When Is it Okay to Write for Free?

As a young writer starting out, I didn’t think about getting paid for writing. I wanted a byline, I wanted my work to be published, and I naïvely thought the money would eventually come. Seeing my work in print was payment enough. When I started writing content for websites, I accepted very low pay for the privilege of building a writing portfolio and, in the process, made the website owners a fortune while I slaved away for pennies.

What I didn’t realize in those early days is that I was not only doing myself a disservice, I was also doing a disservice to the writing profession. When writers prize getting their names in print over being paid a fair price for their writing, they lower pay standards for all writers. When writers accept low pay because they don’t value themselves, their time, or their own work, they make it more difficult for all writers to receive fair pay for their work. Most companies will look at cost versus quality. This is not to say they can’t get high quality writing on the cheap because, unfortunately, if they look hard enough, they can.

How do you get out of this game and start earning a fair price for your work? You refuse to participate in it and submit your work only to publications that pay a fair price. Yes, it will take longer to get noticed, and things being as they are, most writers will always have to work another job to support their writing. But the first step is to value yourself and your work and to expect others to do the same.

There’s another reason not to write for free. Something I’ve found to be true is that people don’t value things they don’t pay for. An attorney I once worked for told me this when I was freelancing as a paralegal. I often helped people I knew or even acquaintances or friends of friends prepare legal papers for free. I liked to help. The profession is highly regulated now, so I can no longer do that, but I quickly learned he was right. When I helped people for free, they didn’t respect my time or my talents. They didn’t get things back to me so that I could complete the work. They missed appointments with little or no notice. They were sometimes insulting or demeaning when I told them I couldn’t help them with a particular issue because I wasn’t experienced in that area of the law. But if I charged them even a nominal fee, they’d made an investment, and suddenly, the work they were doing with me became important to them. They were paying for it, and they wanted to do their part to get a good result.

So when is it okay to write for free? In my opinion, there are two valid reasons for a writer to write for free, and getting a byline isn’t one of them.

The first circumstance that might justify writing for free is if you’re writing for a family member or a close friend, with the above caveat that some may not appreciate or respect your work if they aren’t paying for it. But I would never charge my son Tim, for example, if he needed something written. In that situation, mixing business with that close relationship would introduce an undesirable element into a relationship that is precious to me, something I don’t ever want. So, I would happily do it for free, and in turn, he happily fixes my computer every time I accidentally download a virus or something. Well, happily the first three or so times.

The second circumstance is if the writing is part of your mission as a writer or as a human being. For example, using the paralegal analogy again, I used to volunteer for a legal clinic, preparing petitions and writing supporting declarations for temporary restraining orders at a shelter for women who were victims of domestic violence. I loved doing this work, which I did on my own time, in the evenings after work, and for which I was never paid. As a survivor of domestic violence, it felt good to give back, and the women I helped in this way were among the most appreciative clients I’ve ever served. If you can support a cause you believe in by writing for them, by all means, do so. It’s work you’re unlikely to regret.

But, outside of these two situations—family/close friends or mission—I suggest you charge something for anything you write. It will make getting that byline all the sweeter if you get paid for it, too.