"Required reading" for today's smart writer.

"Required reading" for today's smart writer.
As featured on: Pro Blogger, Men With Pens, Write to Done, Tiny Buddha, LifeHack, Technorati, Date My Pet, South 85 Literary Journal and other award-winning sites.

Monday, May 9, 2011

5 Ways Writing for Free Can Get You Paid!

Many seasoned scribes turn their noses up at the prospect of “no pay” projects.
They consider “pro bono” a no-no.
In fact, it’s a bone of contention addressed on writers’ bulletin boards and popular blogs across the Web.
After all, as “professionals,” these writers feel they’ve paid their dues and expect to be compensated accordingly.
Perhaps you’re one of them.

As a veteran freelancer who has successfully earned thousands of dollars for hundreds of articles, commentary pieces, essays, and even verse, I can attest that writing for free can indeed be profitable. That is, if you know the unwritten rules of the “road less traveled.”

As a point of reference, other creatives “labor in love” to establish themselves in their careers, particularly in the initial stages. It’s not unheard of. For example, best-selling author, Michael Baisden worked for free as a radio host for Kiss-FM in New York, because they originally didn’t have a budget for him, and later became a huge success.

With this in mind, here are five often overlooked ways writing for free can earn you cash for your efforts and elevate your career.

1. It helps to build your portfolio. Editors seeking to add to their stable of writers often request writing samples and resumes for a reason. Your publishing credits and types of publications for which you’ve written speak to your versatility, skill set, and experience. The more you’ve written, the more likely you’ll be hired to write more.

2. It helps to hone your craft. A writer buddy of mine recently shared how her various free creative projects allowed her to discover her “voice”, increase her knowledge base, and sharpen her skills. She’s now a paid (and popular) columnist for her city’s newspaper. Practice makes perfect.

3. It establishes important contacts and networking relationships. As they say, sometimes getting that lucky break can be a matter of not what you know, but who you know. Consider that an editor with “connections” whom you’ve enjoyed a good working relationship may be in a position to refer you to other projects with future pay.

4. It gets your foot in the door. Sometimes a publication that can’t pay you in the beginning, will “come up with the funds” if you’re able to establish your value by the quality of your work and your level of commitment. Here‘s a case in point. One of my first unpaid publishing credits, (a commentary piece I wrote for a popular singles’ publication), ended up impressing the editor so much, that she wanted to see more of my work. She “officially” hired me a few months down the line as a contributing writer, and has been one of my longest and most profitable gigs to date.

5. It helps to increase your confidence---which leads to enhanced perception.
Let’s face it: whether it’s cooking, dancing, or dating, the more experience you get under your belt, the “bigger” you feel. And repeated bylines have the same effect. The better you feel about yourself, the more you’re able to project that “I can” attitude and convince others to have confidence in you too.

Now that you know how it works, here are a few strategies to work it!

1. Keep in mind that writing for free should not be indefinite, but have time limits. Give it a deadline. Say maybe two or three months with a particular publication. At that time, consider approaching the editor with your track record and your desire to earn pay for your say. After all, you never know until you’ve tried.

2. Have a strategy. Target the most impressive publications if you’re going to write for free. Sometimes it’s a matter of perception. For example, an unpaid commentary piece you’ve had published in Newsweek or L.A. Times would mean more to your career than earning 10 bucks from a virtually obscure or new publication.

Approached correctly, writing for free can increase your visibility, your confidence and your bottom line!

Would you write for free? What criteria do you use to decide?

Image photographer worradmu


  1. I write for free if the pay is, as you say, down the road in a credit for my resume. But, I also write for free on my blog and on Twitter. Sometimes we do not think about that, but it is a lot of writing. It is a service to my readers. And it will pay...someday...I hope. AND, I also write for free if it's a devotional or for a ministry. I consider it my "free will offering."

  2. Hi Carol,

    Thanks for starting the discussion. You're right; there's definitely a case for free writing at times.

    It's true also, that blogging for free can be a lot of hard work. That's why "pay" from readers'comments can be of such value.

    I appreciate your time and feedback.

  3. Good points, Jennifer. You define some I hadn't given much thought to. I'd say I agree with Carol. I don't mind free projects but I often need to remind myself to focus on where I'd like to go with my writing, and if these things hinder in any way. And blogging - oh my yes, that's one that takes time. We should set up some kind of program where we get paid in chocolate for our blog content. I'll work on that one...

  4. Jennifer Brown BanksMay 9, 2011 at 8:21 AM

    Thanks, Karen. How often you make my week with your responses and creative comments. ;-) Count me in for the chocolate!

  5. I've written a few things for free (usually for nonprofits) and the "exposure" gained hasn't been enough to warrant the work I put into the piece.

    I think the expectation that writers should ever write for free is just another way that our profession is devalued. I wouldn't expect to be able to visit a doctor for a few months and decide if I like her before I decide to start paying her. I can't take home a dress for free so that I can decide whether I want to buy more clothes from that store.

    I'll write an occasional piece for a friend's blog, or a press release for a friend's startup, but that's it. I have a great deal of education and experience that makes me good at what I do, so no one should expect to get that from me for nothing.

    If someone wants to print anything that I write they'd better be planning on sending me a check! :)

  6. I have done a lot of writing without payment. I can definitely say that along with the connection and commeraderie, this kind of writing has impacted by writing. Even as far back as college, the professor for whom I was a research assistant, encouraged me to use a more active voice. I think it is important to know our limits when writing for free. It is also important to trust we never truly know how it will benefit our writing.

  7. Jennifer Brown BanksMay 9, 2011 at 3:48 PM


    I appreciate your time and thoughtful commments here. You make some valid points. I would tend to disagree that having an extensive education and being skilled means that a freebie or two would be out of the question. As I stated before, lawyers do pro-bono work, and they're certainly highly credentialed professionals.

    Nobody would look down on them for this.
    I think that it's a matter of personal preference and strategy.

    Again, thanks for adding to the mix.

  8. Jennifer Brown BanksMay 9, 2011 at 3:53 PM


    Great points to ponder. I agree that "compensation" is not always monetary. I also would say that you're spot on in stating that we should know our limits when doing free work.

    Thanks for sharing!

  9. Hi Jen,
    Writing for free is how I got my start. You’ll hear no complaints about doing free work from me.
    It led to my current paid position and definitely increased my “marketability” and writing confidence. During the interview, my soon-to-be editor wanted to see samples of my work. The only articles I had in my portfolio were “free” stories I had written for websites and my blog. Those freebies helped me land the job, even though I had zero experience writing for a newspaper.
    I hope my head never swells so much that I think I’m above pro bono work.

  10. Sometimes the money isn't the most important thing. I am pouring my heart out in each project I do in Peter's memory. I don't get paid a cent; however I've received many compliments on my writing and knowing that it helps someone have a better day to me is worth more than all the money in the world.
    Once again an insightful blog, Ms. Banks :)

  11. Jennifer Brown BanksMay 9, 2011 at 5:50 PM

    Hey Peter's Page!

    How are you? Great to see you on the scene. You make an excellent point. And you're an excellent example with the work you do. After all, it's how we met online, right? ;-) Some things have greater value than cash.

  12. Jennifer:
    Most of my writing, thus far, has been 'pro bono', if you look at it as dollars and cents received. I write my blog, two newsletters for a faith-based nonprofit ministry,and some short plays for my church's drama ministry. One of the short plays touched a gentleman so much that he went to the altar and got right with Jesus. No amount of money could have equalled seeing that.

    It is my hope to find some paying outlet for my writing, in order to supplement my income. But, until that happens, I don't mind writing 'pro bono'.

  13. Jennifer Brown BanksMay 9, 2011 at 7:10 PM


    Happy to get your input on this. You bring up a good example here--making a positive impact in someone's life can be just as enriching as making some extra cash. And I'm a firm believer that when you sow good seeds the harvest is bountiful. :-)Though it may take awhile. Thanks for your thoughts.

  14. These are all good points Jennifer! I most certianly would write for free and actually have done that. It's the only way my foot will stay in the door and keep me "out there".

  15. Andrea,

    Thanks so much for your valuable input. You are indeed the "writing buddy" I referred to in this post. It works if you work it!
    Much continued success!

  16. Yvonne,

    Thanks for stopping by and weighing in. Much appreciated!

  17. Having a strategy is a good point. Nice post Jennifer!

  18. Jennifer Brown BanksMay 11, 2011 at 10:25 AM

    Thanks, Wendy! Good to see you back. :-)

  19. Jennifer Brown BanksMay 11, 2011 at 3:13 PM

    On a final note, I would be remiss If I neglected to mention how "guest post blogging", (which is typically done for free), can lead to a blogging career--like it has for me.

  20. Hi, Jennifer:
    Thank you for thoughfully urging us to keep one eye on the long-run benefits of our present choices. It makes sense to spend some time investing so as to reap the rewards at a later date.


  21. Working for free is definitely building my portfolio but guest blogging is building my credibility. So, even after you think you should be getting paid for assignments, it is still good to work for free...within reason.

  22. Jennifer Brown BanksMay 14, 2011 at 1:42 PM

    Hi Janette,

    It's always a pleasure to connect with you. Thanks for stopping by. Missed u. :-)

  23. Jennifer Brown BanksMay 14, 2011 at 1:43 PM


    Thanks for sharing your perspective.