Why You Should Write for Free (Or What Tim Kreider Should Do Instead of Complaining)

October 29, 2013 · 41 comments

Last weekend The New York Times featured an opinion piece called, Slaves of the Internet, Unite!

Image: Yup, the Internet can actually help your writing career.

Yup, the Internet can actually help your writing career.

The column revolved around a topic that seems to gain steam every few months: whether writers should write for free. The author, essayist Tim Kreider, argued, quite emphatically, that the answer is no. He even went so far to encourage his less experienced peers to turn down unpaid writing opportunities “as a matter of principle.” He advised, “Do it for your colleagues, your fellow artists, because if we all consistently say no they might, eventually, take the hint.”

This would be a great call to action if it weren’t for one tiny detail: The world of work — especially writing — has changed.

We no longer live and work in the world Kreider remembers. Most publications don’t pay, much less pay well, for quality articles, and they’re not going to return to their old ways simply because a small group of Kreider fans stop writing for them.

In fact, no longer writing for publications that don’t pay is pretty much the WORST thing young professionals can do for their career. Abiding by the rules of the old workplace, the one we lived in before the Internet changed everything, will do you absolutely no good. Instead of following Kreider’s advice and complaining about low rates, what writers should do — not to mention Kreider himself — is make that new economy work for you.

What? Think differently? Come out of denial mode?

Yup. Making the new economy work for you means coming to terms with the fact that you’re never going to get paid big bucks for writing alone. The reality is that to make a living as a writer today, you have to be more than a writer. You have to grow a community around what you create, you have to promote your work (no matter how much you don’t want to), and you have to think outside the box about how you earn.

Guess what’s a key piece of all those things? WRITING FOR FREE. (Click to tweet this.)

Writing for free helps you gain visibility and develop a network of people who will actually pay for something you offer, so long as you’re smart enough to monetize that opportunity.

Here’s an example from my own career. Mind you, I have been published in lots of well-known publications, both traditional and new-age, including the Houston Chronicle, Salon, U.S. News & World Report, Lifehacker, Problogger and The Chicago Tribune. Yet I still write for free because it helps me make a living.

Mashable doesn’t pay for my posts,** but they do link to my site. If I sat around complaining about why they don’t pay or worse, simply didn’t write for them, I’d be broke. Instead, I monetize the opportunity. The link goes to my newsletter, and many of those newsletter readers later purchase my ebooks and courses, from which I earn thousands of dollars each month.

(This model gets tricky for journalists, who must remain impartial and can’t link directly or indirectly to anything that might help them make money. But plenty of writers who produce free work aren’t journalists, and even those like Kreider who freely express their opinions have some wiggle room.)

Kreider* himself proves my point in this killer of a paragraph:

It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge. I now contribute to some of the most prestigious online publications in the English-speaking world, for which I am paid the same amount as, if not less than, I was paid by my local alternative weekly when I sold my first piece of writing for print in 1989. More recently, I had the essay equivalent of a hit single “” endlessly linked to, forwarded and reposted. A friend of mine joked, wistfully, “If you had a dime for every time someone posted that …” Calculating the theoretical sum of those dimes, it didn’t seem all that funny.

Wait, so his work is easily digitized (remember: digital work has high profit margins), gets tons of traffic and is often shared? I wanted to poke my eye out when I read this, because he SHOULD have had a dime — or ten dimes or even 100 dimes — every time someone clicked over to his story! Can you say MISSED OPPORTUNITY?

To all the Kreiders of the world, I say: stop complaining, stop asking others to complain with you, and start figuring out how to make money in the new economy. We’ll all be happier if you have more cash in your pocket.

*Mashable actually does pay for posts, $100 last I checked — but only if you don’t include a link in your bio. That link is far more valuable to me than $100.

**I have absolutely nothing against Kreider other than the amount of hair I pulled out while reading his column.

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{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

Amanda October 29, 2013 at 5:20 pm

Thanks for writing this! While I don\\\’t think every freelance writer is cut out to do what you do with your business, Alexis (full-on biz with newsletters, e-books and courses) or wants to do so, you\\\’re certainly a good example of how to deal with the fact things have changed, because they aren\\\’t going back to the nostalgic times Kreider might remember. As someone trying to build a freelance portfolio, the notion that I should help my fellow writers by turning down outlets that don\\\’t pay me seems sort of absurd. Of course I\\\’d rather be paid than not, but exposure is a very real motivator and while some might be in a place in their career where they don\\\’t need exposure (perhaps Kreider) I\\\\\\\’m unclear as to why I should help them if I\\\’m still trying to \\\”make it.\\\” Those with name recognition usually can get into publications that do pay, or be on staff somewhere. More importantly, it would be deleterious to the highest aim of the internet — the democratization of words and thoughts — if we all just stopped putting stuff out there without pay. Derek put it better in his Atlantic piece: \\\”The Web is awash with words, and if everybody insisted on publishing only those words agreed upon by paid contract, the Internet and the world of letters would be considerably more empty.\\\

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Alexis Grant November 5, 2013 at 4:34 pm

Thanks for chiming in, Amanda! (And I know WP added all those slashes on you… sorry.)
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NOAEfame October 29, 2013 at 5:57 pm

I should be feeling bad about the whole thing; this is the funniest article I have read in a long time. Writing has changed; I think there are more problems coming. You are right because most of the people giving out free stuff are not journalist. My biggest problem is packaging and I write poetry. I wish you can feel my heart beat now. I am a writer so poor and broke. Also promoting any work is hard in the sense that when you do they are not buying. Alexis you are a hard worker. I do not know how you do it.
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Rob October 29, 2013 at 6:24 pm

I like how you stress the self-reliance and ingenuity necessary for writers today, in order to be more successful and build their OWN audiences today. Great post!
-Rob
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Alexis Grant November 5, 2013 at 4:34 pm

Yes — you added in the word I should’ve ingenuity 🙂

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Shae October 30, 2013 at 1:38 am

Yep I agree. I write a few regular guest posts for free and I am also contributing and donating my time to a number of entrepreneurial summits and coaching programs for free too. Why? Because they have my ideal customer (a number of them) and it will only help build my email list and encourage people to work with me 1:1. Monetisation right there.
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Leigh October 30, 2013 at 5:11 pm

I go back and forth on this one. I know many very successful writers who write for free, but yes, they all have their own businesses that they promote via writing.

What if you just want to freelance write for others and build your career that way? I guess the bottom line is that doesn’t work so well anymore.

Funny, too, bc the last two posts I wrote were all about how writers can’t just write but need an overarching business goal.

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Alexis Grant November 5, 2013 at 4:35 pm

Leigh — exactly. It’s the same thing we tell our clients: don’t bother putting content out there if you don’t have a plan for converting readers. What’s your end goal?

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Michael Feeley October 31, 2013 at 12:00 am

Well said Alexis. I like – \’Stop Complaining\’…writers can lock themselves down with sitting on the fence…if I do this then…but what if…and they never try! Just splash around and discover how to make a living in this present world. Sometimes free is a huge benefit as you mention about linking to your work.I had a great singing teacher who taught me this — \’Hand out your card all over the place, stand up and sing for free and sing wherever you can. One day someone picks up your card and you have a paying job…some pay well and some not but you\’re doing what you love and you\’ll figure out how to make a living.\’I\’m finding my way as a writer and the path is good. Some of it pays and some is free but it\’s so worth it because the focus is on helping people to figure out what they want to do with their lives and making that happen. Writing is a means to achieve that big time and in a positive way.Thanks for your courage and exact, passionate point of view.

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Alexis Grant November 5, 2013 at 4:35 pm

Thanks for loving my tough-love, Michael!

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Jeffrey Trull October 31, 2013 at 1:38 am

Excellent piece! I completely agree with you.

I think there are some writers out there who are never going to get it (or simply don’t want to get it). Maybe Tim is one of them. I understand where writers like this are coming from as yes, writing as they once knew it isn’t the same. But I think if you really feel this way, there’s no reason to complain. Either make a change or live with the choice you’ve made as a writer.
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Alexis Grant November 5, 2013 at 4:36 pm

EXACTLY, Jeffrey. Thanks for stopping by. And I see you’ve got a post on content, which I’m heading off to read now…

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Shawndra October 31, 2013 at 6:40 pm

While I totally agree with the blogging, guest blogging, building your brand type of free content, I do feel that there are too many people who ask for free or reduced prices when it comes to written content (including social media content). So, there’s the things you do for free because they build your brand, and then there’s the things you shouldn’t do for free or cheaply, which means: avoiding content mills and clients who don’t value your work for what it’s worth as well as seeking out better paying magazines/websites if you’re a freelance writer. But like you said, we all have to be more than writers and use our writing skills to make money in all kinds of ways. I wrote about this topic of diversifying and discovering alternate income streams recently on Carol Tice’s blog because there are lots of ways to make money writing–just not always by the ways Tim is nostalgic for 🙂
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Alexis Grant November 5, 2013 at 4:38 pm

Yes, yes! There are lots of ways to make money as a writer — so right.

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Julie @ Life and Chai November 1, 2013 at 9:17 am

A great post Alexis, and something that needed to be said. I\’ve been a journalist for 20 years (freelance for the past four) and I get paid very good rates for my professional work. But I\’ve also recently launched my lifestyle blog, and I\’m happy to write for free if it means I get to promote my new site and I think there will be some kind of return (most notably, more traffic).However, I do also agree with Shawndra that there\’s some things you should never do for free. You just have to weigh things up on an individual basis. If you\’re not happy writing something for free, don\’t do it!

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Alexis Grant November 5, 2013 at 4:39 pm

Yay! A journo weighs in — and one that’s been at it for a while. Thanks for your perspective.

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Adam November 1, 2013 at 12:11 pm

Great article! I’ve been trying to show people these points for the past several months – always good to see someone else with a similar philosophy!

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Rachelle November 1, 2013 at 12:55 pm

Your article contradicts itself. You are not writing for “free.” You are making money from your content. Perhaps, you are not getting paid directly but you are making money. Perhaps your article heading should be changed to “Write only if you can make money by doing so.”

Writing an article only for EXPOSURE it is a complete waste of time, unless you have a product (other than your paid writing services) to sell.

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Alexis Grant November 5, 2013 at 4:40 pm

Hi Rachelle,

It sounds like we agree completely. But I’d take it a step further and say, if you’re writing for exposure, it’s silly NOT to have some way to capitalize on that. Exposure for the sake of exposure does not pay the bills. We’ve gotta be smarter than that.
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Katie November 1, 2013 at 9:39 pm

Great post. While I am not a full-time freelancer, I do write on the side and get paid by a couple websites for my work. However, those opportunities would never have come about if I didn\’t first write for other websites for free to establish myself as someone who (1) is knowledgeable and (2) can write. Yes, exposure doesn\’t pay the bills, but if you do it right, it can lead to opportunities that do pay the bills.

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Alexis Grant November 5, 2013 at 4:40 pm

Well said, Katie!

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Van November 2, 2013 at 12:02 am

This post came at just the right moment for me. I\’m thrilled to be included in a roster of writers for a website with high internet traffic, but it\’s not a paid gig. However, it\’s aligned with my purpose of wanting to help, and it has the potential to grow my blog audience. I\’m still figuring out exactly what I can offer other than just being a writer (as you so eloquently pointed out in your post about making a living as a writer). In the meantime, writing more stuff that interest me and putting my work out there helps me gain exposure as I tweak, revise, and find the right \”more than a writer\”/financially viable gig for me. I find that to be a much better attitude than complaining about not getting paid for each piece of writing I put out there.

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Manfred November 2, 2013 at 4:56 am

I totally agree with your take on this, as there are too many writers/bloggers out there who don\’t seem to realize that the world has changed, and continues to do so. Writing isn\’t as well paid as it used to be, but that\’s true of other jobs as well. Whether you work for free or not is a personal decision that each individual has to make on their own. But why should others give up a successful business model just to keep someone else happy. Many writers do get paid well, and it\’s up to each writer to prove their worth if they want to one of them.
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robin November 2, 2013 at 8:42 am

People keep bandying the term “writer” about as if any two people mean the same thing by it, which I doubt. Talk of monetizing rarely has anything to do with the art of writing or the love of language.

Providing some kind of service via a website and blogging about it because that’s become an integral part of the online business model is not being a writer. There’s nothing wrong with it – it just isn’t being a writer.
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Alexis Grant November 2, 2013 at 9:08 am

I think completely differently on this — I feel like despite all the things I do, all the buckets I use to make a living, I’m first and foremost a writer. In fact, I’m kind of amazed when some people still think that to be a writer, you have to be a poor, starved Luddite. Modern writers no longer write with quills!
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robin November 2, 2013 at 9:35 am

You misunderstand. It isn’t a question of modernity. It’s a question of motive.
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Amanda November 2, 2013 at 1:42 pm

Robin,

Is this basically a “we should all suffer for our art” type of argument? I love the written word, but that sort of attitude just seems like a sad way to go through life, no?

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Rachelle November 5, 2013 at 4:56 pm

Robin,

I agree with you that there are many kinds of writers. Professional writers write for pay. That doesn’t mean they don’t love to write as much as writers who don’t get paid. But they are professionals and professionals expect to be paid for their work. If anything, professional writers really have to love writing because they have to write even when they don’t feel like it or when they are working on a writing assignment that isn’t exactly thrilling. It’s a job! People get paid for performing jobs so they can pay bills and not have to depend “on the kindness of strangers.”

It’s just like photography or jewelry making. Owning a camera doesn’t make you a professional photographer. Stringing beads together to make a bracelet because it’s your hobby doesn’t elevate you to the status of jewelry designer. When you string beads as a hobby you aren’t exactly concerned with marketing your product or working under a deadline.

When people get paid for their work, a certain level of talent is expected. That is not the case with all writing assignments.

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robin November 6, 2013 at 4:20 am

I agree with this entirely, Rachelle. I never made the point that a writer should be poor. I struggle to see how anyone could have inferred that from my comment.

I am a professional writer and I write for money. My own site at alotofwind.com is not monetized, since it is a purely creative project, but all of the travel writing I do for other publications is paid. I regularly accept low pay because beggars can’t be choosers but I never write for free. I choose to believe that my writing has an inherent value and is worth money.

The distinction I was pointing out was between being a writer and being a service provider who writes to promote the service they provide. I am not denigrating the latter but it is not best described with the term ‘writer’. People who talk about providing ‘content’ for free because it might give exposure and drive traffic to their own site, where they then offer editing, life coaching, or whatever type of service, are doing so precisely because they are not, in that instance, first and foremost writers.

That is what I mean by motive. I am a writer. That’s what I do – it isn’t meant to drive traffic anywhere or to provide me with opportunities to start or grow my own business(es). It is an end in itself. A skill that I believe is both valuable and, at a high level of competence, rare. So, I’d like to be paid for it, thanks, not have it subjugated to some potential, nebulous benefit further down the road somewhere. While that approach might very well be advantageous for building a business, it denigrates and devalues the business of writing.
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Rachelle November 6, 2013 at 8:12 am

Robin,

Actually, I was supporting the point you made! I agree 100%.

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Rachelle November 2, 2013 at 9:29 am

Alexis, I love your website. You give a lot of great advice but I would like to point out one of the main problems with writing for free. Here\’s a perfect example. I was paid for writing this article for the Indie Reader: indiereader.com/2013/01/bay-area-sell-out. Thanks goodness that I was paid for writing it because when they archived the article they removed my byline and replaced it with GUEST AUTHOR. This is not the first time that has happened to me. Many websites will keep your byline on the article and then remove it after a month or two even though they are keeping it on the site. So if you are writing only for EXPOSURE…you certainly won\\\’t getting much exposure for your efforts. So, writer, BEWARE. Be sure that you specify IN WRITING that you expect to receive a byline that will NEVER be removed. Writing for just a byline or link to your website is riskier than swimming with blood-thirsty sharks.

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Alexis Grant November 5, 2013 at 4:43 pm

Hi Rachelle,

Good point! If you plan to make money from your writing in ways other than direct payment though, you should have an agreement with the blog that your name stays on the post. Most blogs would assume that, actually. As someone who manages several blogs for which contributors write for free, we would never remove the byline or bio — in my mind, that *is* the payment.

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Jim Wang November 6, 2013 at 11:12 am

As you mention, payment doesn’t always have to be in the form of cash. Exposure and experience are extremely important especially if you’re very new, you have to start somewhere and sometimes that means not being paid cash and instead being paid in something else.

To echo Rachelle, it’s important that you have an agreement in place with whomever you’re writing for. If you’re not being paid cash and are relying on the exposure, the byline is absolutely crucial.
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Lark November 11, 2013 at 12:51 am

The major problem with writing for free is that the start-up companies offering “exposure” in exchange for free writing don’t generate enough traffic to provide decent exposure. It’s a pure waste of time to write for companies that don’t pay.

The companies that generate enough traffic to offer decent “exposure” are probably making a profit–which means that they should be offering to pay their writers for content. After all, quality content is what is attracting all of those visitors!

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Alexis Grant July 1, 2014 at 11:45 pm

This is a really good point, Lark — Not all “exposure” is created equal. Just like how all publications pay different fees for stories, publications send varying amounts of traffic to the link in your bio. I always consider this before I write for any outlet!
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Lisa Imogen Eldridge December 8, 2013 at 9:43 am

Thanks for this info. When I was a journalism student I wrote for free and still did two years after I graduated. It’s a great way of building up your portfolio.

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