The trouble with writing for free

February 5, 2018


This is the story of a writer who grew up, got a lot more business savvy and turned into the professional you see today.

It’s also a message explaining why I strongly dislike providing free writing samples.

This story has been prompted by a couple of recent online events, which I’ll share with you. They’ll hopefully give you context. They may even change your perspective if you often ask writers, creatives, or any other professional for that matter, to do their day job for free (or on spec).

Back in the day when I was twentysomething…

I worked at a women’s lifestyle magazine. Fresh out of university, I was full of beans and one of the lucky journalist graduates that managed to secure a much-coveted on-staff job at a national lifestyle magazine.

It meant I got a monthly salary for my writing. What a dream!

Adult Swim Dreaming GIF by Rick and Morty - Find & Share on GIPHY

During this time, I’d happily fire off emails and requests to other freelance writers, experts and professionals asking them to provide me with copy, tips and advice in exchange for a plug in the magazine.

Yes, I’d expect them to use their time to write this content.

Yes, I’d expect them to be happy they’d get a mention in a women’s glossy (saving them hundreds of pounds in ad costs).

And yes, I’d expect them to answer my dozen or more questions without any payment, or send me a “free sample” of their product so I could write about it.

This is pretty standard prac in the consumer journalism/PR world. Also, it was back in 2009. A time when consumer print was slowly trailing off and the power of measurable online content was becoming apparent.

And then it all went to shit

Like many magazines, the one I worked for closed. For a time, the publisher gave me a job editing a digital page-turner magazine (remember those?) and for a few months I fumbled my way through, learning some interesting publishing and editing lessons and what it meant to run an online magazine with NO BUDGET.

I mean zip. Zero. No pounds or dollars and Bitcoin wasn’t even in the lexicon.

Determined to give my readers fresh content, I asked begged fellow writers to help me out in return for ‘exposure’. We didn’t have a huge readership, but it was online. That counted for something.

Eventually, I hit a wall with the e-zine, so sacked it in and decided to go freelance myself. I quickly realised what a lucky position I’d been in — to have been receiving a monthly pay cheque for my words.

But more importantly, it wasn’t until that point that I realised how detrimental my requests for work in exchange for ‘exposure’ was to the freelancing industry.

The poet who wouldn’t write for free

My first encounter of reading about a writer recoiling in horror after being asked to write for free, was a poet. I can’t remember the forum I was on (this was pre-FB group days really blowing up), but her tale went along the lines of:

‘Today I was contacted through my business site by a guy who was going to be Best Man at a mate’s wedding. He wanted to include a poem to the happy couple in his speech. Would I write it?

When I messaged him back saying, “Sure, here’s how much it’ll cost” I got a sweary reply. He didn’t expect to pay just for some #*%# words.’

Needless to say, the poet didn’t seem too upset at not getting the gig. For me as a freelancer, it was a real

Reading her post, I was like “Hell no you shouldn’t write for free! This is your FREAKING JOB!”

And then I was like, ‘Ohhh…yeah. I was doing this exact same thing not so long ago. Damn. I’m such a prick.’

Since then, I’ve done my absolute best to try not to ask people to write for free. And I’ve tried to not add fuel to that fire by writing for free.

(Job applications that stipulate this are a real catch 22 for me and, full disclosure, this has happened in the last 12 months. As far as I know, nothing I wrote was used or published though [pauses to use duplicate content checker] Yep, nope. We’re all good.)

Let’s get a bit more perspective on how dumb it is to ask professionals to work for free

Hopefully, you’re getting my point. And hopefully, you agree. For those still sitting on the fence, I reckon this recent video by ad agency Zulu Alpha Kilo will add some real-word perspective.

See how odd it is to ask people to work for free?

And then there was the social media influencer

Another example you may recently have heard, was the story of a UK-based social media influencer who was called out by a hotel company.

She’d approached to ask for a free or discounted stay in one of their rooms, in return for a review posted to her many You Tube and Insta followers.

The response from the hotel owner was H-A-R-S-H (spoiler: he said “no”) and I don’t condone the way in which he went about it, but his reasons were pretty justified: who’d pay the staff that check her in, clean her room and cook her breakfast when she stays there?

It’s the same principle of basically asking for people to do their jobs for free. She did name drop Universal Orlando having done a similar thing for them and saying, “It’s been amazing for them,” but that’s not a quantifiable result.

Good PR — and this was basically an attempt at a PR offer — is still able to measure results. It’s still able to say that coverage on this site, or in this publication, is the equivalent to twenty-gazillion dollars. Or X-number more readers (in print).

For online publications, this PR arena has the benefit of being able to say, “Hey! Look! By getting a mention here on this date, we’ve seen site traffic increase from three entrances, to eleventy-hundred and three, and conversions have gone up too. Now let’s take the afternoon off and quaff prosecco!” (Said no PR I’ve ever met ever, because they’re all workaholics..ahem…moving on…)

Maybe Miss Influencer’s pitch would have worked better if she had a more concrete ROI in place. Or something more tangible she could offer them, like arranging to shoot and record a video for them to use on their site? A day creating content for their channels? Helping them create a strategy to appeal to a younger audience, therefore new clientele?

You know, something that will actually return leads, or save them having to pay out for it? Not just a one-line mention in a video that vanishes into the aether. Which leads me on to…

What about writing for free in a skill-exchange?

I get this. Especially as a freelancer just starting out. And knowing other newbie freelancers starting out. Sometimes the only way to get ahead is by teaming up and collaborating (Woo! Teamwork! BTW, if there are any site designers reading this that may need a hand with content, let’s talk).

The difference with a skill-exchange, rather than ‘exposure’ (I believe) is that all parties end up with a tangible set of deliverables. So, with both parties investing the same amount of effort and expertise it’s an affordable way for us littler folks to get up and running.

Are we on a level?

I’d be really interested to hear from other creatives about how they handle requests to work for free? Or if you’re a business owner, would you ever ask for free spec work and if so, why? Or how do you feel if your request is turned down?

Drop a comment below, tweet me, or email me your views. I’m super interested on all POVs.



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