How To Stop Writing For Free

If you want to get paid to write, get paid to write.

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Photo by Jess Bailey on Unsplash

The working world is clever. At some point, it built itself a funhouse, Willy Wonka culture where up is down, down is up, and paths forward look like crazy straws. The professional world convinced us it’s doing us a favor by paying us money for work we do, even though we’re legitimately owed that money anyway. I’m sure there are much larger, historical arguments that someone smart can make about how and why societies and economies are built this way, with workers kept in low self worth so that they’ll never know how quickly their employers would fail without them, but today I just want to talk about freelance writers, who are sometimes told that the only way they’ll be “allowed” to write is for free. Absolutely not.

Real quick, you never need anyone’s permission to write. If you’re waiting for it, what you’re most likely actually waiting for is a byline with a publication you admire or think looks really good to list in your bio. If what you actually want to do is write, then write. Wherever and however you can, as long as it’s on your terms. Your website, your blog, your ownership. You get the traffic, the SEO, the opportunity to monetize with ads or affiliate links. You get good at writing by writing, not by penning endless emails to editors who will probably never write you back begging them to “let” you do something you don’t actually need anyone’s permission to do.

I don’t want you to write for free, but if you’re struggling to get a yes from publications you want to write for, put your work somewhere that’s yours so it exists. It won’t initially earn as much money as writing for a publication, but if you’re not writing for publications for money yet anyway, then it’s obviously more than the nothing you’re getting from them. Over time, as you build an audience and following, maybe an email list or a Patreon, you can earn good money for writing what you want to write on your terms. This makes it a lot easier to walk away from editors or publications who don’t want to pay you.

Back to writing for free. Sometimes, when freelance writers, particularly those new to the space, reach out to editors or publications they want to write for, they’re told there’s no budget for freelance work right now, but that they can still contribute their work—for free. Do not do this. Here’s why: no editor is accepting your work unless they need it. An editor without content to run is just a person in charge of a very expensive blank page. To run something you wrote on their site, they’ll have to edit it, upload it to their backend, give it a headline, etc., they have to put in work to get it online. They’re not going to give that effort to content they don’t need, because it takes their time (and remember, they’re getting paid for their time) to publish it. Nobody puts effort into something they don’t need. And if they need your work, they need to pay for it, too.

Any publication that wants your work but doesn’t want to pay for it isn’t a publication you should be writing for. Period. Publications have ads on their sites, ads that will run right next to the content you gave them for free, earning them money. Why shouldn’t it earn you money, too? Writers should be paid for their work, which isn’t a sentence I should have to say but I see too many people writing for free because they think they have to. (They should be paid more than $50 for 1,000 words while I’m at it, but that’s a fight for another day.)

Writing as a profession has always been cleverly devalued by people who can’t write and therefore need someone talented at writing to write for them. Maybe it’s because everyone, at a young age, learns how to string words together in a sentence, and therefore labors under the misconception that “everyone can write.” Been on Twitter lately? No, everyone most certainly cannot. But those who devalue our work have always done so comfortably, under the guise of “anyone can do this, why should I hire you?” so that we feel worthless and take whatever scraps they toss our way. They do this to save themselves money, not because they really think your work isn’t worth money. They are pulling a fast one on you, and I’m trying to stop them. But you have to help me.

When we grow up and enter the workforce with the false and limiting belief that writing isn’t worth anything, the professional world has writers right where it wants us—in a state of low self worth, willing to work for nothing. When we love what we do, we have a deep, internal desire to do that thing. Unfortunately, our thing isn’t one of the things that our society likes to pay for, even though they need it to sell their products, tell their stories, and grow their audiences. Further still, we’ve been convinced that we’re lucky to be able to do the work we love for free, via a genius little manipulation called: exposure.

Exposure operates in the future world of dreams. Exposure is what writers are convinced by publications to work for on the promise of other, bigger, fancier publications seeing their work on the publication that’s taking advantage of them, falling in love with their writing, and begging writers to come to work for them for piles of money. Except this doesn’t happen, and I can prove it: You were “exposed” to the publication that wanted you to write for exposure in the first place. They see you, why don’t they want to pay for your work? It’s hopscotch. You work for me for exposure, and then you’ll be exposed to another publication, who will maybe pay you, or maybe just ask you to work for exposure too, and so on and so on until the New York Times discovers your genius, right?

Stop working for future maybes, and start working for present-day paychecks. If you say no to working for exposure, you’ve lost nothing, because you didn’t actually have anything to begin with. Exposure, in my experience, is a very, very big maybe. A fair paycheck is always certain. (Provided publications actually fulfill your invoice on time, but that’s a fight for another day.)

So what is worth writing for? Money, if you set out to be a freelance writer who earns money in the first place. If your initial goal was to write for free, do that, but if it isn’t, stop writing for free because it’s just going to make you feel taken advantage of, and the chances that your free work leads to paid work are extremely slim. More on why in the next paragraph. A freelance rate that makes you feel like you were fairly compensated for your work and your time is worth writing for. Any other rate will make you feel like you wasted your time and talent while you deposit the check. (At least a third of which you need to save for taxes and retirement I might add!)

The reason “exposure” won’t lead to more work for you is that in freelance writing, more often than not, you have to acquire your work yourself. It doesn’t acquire you. People who need freelance writers don’t scour the internet looking specifically for you. If they need someone like a copywriter, they’ll reach out to an agency, and you can certainly connect with agencies to be added to their rosters, just make sure you really develop those relationships so that you’re top of mind. If publications need writers, they’ll reach out to writers they already know and trust, which isn’t you yet. So most of freelance writing involves the freelance writer reaching out to publications themselves, sending pitches to people they want to write for, and then following up on those pitches until they either get an answer or give up. (Hate the sound of this? Me too, which is why I gave you the advice I gave you in paragraphs two and three for the bargain price of your $5/month Medium membership.)

Exposure doesn’t make people come looking for you because editors don’t go looking for freelance writers they don’t know exist. They simply don’t have the time and that isn’t how it’s done. It’s on you, the freelance writer, to make yourself known. It is a lot of work, a lot of hustle, and at the end of that I can assure you that you’ve earned more than exposure.

An editor isn’t “letting” you write for them for free. They are taking advantage fo your time, talent, and willingness. Simply put, they’re being shits. They get away with it because people love to write, ache to write, and they say yes. Stop saying yes to writing for free. Ask for compensation, and if they say no, they’re simply not the publication for you—that’s it. You’ve lost nothing, because they weren’t giving you anything in the first place. Just the opposite, you’ve gained self worth by saying no to something that made you feel low, and you’ve proven to yourself that you can walk away from unfair situations and the world won’t end. There are always more publications, there is always more time, there are endless ideas in your head—and you deserve to be paid to bring them to life.

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Shani Silver is a humor essayist and podcaster based in Brooklyn who writes on Medium, a lot. She also teaches and coaches freelance writers, and you can find out more about that here.

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NPR once called me a humor essayist, let’s go with that. Host of A Single Serving Podcast. shanisilver[at]gmail

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