“Never write for free.” This was the advice I was given years ago when I decided I wanted to become a freelance writer. Like most people wanting to write, I responded with “How do I make a name for myself, then? How do I build a portfolio?” The answer was to volunteer my services to local not-for-profits, which is what I did. While it may sound like you’re still writing for free, volunteering is different. It’s as different as giving your old car to the used car dealer on the corner and giving it to the Salvation Army. One group values your contribution; the other is using you. (And by using you, they’re undercutting the value of every other writer out there, which is why so many writers fume at the ads on Craigslist that offer writers work for $2/hour and a byline.)
Though it didn’t lead directly to my current stable of projects, the strategy was pretty productive. It led to a small paid job writing member profiles for a local health club newsletter. And that led to a project writing PowerPoint slides and press releases for an area start-up. Pretty soon I had a folder full of copy I could send to editors and clients.
The question of writing for free, however, came up again last year when I was invited to write for a blog on a regular basis. I was discouraged with recent trends in the book industry and was casting about for a way to stay current with the ever-shifting sands of media. The site offered no money, but lured me in with the promise that I would learn a little something about social media marketing, and that I could use the site to promote my books. This is how I came to justify the breaking of that cardinal rule.
So I plunged in with both feet. After eight months or so, I took stock and realized I had fallen into the trap I had been so well armed against in the past. I was getting a small amount of intangible compensation of the project, but the cost was killing me. Not only was I not getting paid, I was getting wrapped up in the fantasy world of social media marketing. So alluring is this world that thousands upon thousands of writers are out there generating millions of words of useless content every day… nay, every hour. I’ve seen decent writers spend years writing for blogs, most maybe pulling in $1-2/hour when all is said and done, and yet they’ll turn down a book deal because blogging is going to lead to “a career” and a book will only bring in several thousand bucks.
My experience ended poorly, though it didn’t have to. I actually hoped and planned on adding a few original posts to the regular stream of re-purposed CVB content to the site. But, alas, it was not to be. Instead I lost a pretty decent e-mail friend and got a stream of angry messages from the site owner who mocked me for “thinking I could succeed on my own.”
All of this reinforces that sage advice I was given years ago, advice that bears repeating: Never write for free! Now to post that on the wall above my desk.
(However, if you’re still anxious to work for nothing, I have some projects I could use help on. Just drop me a line and I’ll set you up.)