Writing for Free

I’ve been pondering the question of writing for free which Damyanti at The Daily (w)rite raised in her post some time back. It’s a big question that all writers tackle at some point or the other – should one write for free at all? 

I’ve had a few short story publications, and for all but one I’ve managed to get paid, even if small token amounts.

I have a journalist friend who insists on writing for money, and by that, I mean good money. No pittances like $10 for those 500-word articles that infest freelance job-boards. The quality of her writing matches this attitude. She puts her money where her mouth is. She does not pursue non-paying opportunities, and will never advise you to do that either. Inspired by her, I approached my writing in the same style. I followed her model and determined that I will send some of my stories to paying venues. 

I cannot honestly say whether this strategy is working. I have had some work published, others not. I’ll play out this experiment a little longer to check the results. For a few months more, I’ll try sending some of my stories to the paying markets. Note that alongside I have also sent and am still sending stories and essays to non-paying magazines which I feel are a good fit for the work I’m sending. However, until I’ve garnered more acceptances from either side, I won’t know if I’m on the right track. 

The process of ‘Write. Submit. Repeat’ is fairly time-consuming, because most literary magazines take more than 3 months to respond, and at the end of all that waiting, it may lead to a curt form rejection. 

Seth Godin says that when you’re building a portfolio you should work for free readily. But I agree with what Damyanti said in a comment – when does the giving away stop and the earning begin? I’m not sure of the answer at all. 

Another point to consider: If you don’t even try for the paying markets, then your writing may also get stuck in the same place forever, without any discernible improvement from one year to the next. Submitting to a high-paying market may bring out the best in a writer, and even if they don’t get published in that magazine, at least their writing would have improved by the end of it. 

By the end of this year I hope to offer a positive report on my experiment of writing for pay. 

What is your opinion on writing for free?

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10 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Payal
    Jul 28, 2014 @ 15:37:09

    Hey Gargi, this is a question I’ve pondered long and hard and come to conclusion that, especially if you’re an independent/freelance agent, valuing your own work will (eventually) result in clients valuing it too. Basically, if you sell yourself short, you will be taken advantage of. In other words, I’m agreeing with your journalist friend. The trouble with writing and related fields (such as editing) is that they are considered things anyone can do, so people shamelessly ask you to write for free because, heck, how difficult can it be pounding one key after another?

    I stopped doing academic editing for a pittance for publishers (big ones like Sage, OUP and Penguin) a few years back because I felt that with 16 years of experience, I certainly deserved more than the peanuts they were paying. The transition was tough. There was a long period of little to no work, but then I started getting clients who realized that the quality of work they were getting from those who charged 25 bucks a page was very different from the work I was offering them.

    It’s a similar thing with writing. There are so many blogs who ask you to sign up and “write for us”, but they don’t make any mention of paying you. Some part of me is tempted, thinking it’s good visibility. But then, as a professional writer, how could I possibly write for free in one place and then demand good money from others? Like you said, where does the giving away stop? Also, at what cost to yourself? That line between giving something away willingly and being exploited can be tricky.

    That said, I do do pro bono work sometimes. It depends on who is asking, the cause and why they want me to work for free. But as a rule, as a professional writer and editor, I won’t work for free. I would definitely recommend that you take a tough stand on it. Don’t be disheartened if you have a long period of not getting the right clients — if you’re good (and you are), it will happen! Good luck.

    (Sorry for long rant!)

    Reply

    • Gargi Mehra
      Jul 28, 2014 @ 19:40:09

      I appreciate the detailed comment, Payal. I think the subject itself warrants a long response because almost all writers have a strong opinion on it.
      One point you’ve made is especially relevant – going long periods of time without work if you refuse to write for free. So it means you have to hold out, have a lot of patience but eventually the wait will pay off.

      Reply

  2. vishalbheeroo
    Jul 29, 2014 @ 02:00:27

    It depends Gargi. I do freelance for an Indian expats mag where I contribute two articles every two months..do it for free since I wanna create a name for myself since I am not known in that part of the Arab continent. I wanna shift there and so exposure matters. It’s also true that we need to have a ready quotation and put our price, meaning, a value to our work coz if we don’t no one will.
    Btw, I am doing a novella on UBC and have a look..m looking for honest feedback:

    http://vishal-newkidontheblock.blogspot.com/2014/07/an-orkut-love-story-chapter-28.html

    Reply

    • Gargi Mehra
      Jul 29, 2014 @ 11:16:08

      I agree, Vishal. It’s a good way to build up the portfolio when you have such a goal in mind.
      Sorry I’m late on reviewing your work – will send you some feedback offline!

      Reply

  3. Sharath Komarraju
    Jul 30, 2014 @ 09:07:20

    Hi Gargi,

    For what it’s worth, here’s a full-time author’s input to the discussion.

    I used to think the same until recently, that authors should never write anything for free. But my foray into blogging has taught me that this is the era of free content. For somebody to pay you for what you write, they must first discover you. They must know you exist.

    So you can use your ‘free writing’ as a tool to bring you more leads and customers. Someone who likes the pieces that you put up ‘for free’ on your blog may contact you for a paid writing opportunity. In my case, at least some of my blog’s regular readers will purchase my books.

    I think writers will benefit by building a strategy where they clearly define what kind of work they will give away for free and what kind they will charge for. In my case, my blog is free, the resources I share over there are free. But my novels will cost money. (I’m looking at publishing some free e-books in the future to allow more people to discover me, but that’s another matter.)

    To answer your question, yes. Authors will benefit by giving away ‘some’ of their work for free, which acts as advertisement for their paid work.

    Reply

    • Gargi Mehra
      Jul 30, 2014 @ 12:15:55

      Great to get an author’s view on this, Sharath! Agree with what you’re saying – this is the era of free content. So even if a majority of your work is paid or earns money, you have to set aside some time for this kind of writing for free like blogging or even writing for prestigious publications that don’t pay. I’m coming around to this point of view as well.

      Reply

  4. Rachna Chhabria
    Aug 01, 2014 @ 23:03:58

    Hi Gargi, this is a question I mulled over for the longest time. A few years back, a writer who has written a few movie scripts emailed me with an offer of hosting him on my blog. The giveaway was a ecopy of his writing craft book. In the E version of the book he mentioned that writers should never write for free. That way they are not giving credit to their talent. And once you do something for free its accepted that you will do it all the time. And you are also sending a subtle message to the universe that you don’t respect your talent or time. After reading that I have avoided going down the free writing path and trust me it has helped me immensely. Writing is a profession for us, so its time we get paid for our effort and talent. I hope I am making sense.

    Btw, regarding my Scholastic book, I am very happy that you have ordered for it :) I hope your daughter likes it. Let me know what she feels about the story.

    Reply

    • Gargi Mehra
      Aug 04, 2014 @ 11:34:45

      Thanks for commenting, Rachna. I understand your viewpoint. I guess for those writers submitting to literary journals there is no choice but to occasionally write for free as so few of them pay.

      Will surely keep you posted on your book when we receive it!

      Reply

  5. Trackback: 5 Reasons why Professional Authors Should Write for Free – Sharath Komarraju
  6. Trackback: Writeside.net » Week #31: Would I write for free?

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