When is it Right to Write for Free?

Writing without compensation is no doubt a hot button for bloggers and food writers these days. As bloggers we want the recognition for writing and we know if we don’t have prior writing experience under our belt, we have to pay our dues. Food critics dislike our writing for free as it lowers their earning potential in turn. So when is it right to write for free? The answer is when it benefits you as much or more than it costs you.

I’ve been freelance writing for three years. I knew in the beginning I’d have to work for free, so I started writing for a women’s website where I learned lots about writing for the online world and Search Engine Optimization, etc. I since wrote for a couple other online publications, although the compensation was little or nothing, my meal was taken care of and I had the opportunity to re-post that content on my food blog.

About a year ago, I just about jumped out of my skin when a local print magazine asked me if I would be interested in writing a monthly food column for them. Yes! Finally, my talents are being recognized! I drove across town eagerly anticipating sharing all the thoughts about what we could do with this column and how great it would be. We met in their conference room (me, the president and owner along with three other editors), and discussed the process of how the column would work – each of them giving their input and having to sign off on my review. We discussed everything involved except for one thing – payment.

As uncomfortable as it made me to ask, I couldn’t leave before finding out how much they were going to pay me. He boldly declared “We don’t pay our writers anything. They simply get a mention of their website in the byline of their articles instead of payment.”

I sat there, stunned and speechless for a minute while I wrapped my head around the idea that this magazine that makes lots of money from its advertisers isn’t willing to pay me a penny for my writing. I then politely thanked him for his time and told him I would consider the offer and let him know my answer in a couple days.

Ultimately, I decided that this wouldn’t be a good fit. I knew that there would be lots of revisions and critiquing from not one but the three editors I’d met with. In other words, it would be exactly like having a job just without any compensation. When I found out the meal allowance was next to nothing, it made it even easier to turn down the offer.

If your aspirations are to become a paid food writer, be aware you’ll have to pay your dues. You’ll probably have to write for free for some period of time to gain exposure and experience. You may even have to write about topics you have no interest in as well.

After you gain experience and are published in some online sites, make note of this in your portfolio. When you feel you’ve gotten sufficient experience, then start charging for your writing. You may feel inclined to write for free if it is tremendous opportunity – perhaps a magazine you’ve always wanted to contribute to or a guest post on a blog you admire.

Several factors to consider:

  • Are meals compensated?
  • Can you re-post the article on your blog?
  • If you sever ties do you still own the rights to these articles?

It is up to you whether you write for free or not. My advice is don’t ever do it because you don’t feel worthy. Blog traffic and exposure is great up to a certain point but it doesn’t pay the bills. Do you think your hair stylist, trash person, or car mechanic is willing to work for nothing?

As an observation, it seems that when we have a talent or something that comes naturally, we often discredit or undervalue it. Keep in mind that if you don’t value yourself, your skills and your talent, no one else will.

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