When It's OK To Write For Free

Doing freebie articles and blog posts is almost universally considered a terrible move for your career and for the entire writing trade. However, there are times when you should take off your Serious Ethics hat and try giving away your thoughts.

Picture: r3v || cls/Flickr

Ann Friedman writes at the Columbia Journalism Review about her own dilemma in wanting to get paid for her work as a freelance writer. Sometimes, she wanted to get certain pieces into certain venues, no matter the cost. She lays out what seems like a simple two-step test to determine if it's worth the sweat of your word processor to post for free. One of them:

I, for example, make these silly, hand-drawn charts, which I publish at The Hairpin. This is something I do for fun, and I'd make these pie charts whether or not anyone wanted to publish them. After I published a few and people seemed to like them, I made it a goal to find a publication to pay me for similar work. And I did — a monthly magazine commissioned me to do a recurring chart feature for its front-of-book. It's a paid gig I never would have gotten without an unpaid one.

Have you flipped around an unpaid obsession into a paid gig?

Freelancing for free : Columbia Journalism Review [Columbia Journalism Review]


    Writing thing for free is bad? I can see how YOU might think so but would hope the entirety of academia would disagree...

    Writing for free is almost always a bad thing for people who earn their money off of it. If academics just posted research on blogs they would never get indexed and would therefore never receive grant funding.

    You may feel posting your thoughts in a comments section may be a worth while expression of 'writing for free', however no one can make a living from perpetually writing for free.

    Last edited 08/03/13 2:44 pm

      The article is suggesting that by writing for free, you damage your ability (and the ability of others in the trade) to earn money on other written work. This is not true. It's never a bad thing for your career to write for free.

        If writing for free became the norm then only uninformed hacks would fill the marketplace. Decent writing requires people who are worth being paid to do so. Writing -or any other work to get you noticed- is okay in extremely small doses. After that it effects the market and everyone else starts getting paid less for their writing. So saying its 'Writing for free is never a bad thing' is hogwash.

          It's not hogwash, it's reality. The myth that writing for free harms either a writer's career or the professional writing industry as a whole is protectionism perpetuated by writers of a particular mindset who mistakenly believe every free article is lost income. It's very similar to the old-market flawed reasoning the music and film industries use when they claim every pirated work is a lost sale.

          In reality, free written work does two things and two things only: it takes time, and it increases publicity. At a fundamental level, it's the nature of free market trade that producers compete to sell their product at the highest price the consumer is willing to pay, and all else being equal, consumers will seek the lowest price the producer is willing to accept. This is why your notion that 'uninformed hacks' filling the market will harm quality producers is wrong: if there is no demand for a low quality product, it doesn't matter how many low quality products are on the market because they won't sell. If they do sell, then there was obviously a demand for those products. Trying to force all paid written work to be only high-value, high-quality work is akin to trying to make sure the mobile phone market is composed only of top-end iPhones and Android devices. It simply doesn't work. The demand for lower-end products remains whether the market caters for it or not and the market itself withers and shrinks if it doesn't. Another good example is computer equipment, where the market is orders of magnitude larger and healthier now, with a broad range of products at all levels of affordability, than it was 30 years ago with only high prices, selling only to a small group of consumers.

          The internet has been around for long enough that you should be well aware that just because anyone can write doesn't mean anyone else assigns value to that writing. Consumers that buy written work to onsell (eg. blogs, newspapers, magazines) have their own commercial reasons not to buy low quality work, because it reduces the profit potential of the onsold product. They will pay for high quality work even if cheaper (or free) low quality work is available. The vast bulk of the market for professional writing is that type of consumer. Free work makes no difference at all to that consumer base, because quality, not price, is the primary factor in its choice of purchases.

          On a final note, as long as producers exist, it's foolish to think that a free market can be controlled by any of them. It's unethical and disrespectful to the consumer for a producer to try to artificially interfere with market mechanics to force the price of a product to hold or rise in value. In fact, there are laws specifically against producers colluding to force prices high. Writers should act in their own best interests, including doing free work if they choose to, without people with ulterior motives trying to force upon them the false notion that it's harmful to themselves and the industry.

          Last edited 09/03/13 5:35 pm

    Could you please unpack "Doing freebie articles and blog posts is almost universally considered a terrible move for your career and for the entire writing trade."
    I would really like to hear your reasons for this and which careers it hurts. I would like to do some more writing and I was under the impression that blogs are good way to start.

    I always assumed 9/10ths of what I read on these websites was written for free.

    I dunno who'd pay for it.

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