I’ve been a full-time freelance writer for five years now. In all that time, I might have written three articles for free. Though I didn’t earn any money from them, two articles added to my scholarly credentials and one earned me a good contact for future articles.
That’s not the way it has always been, though. When I was first getting started in writing, I wrote a lot of free articles that earned me clippings and credentials that I have used many times since then. Luckily, I had a job at the time so I could write for the pure pleasure of it.
My point is this: While writers write, professional writers get paid.
Yes, if you are just getting started in the business, write for free, but make sure you get something out of it whether it’s a clipping, a new publication, a new market that you want to expand into or a new contact who could help you down the road.
I used to teach a magazine writing class at a local community college about writing for magazines. I would draw a triangle on the board and label the top point “Pay” and the two lower points “Market” and “Story.” This was a mental representation on how I decided whether I wanted to write an article for a particular market.
Pay is at the top of the triangle because it is the main reason I write articles. I’m a professional who wants to be paid. I’m always looking for higher-paying markets.
The Market corner of the triangle represents my desire to get into the magazine. For instance, I wrote an article for Maryland Historical Society Magazine this year. I’m not getting paid for it. I did it because it’s a prestigious scholarly publication. It will help me when I try and market some books I’m working on.
The Story corner of the triangle represents how badly I want to see my story in print. This could be either because I really want to write the story or I want the clipping.
As the potential pay drops, then I should be able to move along one of the sides of the triangle towards “Market” or “Story”, meaning that my interest in getting the story in print or in a particular magazine is overriding my need for pay. If I can’t see that movement, then the story isn’t worthwhile for me.
Don’t undersell yourself or your abilities. If a magazine wants to print your article, they should be willing to pay for it. Your pay doesn’t necessarily need to be in cash, but you should get a payoff from your writing.