I Can’t Afford to Write for Free (and Neither Can You)


It’s just too expensive to give my writing away.

Unless, of course, it’s for a publication that’s at the top of its game–say, somewhere like Copyblogger or The New York Times. Even then, I couldn’t keep up writing for free for long.

You see, writing is my profession. It’s how I earn my living.

A few days ago, Carol Tice blogged about a “lucrative” blogging gig that she believes writers should turn down. In her post, she detailed the so-called offer that she had received, which she revealed as being unethical.

I also receive a lot of scammy job offers in the email. Offers that I would never take. Some are unethical, like the one Carol received.

But the vast majority of these “job offers” are from folks who want me to write for them without pay. Yes, you heard that right–they want me to work without pay.

Either they want to reuse my material from this blog (or elsewhere on the Internet), or they want me to create original content that they can use without charge.

And if that weren’t enough, the authors of these so-called gigs act as though they would be doing me a favor to allow me to write for free.

Folks, this isn’t how professionals work. I don’t work for free, and you shouldn’t either.

Professionals Charge for Their Services

Imagine going to the dentist and saying,

I know I need a cavity filled. Here’s what I propose. You fill the first cavity for no charge as a sample, I guarantee that there will be additional cavities in the future.

I’d be laughed out of my dentist’s office–and for good reason too.

Or picture this. I go to my attorney to get my will written. I make him this offer,

I know that you just created a will for Mrs. Jones. It would just take you a few minutes to rework her will and add my particulars. If you’ll do this at no charge, I promise to tell my 20 best friends about your services.

No reputable lawyer I know would agree to work under that arrangement and I don’t blame them.

Yet we freelance writers agree to similar terms all the time. Oh, they aren’t about teeth or wills, but we’re being asked to give our work away for free just the same.

But writing for free has a high cost, not just for the writer who agrees to it–but for all writers.

The High Cost of Writing for Free

Here are some of the reasons why writing for free is so expensive if you are a professional writer:

  1. Less time to write for pay. It takes just as much time to create a high quality piece for free as it does for pay. In fact, if I said “yes” to all the requests for free writing that I receive, I’d have no time left to write for pay.
  2. The principle of the thing. If I create something, it’s only right that I get paid for it. Workers deserve to be compensated for their work. This principle goes without question for most professions, but somehow creative professionals (such as writers) are often expected to give their work away.
  3. Working for free devalues freelance writing. Why would a publication pay to get writers, if they can get high quality pieces written for free? (Fortunately for us, many of those who write for free do not provide high quality pieces.)

When you think about these points, you can see why I think the cost of writing for free is just too high for most writers.

The Exceptions

If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably guessed by now that I’m not a big fan of the idea of writing free pieces to get links, exposure, etc.

I know there’s a growing number of proponents who claim that writing for free is the quickest or best way to financial success as a writer. I just don’t see it. Plus, a lot of those who advocate free writing have a lot to gain by accepting free writing for publication.

There are a few instances when free writing might be appropriate. Here are some of those exceptions:

  • You’re in school and the writing you’re doing is for your teacher for a grade.
  • You’re writing on your own blog or website.
  • You’re writing for your mom. (I mean, who charges mom? I bet even the dentist fills her cavities for free.)
  • You’re writing to create your portfolio.
  • You’re writing for a top-rated publication as a one-time thing.
  • You’re writing as part of a campaign to sell your product.

Ultimately, it’s up to each individual writer to choose whether to charge for their writing. But in my opinion charging is the professional thing to do.

What Do You Think?

This is probably one of the most controversial topics I’ve written about, but I think it’s also an important topic for freelance writers to consider.

Add your own thoughts in the comments.

  1. Couldn’t agree more. In fact, I wrote a post about this not so long ago: http://dtrasler.com/2012/05/25/and-you-could-make-a-ton-of-money/
    but I opted to use a dry cleaner as my example….
    The problem with freelance writing is the drumming up business aspect. If we could simply take our writing credentials and walk into a writing job centre, there’d be no question of taking gratis jobs. But we’re all under such pressure to get work, to find the next thing that’ll lead to the next paid job, that we grab at the slimmest offers.

  2. Damian Trasler,

    I just looked at your post. I love it–so funny.

    Sharon Hurley Hall,

    Thanks! I just get tired of these folks who contact me solely for the purpose of getting me to work for them without pay.

    They are even getting sneaky about it. Many won’t admit upfront what they’re doing. I have to probe to get them to admit they don’t intend to compensate me.

  3. It baffles me that anyone could see this as a controversial issue. A couple of years ago I came across a campaign urging artist to never accept spec work, which is essentially the same thing. PR folks and marketing experts get it, too, in the form of “can I buy you coffee and pick your brain?” which is such an awful image!

    Good post, and I’m with you: no freebies (or only for very special circumstances).

  4. Great post, Laura. The only other exception I would make is to write for free for a nonprofit as a contribution. But even then you have to set limits as to much you are willing to contribute. In these situations, I generally volunteer because I believe in the cause rather than accepting an “offer” to write for free.

  5. Dava Stewart,

    Coffee to pick your brain, LOL. Yes, like your ideas are worth no more than a cup of coffee. 🙁

    I suppose that many professionals get this pressure, but the problem seems to be more common for creative professionals.

    Hi Lillie Ammann,

    I almost added nonprofits, but didn’t because I know that many nonprofits do have a marketing budget and can afford to pay writers and other professionals.

    Of course, if a writer is willing to work for free because they feel strongly about the cause, that’s a personal choice and I won’t disagree with it.

    I did have this thought though. A writer could always charge the nonprofit for the work and then donate the amount of their payment to the charity after being paid. This would convey the message that the work was valuable and the donation would be a nice surprise at the end.

  6. But it’s “crowdsourcing” so it’s automatically supposed to be good. 🙁

    The false religion of crowdsourcing has warped the brains of many business startup owners.

    There’s a “value added” component to this issue. Businesses with *real* needs have no problem with paying decent rates for quality writing that supports their marketing.

    The opposite case is that of a no-name “content” site where the owner has no value proposition because he’s not making any money, so only free content makes any sense to him.

  7. Hi Don Wallace!

    Thanks for coming by. Those are great examples of instances where writers are taken advantage of.

    I honestly can’t think of a service that I could do so quickly that it would be worth my while to offer it through crowdsourcing.

    Personally, I think crowdsourcing is a sort of gamble for employers. They pay their five, or ten bucks and gamble that they’ll get something worthwhile. Most of the time they won’t, but once in a great while (as with lottery tickets) they might hit it big.

    As far as the no-name “content” site–I think this is the most frequent offender. Writing for exposure is really not a good proposition for writers in most cases.

  8. What gripes me are the so-called freelance writing websites that offer to pay a whopping $15 (or less!) for a 700-word article. Or ask you to bid on a project like you’re some kind of itinerant worker instead of a working professional.

    When companies offer little or no compensation for your work, they’re really saying your writing has no value. They just want to fill space.

  9. Alan Graner

    You must be talking about content mills and bidding sites.

    Yes, they are annoying–but my tactic is to ignore them and look for work elsewhere.

    “When companies offer little or no compensation for your work, they’re really saying your writing has no value. They just want to fill space.”

    This is a very true statement, but in today’s post-Panda Internet just filling up space won’t get them anywhere. I think companies are learning that, though.

  10. I couldn’t agree more, Laura. It’s especially offensive to those of us who’ve been making their living writing for 30 years. Seriously, why would I invest in a college education and do all that writing for pay and then be stupid enough to give it away? We make so little and have to fight to get paid on time. Nobody would make those crazy proposals to a lawyer, doctor or dentist.

    Thank God for Google and its commitment to quality content. The writing mills are struggling because they don’t pay enough to attract the best writers. Everyone thinks she or he can write but when the rubber meets the road, it’s hard work. The poor-quality websites will die quickly but I suspect this will always be an issue.

  11. Lisa Cunningham

    Sigh. You’re so right. My lawyer, doctor, and dentist all get paid promptly (and well, I might add).

    I also think Google is taking the right steps to control content. Sure, some writers who are used to churning out junk may suffer, but the hard workers who produce quality content will only benefit.