should writers write for free?

Me in Peru, not contemplating whether writers should write for free.

A reader recently asked if she should write for free for a website, and give up copyright of the article. Here’s her dilemma:

“I volunteered to write an article for a website for free, assuming that I would at least get to retain rights to the article and pitch it to other websites. Come to find out that this isn’t the case, they want the rights. So, what would you do in this situation? I think this would be good for experience and portfolio-building, but I don’t like the idea of giving away my articles for free and not being able to retain rights.” – on Best Ways for New Freelance Writers to Start Selling Articles.

My answer depends on how much experience she has, how long it’ll take to write the article, and what type of byline she’ll get. Since she has no experience writing, I think she should write for free and relinquish copyright of the article.

That said, however, if it takes more than three hours to write the article and it involves interviews, research, and/or photos, then I’d negotiate the rights with the publisher or editor. I’d say something like, “I welcome the opportunity to write for you! However, since this article is 1,000 words and involves at least an hour of research, I’d like to retain copyright. Would this work for you?”

Don’t be afraid to negotiate, fellow scribes. The worst they can do is say no.

About your byline: do you get a short bio and link back to your blog or website? This is huge! That’s another thing to negotiate in lieu of pay. If you’ve never written a bio, read How to Write an Author Bio to Accompany Your Byline.

Finally, remember that many websites want fresh content. They don’t want to publish an article that has already been published online. So, even if you retained copyright of your article, you may not be able to get your article published elsewhere. I’ve found it’s more efficient and productive to pitch and write new articles, instead of trying to re-sell old articles (though it depends on the content and age of those old articles – and who I’m trying to sell them to).

5 Reasons to Write for Free

  1. You need clips for your portfolio.
  2. You need as much writing experience as possible.
  3. You will make connections with other readers, writers, and even editors. For instance, Honor wrote 10 Most Common Grammatical Errors – and How to Fix Them for free, and it’s been one of my most popular articles since I published it! Look how many comments she has. That’s the type of experience you need.
  4. The website is popular, and your writing will be seen by hundreds of readers (or even thousands!). If the site is a dud, then don’t write for free. And, don’t give up copyright of your article.
  5. Most worthwhile careers involve some sort of apprenticeship or internship. For instance, I’m working towards my MSW at UBC. My practicum involves 450 hours of work experience…all for free. I’m trading my time for on-the-job experience, which is invaluable.

I know there are other reasons to write for free – and even to relinquish copyright of your article – but I have a one-hour massage scheduled for 45 minutes from now. I must go.

Anyone have anything to add?

For more info on starting out as a freelancer, read 5 Tips for Making a Living as a Writer.

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6 thoughts on “5 Reasons to Write for Free”

  1. Excellent post, Laurie. Even though I know there are advantages to it, I’m still leery of writing for free, especially if there’s no byline and no rights. I’ve had a couple of clients take the sample piece and I never heard from them again.

    Guest posting, though, is different. The links back to your page in your bio are invaluable, especially if you use your keywords as the links in your bio.

    The time spent guest blogging is well worth it, but that’s the only writing I’ll give away anymore. I’ll still write free samples, but I let them know that I’ll need to be compensated before they can be published.

  2. Hi Harjeet,

    If I have a niche, such as “how to blog”, then I might post on non niche blogs because there is still a connection! For example, I’d write a “how to blog” article for a gardening blog IF the tips centred around how to run a garden blog. I hope this makes sense.

    So yes, I’d write free blog posts for non niche blogs if there is some logical way to connect the niche with the non niche.

    If you have a specific example, I can give you a more specific answer!

    Thank you,

  3. Every writers has their reasons to keep their names published and/or retain their copyright.

    However, there are chances that these writers are hired as ghostwriters. Well, although they are paid for the job, but they don’t have the copyright of the articles they wrote. And as ghostwriters, obviously, their names aren’t mentioned.

    And for a writing for a hobby? Anyone can do anything for their hobby 🙂

  4. U Mean Guest Posting. Yes it is the best way to get high quality backlink to your site. But is it okay to post on non niche blogs?