Since my last post generated a bit of an uproar about whether or not writers starting out should write for free, I thought I’d knock on some doors and get some much needed pointers from people who have made it in the business. Responses had varied angles, but were predominantly cohesive.
Writing for free or not, that is the question
“These days, I think it would be hard to get started without writing for free at some point. In an over-saturated market, how else are you going to get a chance to prove yourself?” says acclaimed travel-writer and Vagabonding author Rolf Potts. “How many other fields do people work for free? In the arts, tons do. Actors work for free; visual artists work for free; musicians perform for free. That’s why everyone knows what the phrase “day job” means. And every travel writer has to have a day job before he or she gets enough experience to do it full time.”
“I think some good can come from writing for no pay. I have written stories for no pay,” says Michael Yessis, co-editor of World Hum. “Ultimately, I think it’s up to each individual writer to weigh the situation and what they’re looking for in building a writing career.”
Mark Jolly, Founder & Editor of luxury travel blog globorati says that it’s simply up to the writer to evaluate what it’s worth doing, irrespective of whether you invoice for it or not. “When I was at Oxford, I wrote for the university magazine for free (it was a profitable publication with healthy advertising). And then the next year I wound up editing that magazine. The summer after that, I was working at Time Out and the Times of London. But not for free.”
“I never would have gotten my first job as an editor at the Huffington Post if I hadn’t written for them for free, for several months. It demonstrated my loyalty to the organization, my skills, and my willingness to work hard. When they needed someone on the payroll, I was an obvious choice.” says Melissa Lafsky, ex-Huffington Post and current editor of Freakonomics. “If you want to make it in something as competitive and “unstructured” as writing/media, I think you need to bend the rules to do whatever is necessary to get your work noticed.”
I had to smile when I read freelance-writer Sue Burke’s line: “I think both beginning and established writers should always be willing to write for free, either for a good cause or for shameless self-promotion. Some say this undercuts pay throughout the writing field, but I’ve been in the business for 35 years, I’ve never seen evidence for that.”
Conclusion so far: writing for free doesn’t make you a sucker. But, you have to be selective about who you write for.
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“If you do write for free, write for a publication with a strong writing and a strong editorial mission, lest your story get lost amid the slag of a mediocre publication,” says Rolf.
“Clips are important – but they are not all equally important, it depends on the calibre of the outlet you are writing for,” says award-winning travel journalist Buzzy Gordon. “A qualified writer – not necessarily a beginner – should be prepared to write for free if: the media outlet doesn’t pay anyone; that it will allow you to sell the same piece somewhere else; and if the story is in exchange for something like a desirable press trip or job offer.”
“It’s not necessary that all non-paying sites will turn into paying markets or help writers win prizes. But it does point out that writing “for free” can pay off in some cases,” adds Michael.
We’ve all heard the cliché “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” and fortunately or unfortunately networking in our industry is as fundamental to your success as in any other industry.
“Accepting unpaid assignments is like accepting an unpaid internship. You do it for exposure, experience, and especially for connections,” says Nicole Cotroneo, freelance writer for the NY Times and The Washington Post, and an editor for globorati. “Your goal should be to create a network of people who will vouch for your talents and your work ethic. These people will recommend you to other editors and that’s how you navigate this industry.”
Write well and be relevant to the publication
Brushing aside the question of being paid or not, Rolf says: “If you can write well, you will eventually succeed, no matter where you get started and what you get paid for your early pieces. In travel writing, writing well means having an engaging voice and smooth style, but it also means that you have to be spot-on with your facts and cultural observations. Writing that stands above average writing is what helps travel authors succeed in a glutted market.”
Michael couldn’t agree more: “Whether or not a clip comes from a paying or non-paying publication rarely enters my mind when considering a pitch or a story. Credits from respected, well-known publications provide context, but my main concern is usually whether the writer has written a solid story, or has demonstrated the ability to write a solid story. In the end, if you can write a great story, you should find it easier to gain entry into a wider variety of publications, whether they pay or not.
Sue says: “I’ve been an editor, and when I get a clip, I don’t wonder how much the writer got paid. Of course, a clip from a major slick is more impressive than one from someplace I’ve never heard of, but all I really want to know if that writer can offer what my publication needs. Is the writing good and suitable? This is less common than you might think.”
And that’s a round-up of all the responses I got. Some very useful advice here, a big thank you to all for taking the time to respond most promptly.
Readers, I hope you have got some new insight from this post, I certainly have.