Should You Write for Free?

Debates rage in chat groups, on Facebook and LinkedIn, and on writing sites like She Writes and Redroom. Should writers write for free? In a word, no. 

If you want to make writing your profession, or if you are already a professional writer, you should not – ever – write for free. Not for supposed exposure. Not for promised attention at some future point. Not for the possibility you will be hired later. Don’t do it.

As a professional writer for the past 30-plus years, I can’t afford to write for free. It’s my living. In the past two years I have been approached a number of times with invitations to write for free. The supposed advantage is something along the lines of, “You’ll get exposure!” or, well, I can’t think of anything other than that, and it turns out that could be a very empty promise. Exposure adds up to exactly what?

When the Huffington Post first started, I was invited to blog. It seemed like a great opportunity at the time, but after several months and a half-dozen blogs, it became clear I was spending a lot of my time writing for very little tangible benefit. About a year ago I was asked by, an author promotion site with which I have an author page, to write a column for Redroom offered to donate $100 to a charity of my choice for doing it. So I did. But when they asked me again, I said no. The time I would have to take to write a thoughtful, well-researched piece for AOLNews’ opinion or travel section (which they had proposed) would have cost me far more than I would realize in either book sales or potential clients.

Yesterday I received another “offer” to write a monthly column for a website. They promised me exposure to their members (the number of members and the number of unique visitors to the site weren’t specified), plus promotion on their home page and links to the sites where my book is for sale. Earlier, at the urging of my publisher, I had written answers to questions about publishing they posted as an interview on their site, and they seemed pleased by that. Thus the invitation to write monthly for them.

Honestly, it’s tempting. But the time it would take to write a monthly column would be time taken from the hours I would otherwise be making money by teaching, coaching or writing for other publications. If I knew that each column would result in the sale of at least, oh, I don’t know, say 100 books, it might make financial sense. But that is a very big if.

Professional writers are under siege these days. Many of us are former journalists whose newspapers have folded or downsized. We are experienced. We know our ways around a government agency. We know how to track down a scandal or root out corruption. We are expert at researching and interviewing, and we know how to nail a source to the wall if need be. We also know how to write a balanced multi-sourced story and make it interesting and informative.

Changes in the publishing industry, not least the rise of internet publications, has created a new world for those of us with longtime journalism and writing experience. Unfortunately, our skills and talents are devalued, and we are competing against people – young and older – who are willing to write for free to get the experience they need to (perhaps) get better writing jobs.

The Huffington Post has come under severe criticism for essentially profiting on the backs of thousands of bloggers who helped make the Post a major player in the world of internet media. I think much of it is justified. But we as writers have to do our part and refuse to be exploited.