this week, the news broke that fired a slew of freelancers and invited them to be non-paid contributors, much like The Huffington Post (which merged with AOL). The story ended up being quite accurate, but this … "/>

Should You Write for Free? That Depends…

Earlier this week, the news broke that AOL fired a slew of freelancers and invited them to be non-paid contributors, much like The Huffington Post (which merged with AOL). The story ended up not being quite accurate, but this call for “non-paid contributors” highlights an important question that many freelancers face at some point in their careers.

Should I write for free?

It’s a deeply personal question, and one that each of us needs to answer for ourselves, weighing our financial situation and other considerations. That said, here are a few situations when it may (or may not) make sense.

Consider writing for free if one or more of these criteria are met:

• You have a sugar daddy or a trust fund kid that allows you to work for free (I’m partially kidding here).
• You have a book/blog/service or other item to promote, and the publication’s readership matches your target audience. For instance, a guest blog post that will hopefully bring new readers to your blog (full disclosure: this was not a freebie, though I do hope you’ll check out my blog while you’re reading this).
• You are just getting started and have no samples to show perspective clients. Plenty of places will pay you peanuts to write an article, so I’m not sure it’s necessary even for total newbies. If you want, you could find a local nonprofit and offer to write their newsletter pro bono.
• You are passionate about the piece and haven’t been able to find a paid outlet for it. Personal essays can be tough to sell, so sometimes your best option is to post it on your blog, give it away, or possibly both.
• You are so excited about the outlet that you’re willing to sacrifice on pay. Some highly regarded literary journals or indie ezines pay in contributor copies but people contribute because they believe in the publication.
• Your target publication is not demanding all rights. Why the heck would you give away all rights for zero pay? If they’re not paying you, then you should at least be allowed to publish the piece on your own blog.

Just say no if one or more of these apply:

• You have the option of writing for pay somewhere else. Don’t give away the milk if you suspect you’ll be able to find a buyer. If I thought there might be commercial potential in an essay or article idea, I wouldn’t do a freebie unless I’d exhausted all other options.
• You are on the verge of financial crisis. Say you have bills piling up, overdue rent, and an empty bank account. Sure, you want to nurture your craft, but you also need to get yourself back in the black. Now is not the time to be doing freebies.
• You are asked to surrender all rights (and your first-born child). Enough said.
• You have never heard of the publication. Say you get an email out of the blue offering you “an incredible opportunity” to “gain exposure” writing for “what is sure to be the next Huffington Post.” Run far, far away! Lots of aspiring publishers have inflated notions of their site’s value. As they say on my favorite freelancing forum, people die from too much exposure. It’s not always a good thing. And when sites promise to pay content writers once they’re profitable, that doesn’t always happen either.