There’s no such thing as a free lunch – should you write for free?

Actually, there is such a thing as a free lunch! My church put on a free lunch on the first Saturday of every month. They offer soup, fresh crusty bread and cakes, and it is very popular. Some of the homeless people in the town are waiting eagerly outside, at 12 pm, ready to come and eat and stay until the end, at 2. I have known people who are struggling, who are down on their luck, or just not making ends meet that month, come and enjoy a free hot meal. Not even a collection is taken – it is completely free.

However, when you are setting out as a writer, where do you find opportunities to write, if not for free? There are job ads everywhere, offering internships, voluntary positions, or even, the old chestnut, more paid work will be along soon! How do you know whether this is a position that will give you good experience and bring along better things, or whether you are just being taken advantage of? Here are three opportunities, where you might consider offering your services for free, and three where you would be well-advised to stay clear.

Take it!

  1. A local charity is looking for someone to help with writing some articles for the magazine. It is a subject that you know something about, and you would like to write more about. Yes – especially if you are looking for some clips for a portfolio. This kind of thing is fine, especially for smaller, local charities. The only time I would be hesitant, would be if this were for a charity that could afford to pay. Also, make it clear that it would take second place to paid work, and limit how much you produce for them.
  2. A friend is starting up a business and wants to set up a website. They are looking for help to put content together. You agree to write some pages for them, if you can link to their website on your portfolio. Yes – but with provisos! Not everyone chooses to work with friends – it can be a fast way to lose a friendship! Decide on the scope of the work before you start – how many articles, and know how long it is going to take you. Again, free work should only be done after paid work is done.
  3. You decide to join an article-writing website. The article titles are chosen by you, so you can write about what you want, and the website puts advertising on your articles. You can collect the money for the advertising, once it reaches a certain amount. Your articles are passed by an editor before being published. Again – a qualified yes! This is something that I did, when just starting out. I liked the idea that the article had to be passed by an editor, so that meant it had to pass certain style guides. It taught me how to write a headline and how to write for the web. I made a little money out of it – but don’t expect to get seriously rich from this kind of set up! Also do some research before joining such a website – some are better regarded than others. It’s best to check out reviews first.

Don’t Touch it!

  1. A company posts on a job board, looking for writers. They suggest that the opportunity will be great exposure and experience for a writer – but they can’t afford to pay yet. They say that there may be payment somewhere down the line… no! The problem is, that you don’t know the person and you have no idea about their circumstances. They may be telling the truth, but they may not. Stay clear or be taken advantage of!
  2. You are emailed by a person you don’t know, out of the blue. They offer minimal compensation, but ask for a free trial of your writing to check whether you are up to the right standard. Not recommended! If they receive enough writers willing to do a free trial – will they need to pay at all? They may have emailed you, but you have no guarantee that this work is going to be worth your while. I have occasionally sent over a trial piece – but on the understanding that if they want to use it, I want to be paid for it!
  3. You offer an article to a publication that pay for print and online pieces. Their reply tells you that they won’t be paying you because your piece will published as a blog post. You are a new writer, looking for clips – what do you do? This happened to an experienced freelancer who pulled the piece rather than give this publication free work. They would not have offered the work if they had thought that they would not be paid. This feels like a scam – and you should value your work too much to be taken in by it. If something doesn’t feel right – then walk away. There will be other opportunities.
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