Why Writing for Free Still Sucks

What I’m reading: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
What I’m listening to: The Loneliness and The Scream by Frightened Rabbit
_damoiselle_pills-wtfIt’s been a busy week. It started with a client meeting in Manhattan, complete with writing an article draft on the train, and has been followed by article revisions, completion of a book editing project, client conversations, and today, interviews.

Is it Friday yet?

While the slower months are still ahead of us, I’m starting to see project frequency and volume winding down. The back-up plan (on today’s agenda) is to get ideas out to publications. Even though companies may hold off on big projects until vacations are over, magazines still need content.

After I finished the book revisions yesterday, I took time to catch up on my blog/forum reading. And once again, I came away from the experience wanting to chew something in half.

For one more time, there were piles of advice for the freelance writer — work for free and your career will be set for life.

Right. Set on fire maybe.

Why I hate advice like this:

It’s too general. If you’re telling other freelance writers the ins and outs of writing for no pay, you should also be instructing them on the ins and outs of doing so without bankrupting themselves. As you well know, exposure doesn’t necessarily put gas in your car.

There’s no exit strategy. Instead of “Here’s a way to use one free project to grow a paying business”, the advice is more along the lines of”Here’s how to write for XXX and get a ton of exposure.” As if it were hard to get a job that pays nothing.

It’s rarely practiced by the people telling you to do so. I find that both ironic and a little disturbing. Ironic in that if it’s such a great way to boost your business, why aren’t you doing it? Disturbing in that there could be some twisted logic that more writers working for free means less competition for that writer. Is that the case? Don’t know, but it’s a bit odd that a writer who is probably doing well would lead others down the freebie path.

It assumes way too much. Not all writers are going to know how to make the leap from free to paid. Not all writers are even certain their skills warrant payment. By telling a new freelancer that writing for free is okay, you’re assuming this writer is going to have the wherewithal to know where to draw boundaries and how to enforce them. It’s a dangerous assumption — well, not for you, but for the writer you’re advising. You, on the other hand, get to live another day to tell even more poor souls how to ruin their careers by following your advice.

It doesn’t help writers create value. And before you say it, I’ll counter: it doesn’t help writers evolve their skills, either. What it does is helps them develop a mindset in which the work they do holds no value. None. And that’s just plain false.

It makes you look like a fool. That’s right. One day, these very same writers will have their eyes opened. They’ll realize that advice sucks, and they’ll remember the schmuck who led them down the wrong path in the first place. That, my friend, is when the Karma bus will be making a stop on your doorstep. And woe to the writer who advises X today and Y tomorrow. People who have the good sense to read and remember aren’t going to stick with someone whose credibility shifts as the Google ranking requires it to.

Writers, have you seen any advice pointing freelancers to writing for free?
What’s the worst you’ve encountered?
Have you ever been successful in either convincing such people to change their thinking or helping another writer move beyond the free work?

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  • Paula Hendrickson June 9, 2016 at 2:28 pm

    There are one or two of those ill-advisors out there right now — who are shockingly popular among newbies who know no better — who I wish the Karma Bus would pick up soon.

    One of the worst parts about advising writers to work for free lowers the median pay rate for all writers.

    Disclaimer: I don't mind beginners writing one, or even two pieces, for free so they'll have a published clip to show real markets. Why? When you're not published, it's basically that or writing samples. In either case, you're not being paid, but having a published clip will look better to people assigning stories at those real markets.

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  • Lori Widmer June 9, 2016 at 2:35 pm

    That Karma bus is going to be busy, Paula. 😉

    I think it doesn't necessarily lower our rates, but you're right that it lowers the averages, which some clients may use as negotiating tools. I guess the solution to that is to work with people higher up the food chain. More valuable clients tend to understand the price of working with more valuable writers.

    Yes to one or two pieces for free, but be selective. A Demand Media article is going to net the opposite result. Some clients won't consider these to be acceptable clips.

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  • Paula Hendrickson June 9, 2016 at 3:54 pm

    Indeed. An article published in a local weekly paper (whether it pays nothing or a few dollars) carries far more weight than any Demand or other mill work.

    Reply
  • Lisa Johnson June 11, 2016 at 8:48 pm

    I totally agree with what you're saying with one exception. When you write for yourself, by starting your own blog. You are writing for free — at least in the beginning. But with each post, your writing is improved; you're getting your name and work out there and you will have an online writing portfolio. Before blogging, writing for free was a way to get experience, but with the internet and social media, it's a whole different world now.

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  • Lori Widmer June 13, 2016 at 1:39 pm

    Thanks for weighing in, Lisa. Truth is I've never considered blogging to be in the writing-for-free category. It's marketing and networking. Plus it's free advertisement.

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