Writers write, right?
Often, however, writers are invited, asked, pressured, or even hornswaggled (look it up if you have to) into writing for free. Sometimes that’s good. Often it’s bad.
How can you know which is which? One word: strategy.
What is your strategy? Do you even have one? Or, put another way, do you have a mission statement as a writer? When you define where you’re going and what you hope to accomplish, it is much easier to reject or accept unpaid writing opportunities. Even then, it may help to have a few loose and fluid guidelines, such as the following:
Not-So-Good Free Writing
Writing for friends. Just because you can write doesn’t mean you should. And saying yes to one writing request means saying no to others. So, when your friend asks you to write her autobiography, remember your mission statement and writing strategy. I don’t think I know anyone who lost friendships from politely declining such requests, but I do know some who lost friendships from saying yes.
Writing for “content mills.” Some publications—many of them online—give you the opportunity to “make money” by writing for them, depending on how many articles you write, how many “hits” and “shares” your articles get, etc. You can learn a lot by accepting such opportunities, but beware. In some cases (not all), you can write and write and write and receive little or nothing in return—and often, your words are no longer your property.
Writing for exposure or credits. Generally speaking, any writing for exposure, rather than pay doesn’t deliver. If the exposure were worth it, the site or publication could afford to pay you (and may, in fact, if you make it clear that you value your work more highly than, say, $0). Be more strategic and more professional than that.
Good Free Writing
Write for fun. Most of us got started as writers because it can be fun. Don’t lose that in your quest for publication, fame, and wealth. Keep writing for your own enjoyment, whether that’s journaling or making up stories for your grandkids.
Write for family. Go ahead and write your memoir; maybe it will someday be published, but if not, it can still be a meaningful legacy to your family. Write stories for your kids or grandkids. Write actual ink-and-paper letters to aging relatives.
Write for contests. Not all writing contests are created equal, but many do offer the chance for recognition, prizes, and even publication. Some charge entrance fees, some don’t, and some are just a way to separate you from your money—so do your homework. Ask around. But entering legitimate contests can help you hone your skills, get valuable feedback, and open doors.
Write for your church. Church newsletters, blogs, and websites often go begging for good content; and lessons, music, or dramas written for specific congregations can have an effective and sometimes surprisingly far-reaching ministry. Even then, however, you’ll do yourself a favor if you’re careful to write material that fits into your long-term mission and strategy.
Blog. Launch a blog and write regular, focused blog posts on a subject about which you’re passionate. Who knows where it may lead? One of my blogs, oneprayeraday.com, which I started in 2005, eventually led to a paid blogging gig.
Write queries, proposals, and one-sheets. If you’re a developing writer, instead of writing for some of the free outlets mentioned above, focus your efforts on writing top-notch queries, one-sheets, and book proposals to pitch your ideas to magazine editors, agents, and book editors.
Write the first draft of your first novel. Or two. Most debut novels are completed before a contract is offered by a publisher, so you might as well go ahead and write it. And then write the next one, even if no one is paying you. I have a friend (seriously, I do) who determined to write his first four or five full-length novels before even seeking publication, as a form of apprenticeship. He’s now one of the best in the business.
How about you? How do you decide if and when to write for free?
‘Twas a lesson early learned:
a man is worth his labours.
That which sweat and toil had earned
was not to be given as favours.
Pro bono was beneath my station,
a foolish sentimental sop
to those who lacked imagination,
who’d never reach the top.
And then it came my time to fall,
and Someone bid me rise.
He who had and gave it all
made the scales fall from my eyes.
My talents are not mine, you see,
but beholden to Him who died for me.
Indeed. Some “free” things are immeasurably costly.
Thank you for this post! I’ve asked myself these questions over and over and wondered how far I should stretch myself. With four unpublished novels under my belt, I continue pressing forward, but I’ve also decided to write a few short stories for call-outs. I’m still blogging, writing a few guest blogs, and serving as a co-columnist for Almost an Author website. Thanks again for this informative article!
So glad to be of help, Loretta.
I can relate to each point!
Solid, thought-provoking advice! Thanks for this free writing today… ?
My pleasure, Jamie.
As a professional freelancer who makes a nice chunk of change writing, thanks for reminding us that writing for free is okay…as long as you know why you’re writing for free. For example, I always ask myself: Is the time I’ll spend writing this blog or article worth what I’ll get in return for it being published? If I have a client who’s paying me to write it, then that’s an easy yes! If it’s for my own personal blog or FB post, then it’s usually yes. If it’s unpaid request for another outlet, then I have to evaluate my ROI–does the website have a huge following that I want to tap into? Will it build my credibility with my potential clients/readers? Will I still own the content after it’s published, so I could re-purpose it for something else (ebooks, short list blogs, etc.)?
Thinking it through carefully before you say yes and start writing will save you tons of time in the end. None of us has enough time to spend writing on projects that won’t be beneficial to our writing careers.
Just so, Sarah. Well said.
Question: what is a “one-sheet” and how does it differ from a one-page or one-screen query?
I’ve written for church publications and it was a good experience.
I’ve also written for Hubpages, which is a content mill but also has many smaller communities in it. I joined because it looked like I could make a small monthly income stream. But it appears I joined right around the time that a huge wave of others joined too. Then Google changed their algorithms, and now no one is making any money (or only the most prolific are). It is nice to interact with other Hubbers and I’ve met some great people over there, but I’m making pennies a month, which means I won’t get my earnings until 100 years from now when my account hits $100.
As for writing our novels … Of course. How can we not? I am starting on #3. That’s not counting all the unfinished novels from my misspent youth.
As for blogs … I have a new one. Come visit, y’all!
Jennifer, a “one-sheet” is a “one-page,” and is a gussied-up book query used in a conference setting to pitch an idea to an editor or agent. Thanks for asking. And commenting. And writing.
This is a huge help for me. I had a friend ask me to write his auto-biography and I told him I still need to finish my first novel. Once it’s finished, there are several other stories I’m itching to get to. Of course, he insisted saying it was important and that it would bring people closer to God. I simply stalemated the conversation stating that I needed to finish what was in front of me first.
I can see how projects such as this could ruin friendships. The waxing and waning of enthusiasm between two parties, something isn’t verbatim and all sorts of things really. I appreciate your thoughts on this and will take the best course of action should my friend bring up the conversation again.
Bryan, it’s good to have priorities. And clear aims.
Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D
Bob, thanks for your words of wisdom (for which I assume you were paid)! I have a website, two blogs, a Facebook author page, and three novels and two self-help books…haven’t gotten paid yet, but the day will come.
Sheri, alas and alack, I keep asking the boss (He Who Must Not Be Named) to pay me for my posts on this site, but he says he’s too busy counting the proceeds to send any my way.
You got that right.
Ruh roh. The boss has bots everywhere.
I am glad I’m not drinking water at this moment, I laughed enough for a hernia. Well. Not quite but certainly a water spout
Bob, I so appreciate this post! I’ll be honest, I haven’t really considered good/bad reasons to write for free. As a pre-published writer, I have had the mindset that I need exposure. I need to get my words out there. This is tricky with two teen boys at home (teen=lots of time in the car for mom), and not a lot of time to write–blog-wise or book-wise.
After reading this post, you’re helping me see it’s better to focus on my story and my blog for now. With some contests thrown in. I’ve also been open to helping friends somewhat, but thinking about my long-term picture/plan/purpose is something I need to consider more seriously.
Thank you! This post is invaluable to me!
Thanks Bob for this article. I’ve been mentoring a young nonfiction writer and was concerned about this issue. In her case she is writing with purpose of ministering to those in her field not for financial gain.
But this will help in picking future writing gigs and how to balance with a busy life. I’ll be sure to share!
A very, thought-provoking post. I would also add that if the writer is already working full-time or has other commitments that take up a lot of time like caring for someone sick or homeschooling children, then any paid gig should take precedence.
Another area I believe where people write for free is doing work where other people get credit–without a contract. Not good.
And one final thought, if someone gets you to write for free the first time, they’ll keep trying.
After learning at this blog how essential platform is, I found a niche where writing for free is both satisfying and indirectly very profitable. From what started as research for my stories, I created a Roman history website that I promise to keep PG-13 or cleaner for teachers and students, but it draws Romanophiles from around the world. My background writing up my scientific research equipped me for using academic sources on Roman history. I just counted 114 hardcopies by academic experts on my Roman bookcases, so the website itself costs money to write.
But it’s also the reason I have Goodreads ratings from unusual places like Barbados, Bermuda, South Africa, and Thailand. It’s through letting US homeschoolers know about this free resource that I get most of my domestic sales. It takes time to create all the free content, but I love doing it. That would be reason enough, even if it wasn’t making my novels successful.
Brennan S. McPherson
I had to look it up:
Dictionary result for hornswoggle
“get the better of (someone) by cheating or deception”
verb: hornswoggle; 3rd person present: hornswoggles; past tense: hornswoggled; past participle: hornswoggled; gerund or present participle: hornswoggling
PS: Love the post, Bob! 🙂 Blessings.
Funny you should address writing for free. Just last week a staff member at a rescue mission asked me to pray about writing the fascinating history of the mission. Granted, it IS worthy of writing about–and since I knew the founders, I immediately said yes without thinking. Now I’m wondering if that was wise, assuming it would be free work.
Also, I co-authored a children’s devotional book in International English a few years ago–for free–and it’s still waiting on someone to edit it, using the International English vocabulary. Good or bad? Well, you’ve given me things to think about.
The GOOD news is, I did start a blog which is getting favorable responses. It’s been a way to get my name out there anyway.
Thanks for this worthy post.
At your prompting, I did look it up because it didn’t look quite right. The correct word is “hornswoggled.” I just proofread for free. ?
That was a test. You passed.
When I get all fired up and my spirit pushes me to release emotion in written words, I generally have to push an internal pause button and examine my motives. e.g. A scathing letter to the editor can look much like a pathetic rant.
If my motives pass the caring, compassionate test, I then look at the probable results. What will my writing/sending this bit accomplish?
Only then if I think there is a decent chance my words may be helpful and effective, do I finish, edit and publish unpaid words.
I am a christian writer with more than 200 articles and fillers published over the years, nearly all were paid for, some up to five and six times as second rights. Occasionally, I sent something to a non-paying Christian market. In doing so I am spreading the gospel and early on, sending previously published work offering second rights to a non-paying market added to my already growing list of published credits.
Good post. I have waffled on this subject. I mean ‘Pay the writer? That’s rich!’ Hilarity follows the meme, however, sadly true.
I have several novels in progress starting in 2012. No money. A good thing. I needed (and still do) to hone the craft. I have blogged and FB’d my heart out. And now write for a faith-based online magazine. Free.
While I would love to be paid, I look at each as opportunities to learn and the ability to add writing ‘stuff’ to my cover letters. Then I will write short stories, fiction for contests. And add that to cover/proposals.
When the day comes (hope springs eternal?) for publication, yes. I hope to be paid. A quote from a show, when backing out of an illegal job, the bad guy says, “Lemme do the math. Nuthin’ outta nuthin’ is ah, nuthin.'”
Ann L. Coker
This was good, and I mean good for writers. I had not thought of writing a mission statement, but it would be a good guide. I write free for At the Center, an online pro-life magazine, and I have a valuable relationship with the editor. Then I accept assignments with a devotional publication — 7 devos and a $10 bill sent inside the sample copy. That’s close to being free, but it keeps me writing that genre.
Amen to that. I have a nebulous mission statement in my head all having to do with writing to the glory of God, bringing the word of God to both churched and the non-churched & to those of different faiths.
But as you can see, I haven’t written it down in any semblance of eloquence…
Since I began to write in earnest about ten years ago, I knew I wanted to write about God and trusted that if it were his will, he would see that it would go where he wanted, and it would accomplish what he wanted. That has not changed.
I write free for my church or other ministries when requested. For example, I was asked to join the media team of the Finger Lakes Region of Operation Christmas Child, and write copy about those gift-filled shoe boxes every year.
Writing articles for our church newsletter and a press release resulted in my current work as a paid reporter for a fairly large Christian magazine which covers most of upstate New York. (I was overjoyed to learn the newly established women and children’s shelter I wrote about is placing my article on a plaque to commemorate their first successful year!)
And yes, I am completing my first novel and looking to the next. Write on!
Thanks so much for this post. I learned a lot from you and from the commenters. It gives me a lot to think about–for one thing, I need to figure out what my writer’s mission statement is.
Several years ago a friend asked me to write content for her blog, no money mentioned. We agreed on a theme,etc. I count the arrangement as a win for me because I got practice in blogging (which I hadn’t paid attention to before), and eventually, my friend (who is much more computer-savvy than me), set me up with a blog of my own.
A few years ago I submitted a devotional to an international magazine. The devo. was accepted; the magazine paid me a token fee of $30. The day the devotional was published I went online. I read comments about it and the prevailing theme was: “This is what I needed to read this morning.” I thought, “That is my real pay.”
Peggy, your last illustration and last line touched me. Agree!
Thank you, Ann.
Linda Riggs Mayfield
You really helped put things in focus! While writing and unsuccessfully trying to traditionally publish my fiction books, for the past 7 years I have also regularly written non-fiction articles without receiving pay. The city’s newspaper runs a 750-1000-word history column every Sunday. When the historian who wrote it for decades passed away, the paper asked the board of the historical society if we’d keep the column going. We’d get author’s bylines and historical society mention, but no pay. To promote local history and keep our organization’s name before the public, we agreed. Several of the 8-10 article writers are published authors and one is a nationally recognized. I’ve become known for county history because I’ve focused on telling the stories of the towns’ first settlers and because of my husband’s ancestors’ presence in what was once the village of Siloam Springs, Illinois.
In 2012 I wrote an article about Siloam Springs and its famed Forest Hotel, a mineral springs resort destination that was owned pre-WW1 by my husband’s great-grandfather (https://www .whig.com/story /19597488 /the-forest-hotel-in-siloam). In 1943, the entire town was auctioned off and dismantled down to the last outhouse so the area could become a state park by the same name. Many people here don’t know there was ever even a town there, much less a resort hotel.
That article has made the rounds on the internet 3X since I wrote it. Last year it generated a local TV feature piece. I received calls and emails from descendents of Siloam residents from as far away as FL. I started a FB web page called Seeking Siloam Springs and had more than 100 responses in the first 48 hours. I gathered my late father-in-law’s materials he’d planned to use for a history of Siloam–he was born there and became the first park ranger, and without much focus, decided I should finish the book.
You’ve helped me recognize that although keeping family and local history alive (without pay) certainly has value, if I seek to be paid for my writing, the WIP book about Siloam Springs with a ready-and-waiting (and paying) readership the free writing has built deserves a higher place on my priority list than it has had. Thanks!