Why You Need to Write for Free
3 reasons to do it and 1 big reason NOT to.
Ask a professional writer for a cool and good tip on the craft, and one of the first few things out of their mouth will probably be “Don’t ever write for free.”
It’s a good tip, and it comes from experience. Writers who implore you not to write for free say it because they’ve gotten burned in the past. I have, too. In fact, let me get that one big reason NOT to write for free out of the way right now:
1. Writing for exposure is an absolute crock.
When I was a recent college graduate with no clue how to make a living as a writer, I responded to a Craigslist ad. It was for a sports website that didn’t pay its writers any actual money. But they promised exposure, and I was desperate. They “hired” me and I crafted pieces on topics such as Chief Wilson (MLB’s record holder for most triples in a season), Derrick Thomas’s terrifying prowess in Tecmo Super Bowl, and the perplexing and wonderful beach volleyball scene in Top Gun. It was fun!
Not as fun: I couldn’t help my girlfriend with the rent and the sports website quickly shuttered. Along with my work. And that, my friend, is when I learned that the sun is the only thing that should pay people in exposure.
Here’s the thing. I thought I needed to write for someone else to achieve legitimacy and become attractive to employers.
False. All I needed were words on the page. Everything I wrote for that sports gig were stories I could have written on my own. I didn’t need to be bossed around by cheapskate entrepreneurs who were too dumb to realize that you get what you pay for.
With that in mind, here’s the one thing you should take away from this story if you take away nothing else: When you write for free, don’t do it for other people or other brands. Do it for you.
1. Write for free to hone your most effective voice.
My writing style is clear, concise, and conversational. It’s often funny and sometimes abrasive. Know how I figured that out? Correct. I’ve been blogging for half my life. Hundreds of thousands of words, most of which I forgot, but all of which impacted the way I write today.
Your best writing voice might be a technical one. It could contain beautiful prose or “Well, I never!” profanity or unbelievable heart. You don’t know unless you practice it, completely free of the people who would pay you for it, over and over and over again.
2. Write for free to encourage flabbergasting reciprocation.
Check out my Medium bio.
First sentence: “Pro copywriter at Ivor Andrew.” My higher ups are the real deal, and they encourage me to write and publish on here as long as I hit my deadlines. The company has gotten leads and business, in part, because I wrote an angry La Croix thing and a review of a snow resort ad. It’s wild.
Second sentence: “Freelance copywriting mercenary.” Because of the stuff I’ve published on Medium, I built a nights-and-weekends side business without really breaking a sweat. The words were already there.
When you give your writing away for free, the people who were most affected by it feel compelled to reciprocate. They give you encouragement, helpful feedback, a new perspective, and actual jobs with actual money.
3. Writing for free makes you a better human.
You were born with a desire for self-expression. When that’s repressed, it makes you deeply unsatisfied and closed off. But when you create something new, it’s a feeling like nothing else in the world. Food tastes better. Music is more meaningful. Your soul exhales.
You were born with a desire for community. When you don’t have it, you fight a deep and very real sense of loneliness on a regular basis. But when you create something new, the people who will love it tend to find it over time. Those people become friends. They lift you up, and you do the same for them. You experience a profound sense of belonging and the joy of being appreciated and understood.
You were born with a desire for affirmation. Creating things that are good tends to make people tell you it’s good, which feels really good. And as I often say, get enough affirmation and you don’t need food for the rest of the day. It sustains you.
Write for free. Don’t do it for others, and absolutely do not do it for exposure. Make it true to you, and make it just for you. It matters.