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Writing for free: Should you ever do it as a freelance writer?

In the majority of cases, writing for free is a waste of time. Except when it’s not.

As a freelancer writing, hearing that you’ll be “paid” through “exposure” can make you groan. You don’t want to write for free when you’ve got food to put on the table.

But there seem to be plenty of big publications out there saying that you’ll need to write for free. And I don’t mean writing for revenue share (that’s not free) but actually writing for free. You get nothing but your byline in return.

The Huff Post and a few other big named places will offer “exposure” to writers. Is it ever going to be worth it? Could you get the exposure? Let’s take a look at when it could be beneficial.

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When is writing for free worthwhile?

Writing for free has caused quite a storm on the internet over the years. Many writers blame freelancers accepting pro bono work for more businesses expecting people to write for nothing at all; to be happy with a backlink.

Personally, I don’t believe it’s the writers who are at fault for this. It’s a business’ unrealistic view that they can get good quality work without having to pay for it. It’s the devaluation of writing, based on the idea that anyone can do it.

The ability to set up blogs easily and poorly written websites that have simple scraped content and reworded them extremely badly have led to a world where web owners think they can get something for nothing.

It’s also a problem with writing being international. Someone in a third world country has a lower financial outgoing compared to me (and the rest of the first world). Depending on where you live, $10 per day could feed a family of four three meals. You’d be lucky to find that happening in the western world.

I’m not saying that writers shouldn’t offer what they want for business, but I’m saying that because these writers do, businesses expect other bloggers and writers to do the same.

But enough of that. This isn’t about why businesses expect content for nothing. This is about why writing for free is worthwhile.

It is if you want to break into a new niche with no way of doing it. I opted for The Huff Post when I wanted to break into a new niche. I’ve also written for a charity for free in return for a testimonial.

I’ve guest posted on blogs for free for the exposure. The blogs have a large following and it’s helped to get my name out there. I always make sure I get a backlink to my site or a social media page when offering guest posts.

So, yes, writing for exposure can be good. But you do have to limit it. Three or four pieces per niche (each one on different sites) is more than enough.

The aim is to make it work for you. If you want your byline on Entrepreneur, for example, one post isn’t going to be that bad. You can legitimately say your name is there and link back to your post. That shows your authority on that website. But any more than that and it’s not going to do you any favors.

I find this better than creating a piece to place on my own website. Pieces for companies will go through an editorial process and show that I can work with editors. Pieces on my own blog don’t quite go through that—I decide when they’re done.

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Write for free for experience in a style of writing

When I want to break into a new area of writing, I’ll do my research and find a company that I can write for pro bono. This gives me the experience of writing in that style and a clip to send to other businesses.

I ask for testimonials afterwards and will set it in the contract that they don’t inform anyone that I’ve written for nothing—I don’t want to set a precedent. The pay has never really come up, so it may not be a problem but I’d rather it not be.

The benefit of a testimonial is that you can put it on your website. You get to show potential clients what others think of your work.

I also recommend asking for testimonials from anyone you have worked with. The more you have, the better it looks.

Is Writing for Free Ever Worth It?

Writing for charities I believe in

A popular option when I write for free is when there’s a charity that I believe in. Not only does it give me exposure and experience writing, but I help a cause that I really want to stand up for.

I don’t make this a regular part of my month since I do need money to live on and feed my family, but it’s great every now and then. Charities are always looking for writers to offer them free content—not because they don’t want to pay but because they don’t have the budget.

I’ve also been on radio shows for free to help promote a charity I believe in, based on an article I’ve written for that charity. This is my time that I’ve used, but I’ve gained exposure.

There are certainly times that writing for free is worthwhile. It’s all about doing it carefully and effectively. You won’t want to give out free samples to business owners. You want to create backlinks to your website and offer content that will help you gain a good private client base.

Consider the benefits and offer to write for free at times. You’ll be surprised at how exposure can help your business.

But do it carefully. It needs to work in your favor.

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