t pay writers? Really?

“Summarizing” is writing, which is work. So Nate Thayer works for an hour in return for what? A byline? A link?

A link from The Atlantic might be worth it, but I’ve checked several stories on The Atlantic site. There’s not even a byline, so they’re staff pieces. If contributors are offered a byline, without a bio and link, the “exposure” is worth nothing.

What it boils down to is that The Atlantic, a commercial publication, feels quite happy treating journalists like hobbyists.

They’ve got a heck of a lot of nerve.

* Most everyone gets asked to write for free, only some people say yes

Poynter’s getting into this story in a big way… ;-) and so they should, it’s important.

Here’s my favorite quote from the above article:

By contrast, Beatriz Terrazas, a writer and visual storyteller, former Nieman fellow and Dallas Morning News reporter and photographer, doesn’t work for free anymore, ever. But she does occasionally write for very little money.

“If you as a publisher feel you don’t need to pay or can’t pay for content, it seems to me you don’t value that work,” she said in a phone interview. “And if you don’t value it, how can you justify it to your readers, or your audience, or your advertisers?”

What’s the solution for YOU? Should you write for free, and if so, when?

I’ve been using this mantra since I started writing for the Web consistently, in 1998: If it’s free, it’s for me.

In other words, when I write for others for promotion (I get a link or two out of it), or on my own sites and blogs, that’s free. When I write for others, who run commercial enterprises, it’s paid.

As Lynette Young says: “Time is not free. Expertise is not free. Asking a professional to work for free is insulting, disrespectful, and unprofessional. Don’t do it.”

You need to make your own accommodation with this. No one can tell you what to write, or what to charge for what you write. If you choose to write (or do anything else online that’s potentially worth money) know why you’re doing it. If it makes sense (you get promotion out of it) it’s not strictly free, is it?

On the other hand, tell bloodsucking vampires to get lost, as Nathan Thayer did. And don’t be shy about it, either. ;-)

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Angela Booth is a copywriter, author published by major publishers, and writing teacher. She offers many guides, courses and classes to help writers to enhance their skills at her online store. She also provides inspiration and motivation for writers on her writing blogs. Angela has been writing successfully since the late 1970s, and was online in the 1980s, long before the birth of the Web. Her novels and business books have been widely published.

About Angela Booth

Angela Booth is a copywriter, author published by major publishers, and writing teacher. She offers many guides, courses and classes to help writers to enhance their skills at her online store. She also provides inspiration and motivation for writers on her writing blogs. Angela has been writing successfully since the late 1970s, and was online in the 1980s, long before the birth of the Web. Her novels and business books have been widely published.