Should You Ever Write for Free?

Mar 24, 2016

Post updated: November 7, 2020

Writing for free devalues the service you provide. If you write for free now, you’ll never make any money. Exposure doesn’t put food on the table.

I’ve heard all of the objections to writing for free. And honestly? I agree with them. You deserve to be paid for the work you do.

But here’s a confession I need to make: I wrote a few things for free when I was getting started as a freelance writer.

Why did I write for free?

Cringe. Wince. Groan.

Well, here’s the short answer to this question: I struggled to find anybody who would pay me. I mean that.

When I started freelancing, I was coming out of a full-time job that was partly marketing, but mostly administrative. That meant I had almost no writing samples I could share with prospective clients—save for a few random newsletter blurbs that weren’t at all related to what I wanted to focus on.

Beyond that, I had zero knowledge about what freelancing involved. So, writing a few pieces for free gave me the opportunity to:

  • Build some samples to include in my portfolio
  • Learn how to successfully communicate with “clients”
  • Get comfortable with ideating topics, receiving feedback, and mastering the writing process

In short, I viewed those unpaid opportunities as my internship. They helped me lay the groundwork and get the confidence I needed to make a living as a freelancer.

3 rules to follow when writing for free

Not all unpaid opportunities are created equally. In fact, I’d venture to guess that a good chunk of them are from people who don’t see the value in what you offer and would never want to pay someone for that service.

So, if you’re going to write for free, I recommend following some important ground rules.

1. Beware of clients who could afford your service (but choose not to).

You’d be shocked by the number of big-name publications and brands who have more than enough budget to pay their writers—they just choose not to.

There’s a big difference between a successful company that consciously decides not to invest in your service versus a nonprofit, volunteer-run organization, or friend who is running on a shoestring budget.

I’d only offer free services to clients who fall into that second category. For example, maybe your local humane society needs someone to write a blog post promoting their upcoming fundraiser. Or maybe a close friend needs copy for a website they’re starting.

Those are things you could do pro bono. You’ll get plenty of valuable experience, without feeling totally taken advantage of.

2. Make it a (very) short-term thing.

I wrote a few pieces for free in order to get my feet under me as a freelancer. But, it’s not something I did for an extended period of time.

If you choose to write for free, go into it with an expiration date. You shouldn’t be working free of charge for months or years—it should be a brief stepping stone, and nothing more.

3. Extract every last ounce of value out of that interaction.

Writing for free isn’t earning you any money, so it better be more than worth it in other ways. At the bare minimum, you should be getting:

  • Valuable experience that boosts your confidence as a freelancer
  • Sample work that you can include in your portfolio
  • A glowing testimonial from someone who’s thrilled with your work

If you’re debating taking on a free project, it better check every single one of those boxes. If it doesn’t? It’s not the opportunity for you.

So…do I recommend that you write for free?

Sigh. That’s a complicated question, and my answer is usually: It depends.

I did it, and sometimes I still do it. That’s right—I occasionally help out with some writing work (free of charge) for the nonprofit, community choir I’m a part of. I enjoy doing it, and it’s an honor to be able to help them out when I know they don’t have the money to invest in marketing.

But I wouldn’t necessarily say that my path is the only right one, and I totally understand and sympathize with the arguments against writing for free. It really can backfire. Trust me, I’ve seen it happen.

For that reason, I think writing for free should be your last resort, and I would recommend pursuing paid opportunities first and foremost. If you’re hitting walls with those, then you might need to find some other ways to build experience and samples.

However, keep in mind that writing for yourself is a great way to get some samples too. Start a blog where you can write and post pieces in your niche. Or, publish relevant pieces on LinkedIn or Medium.

Those are absolutely clips you could use in your portfolio. Plus, writing for yourself gives you a little more control (and helps you avoid the guilt of offering a highly-valuable service for free).

So, as it turns out, this is another freelance question without an easy answer. But, I hope this gave you a little bit of food for thought!