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Writers Should Work for Free

by Annie Kiely 3 years ago in advice

For some writers, even a request for free work is enough to get their blood boiling. 3 years after starting my own freelancing business, I've discovered that occasionally writing for free is one of the best ways I develop my skills, and expand my potential client base.

Writers Should Work for Free

Writing for free is a contentious subject. Many writers vehemently object to any free writing requests, and with good reason. Most writers (and all creatives, really) face an onslaught of requests for free work in exchange for recognition, or for a good cause. These requests undervalue the work that goes into writing, and the sentiment can make it hard for writers to maintain steady work, or earn a living wage.

That said, there are times when writing for free is the perfect thing to do for your career. Opportunities for learning, potential exposure, published work for your portfolio, and the chance to learn new skills are all reasons why you might want to consider writing for free.

Take a look at these scenarios when writing for free might be the perfect thing to boost your business. Free work is one of the most important elements that have helped me become a successful, full-time freelancer.

Writing as a Volunteer

Volunteering is a great way to build connections, develop your skills, and learn to work in the non-profit sector. If there is a cause you truly believe in, consider offering some writing services as a way of helping with the cause.

In some cases, you'll be able to get a tax-receipt that will denote your donation of time, and give you benefits on your next filing. In many others, valuable connections will pay off in future. For example, I have spent a few hours a month volunteering my time to write a few blog posts for an American charity. They have recently gotten funding for a massive project, with funding to pay writers. Since we already have a great working relationship, I have been offered a year of very well-paying work in support of this charity.

Our past working relationship has been a benefit to us both, and I am now being paid quite well to support a cause I believe in strongly, all because I was willing to volunteer my time and write for free. Volunteer gigs don't always pay off as directly as this opportunity did, but they do always provide benefits and experience.

Free Work as a Way to Learn a New Skill

UpWork has been a great place for me to practice new skills as well. If I see a project that I am interested in, but technically do not yet know how to do, I will often offer to do a portion for free, or at a steep discount, explaining to the client that I am confident in my ability to learn, but admittedly lacking in that particular type of experience.

This approach gives me the opportunity to learn while building my contacts and client base, and has been a wonderful way for me to learn and then leverage my new writing skills. If you're using a platform like UpWork, it is also immensely helpful to receive positive feedback, even for a job where you are charging next to nothing.

This practice is how I have developed my understanding of SEO, and technical writing skills. As a direct result of these new skills, both my client base, and hourly earnings have increased.

Writing for Exposure

Exposure. This is a word that can bring ire to writers around the world, and with good reason. Many companies abuse the notion that "exposure" is fair compensation for great content, and refuse to pay writers what they are worth. You'll often hear writers exclaim that "you can't eat exposure" and they are absolutely right.

The unscrupulous aside, there are opportunities for exposure that you may want to take advantage of. Writing for exposure can include:

  • Gaining access to a new content medium: If you're being asked to write for a high-profile company that can actually give you decent exposure, it might be worth taking on. Generally, you can tell if these projects are worthwhile based on the reviews of other writers, or based on the success of the company. If a blog tour, or providing some content allows you future opportunities to publish, take advantage if it works for you!
  • Gaining access to a new client base: If you're looking to move into a completely new subject or industry with your writing, exposure might not be such a bad idea. Taking on a project for free can be a great way to build trust in your name, and take a first shot at positioning yourself as a new kind of content expert
  • Positioning yourself as an emerging expert: There are many out there who peddle exposure as a way to get out of paying writers fairly for their work. Other people's lack of planning and cash are not your problem, so be sure to take on these "exposure" jobs with caution and strategy, and only when they suit your plans.

Writing for Free to Develop Your Portfolio or Pen Name

Sometimes, you just can't land clients without a certain style of writing, or published example in your portfolio. When I notice a new opportunity to break into an industry I am interested in, writing for free is the perfect way to get some published content for my portfolio, and future applications.

About a year ago, I was interested in doing more writing in the mental health field, but was having trouble getting clients since I simply didn't have enough published work in my portfolio to show them. To resolve this, I sought out a client on UpWork, and offered to take on one of their projects for free. With a slightly extended deadline that gave me and the client time to consult, learn to hone my work, I completed 3 articles that completely boosted my visibility. These samples have gotten me months of valuable and high-paying work, and the investment of my time for free initially has absolutely paid off.

Your Work is Valuable

The work that you do, and that all writers do, is valuable. Make no mistake. I am not saying you should not be paid, and paid well, for the wonderful creative content you provide.

That said, the industry standard of refusing any and all paid content has not proven to be a good idea for me, or for developing my career. The opportunities I have gotten through my free writing have helped me build a freelance career that serves me so well that I am often able to pass along jobs to other writers, and have a short wait list for new projects.

Annie Kiely
Annie Kiely
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Annie Kiely

Annie Kiely is a freelance writer, editor and researcher who lives in the 'burbs of Toronto with her pets and her partner. Annie is an advocate for wellness, mental health education, and literacy. She loves animals and gardening (and food).

See all posts by Annie Kiely