Why Young Writers Should Rethink Writing for Free
Updated: Jan 5
The Wall Street Journal recently published a piece about for-profit media startups that rely on young—mostly college-aged—writers to produce a lot of their content. The kicker? They don't pay. Instead, writers get the honor of having their content published something something "exposure".
As detailed in the piece, some of these startups have received millions in funding from venture capital (VC) firms. Even though they are media companies (read: platforms that publish content), they argue they don't need to pay because they're more like social media platforms, like Facebook. This argument is not unique to these media startups—companies like Uber have stressed time and time again that drivers aren't employees, but independent contractors These arbitrary distinctions nevertheless create environments that are rife for exploitation. I’ve shared why I do not write for free, and if I do write for free, I write for me (i.e. on my own blog). I am, however, almost a decade into my career, so I know that many young writers feel they don’t have the option but to write for free. I, too, have written for free in the past. But I then found out that people would pay me to write and edit their work. I established rates for my writing and editing services, and only pitched publications that pay their writers. Writing is a time-consuming activity When we break down the amount of time it takes to produce a piece of written content—whether it be an article, a white paper, a case study, or a website—we have to factor in not just the amount of time spent on the writing itself, but on conducting research, correspondences with editors or other stakeholders, and on editing. In all, it can take hours to produce any given piece of content. When companies refuse to pay, writers lose out not just on money. They also lose out on time. Writing is an arduous practice, and getting paid fairly for it doubles as an acknowledgement from a company that it took a lot of time to write the damn thing. For example, I recently interviewed a subject for an article I was writing. Once my pitch was accepted, I corresponded with the editor to set a deadline, and I corresponded with the subject to schedule a time to chat. Our interview lasted an hour. I recorded it and paid a transcription service to transcribe it, saving me hours of agony. I spent about 30-45 minutes finessing the intro, and once I received the transcription, I sent it to the subject for corrections. Once I received the corrections, I got to work on the piece, and made changes to the phrasing of the questions I asked the subject. I sent the piece to the editor, who got back to me with minor edits. I made the edits, sent some photos, and the piece was published. In all, it took close to ten hours to produce the piece (and minus a few dozen bucks to get it transcribed) over the course of two-and-a-half weeks. I received a nominal fee for my work. Now imagine producing content on that scale, and having to do it for free. Seek out paid opportunities When building a portfolio, it’s easy to want to pitch the publications we love and hope they’ll pick us. Even if they don’t pay, we tell ourselves it’s good enough that we were chosen. Except when you realize the publishers make money off of your writing. A few years ago, I pitched a three-part series to a personal finance blog I really loved. The publisher—who started out as a blogger before accepting outside content—mentioned that they didn’t pay writers, but would consider paying a fee in the future if your post received a certain amount of views. I didn’t mind it at all; I was just happy to have been published. But I should have minded, because this publisher was earning money from running ads on their site as well as from a book deal they inked. If they were unwilling, or unable, to pay writers, the right thing to do would have been not to accept submissions. While the book deal happened as a result of their original blog, the publisher was now also making money from outsourced content (more views on their site meant more clicks on ads, which generates more revenue). I learned early on, however, that people are willing to pay. It helps that I also offer copywriting and copyediting services to companies. Doing this has helped me communicate my value as a writer to companies, and how we can both extract value by working together. While I don’t pitch articles very often—and do not possess the skills of some freelance writers who negotiate high rates for their pieces—I do not write for free out of principle. If I write for free, I send the message that it’s OK to ask others to write for free, too. And since I don’t earn my living by writing features for media companies, accepting an unpaid assignment can hurt a freelance writer who does do this for a living down the line. Instead of pitching a piece to a blog or content platform that doesn’t pay, pitch a local publication, or search for a publication that pays (on time, too) at Who Pays Writers?. (Note: Pay attention to what other writers say about their experiences working with a publisher. See what one writer had to say about her experience pitching Teen Vogue.) Create a plan Most of us have written for free in the past, and you might find that doing unpaid work did help you move the needle forward. If that’s the case, set goals for the next pieces you pitch. Aim to pitch to a pub that will pay next time, or to find publications that pay. And if that piece must get written, consider blogging your own content. —— Further reading If you’re a young writer—or know a college student who loves writing—I created a guide to help you navigate the (large? complex?) world of writing-intensive careers. You can get yours here.