Should Freelance Writers Ever Write for Free?

Maintaining your blog and creating long-form downloadable content takes time, energy, and skill. And you should be paid for your work. But should you ever write for free if you are a freelance writer or blogger? How do you know if the “exposure” is worth the work?

Getting Paid to Write is Hard

It’s not easy to find paid writing gigs. Or at least, gigs that pay you enough to do something more than slap together a formulaic post and move on to the next article. Sure, there are plenty of sites out there that pay a few bucks each for web content pieces. But it is hard to live off of their going rates.

I’ve talked about this before, but writers and bloggers who want to get paid for their writing need to develop a niche that people will pay for. In my case, that’s legal writing. I use my J.D. and my experience running a law firm to leverage myself as the Legal Linguist, and translate legalese to layperson for those who would rather not do it themselves.

For others, it may be travel, cooking, gardening, or any other skill you have that others don’t. You can combine that skill with strategies like affiliated links, blog job boards, and networking with online magazines to develop a book of business that will keep you in the black.

Taking Time Out to Write for Yourself

But once writing becomes a job instead of a hobby, it can be hard to find the joy in the craft. For me, that comes from taking time out to write for myself too. Depending on your preferences, this could mean anything from journaling in the morning or before bed, to crafting crazy fantasy worlds, to writing collaborative scenes with friends. It all counts. The important thing is to connect with the passion you had for writing that got you started on this career path in the first place.

And it doesn’t matter if that writing will ever make you money. That’s not to say you should actively avoid pitching your fantasy novel or hide your memoir. But if it’s not up to publication quality, that’s okay too. If all you do is commit to putting 50,000 words on a page during National Novel Writing Month, you will already be better for it than if you spend all your time blogging about the next version of a piece of software that has been around since the 90s.

Should You Ever Write for Free?

But what about when someone else asks you to write something for them? You have the skills. Should you say yes? It depends. There are a lot of factors to consider before you put fingers to keyboard for “exposure” or “as a favor”, including:

  • Who is asking? (Let’s be honest, spouses and family can ask for pretty much anything.)
  • How long will the project actually take including all edits and revisions?
  • Will the project force other paying work to the side?
  • Is it for a cause you believe in?
  • Will it lead to other, paying work?
  • Will it help fill out your resume as a published author in your field?

Before we jump into when it is appropriate to work for free, it is worth noting that there may be money available if you ask. Just because a person doesn’t immediately offer to pay you for your writing doesn’t mean you can’t be paid for your work. Be prepared. Have a polite response ready that explains that writing is your livelihood, and describes your regular rates. You’d be surprised how often friends and even family may come around to paying you for your work.

For me, there are a few people and organizations that can get me to say yes every time. I will write anything my husband needs written (sometimes even after he’s written it himself). I will almost never turn down a request for contribution from the ACLU of Michigan or my church, because I believe in their missions.

I also write for the Michigan Institute of Continuing Legal Education. Unlike the other free writing I do, this one is strategic. Some of the work I do for ICLE is paid, but it is in the form of an honorarium or stipend, and doesn’t compare to my freelance writing rates. However, by writing source materials for other lawyers, I make myself visible as an author within the statewide bar association. It also fleshes out my resume as a published lawyer to be able to say that I have 6 publications with the statewide provider of high-quality legal resources.

My most recent contribution is as a contributor to Michigan Family Law, Seventh Edition. In the upcoming Eighth Edition, I and my co-author Matthew Catchick will be breaking down the issues of Paternity and the Revocation of Paternity in a new way, so our fellow lawyers can more easily understand and use the laws in their own cases.

Even as a freelance writer, there are times when you should write for free. When the request comes from a person you love, a cause you care about, or an organization that really can create exposure for future work, it may be worth it to say yes to a free gig. Just be clear about the scope of the project, the time it will take, and what you are getting out of it before you take on the work.


Lisa Schmidt is a writer for Legal Linguist in Ferndale, Michigan. She writes blogs and websites for law firms and small businesses. If you need help keeping your blog on track, contact Legal Linguist today to schedule a meeting.

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