Guest Feature: Don’t Be Afraid to Go Unpaid – Sometimes

By Matthew Schulz

It’s OK to write something for publication and not get paid for it.

There, I said it.

Many will disagree – some vehemently — and it may not work for everyone. However, if you’re wise about when you give away your writing and don’t do it too often, it can help you get your next paid job.

I’ve written countless pieces throughout 20 years as a professional writer and editor. Many of these pieces, including the one you’re reading right now, have been done for free. The overwhelming majority have not, though. Still, my free writing has served me well because I’ve picked my spots, and I’ve mostly done it when I’ve tried something new in my career or when I was just getting started.

Now, of course, if it’s untenable financially to work for free, don’t. But if you can swing it, it can pay future dividends. Here are some examples of how unpaid writing can help:

High-visibility or high-prestige exposure:  A writer friend of mine has recently gotten some clips on Yahoo.com by writing for free, but she’s been conflicted about having done so. After all, her life’s busy, and her day job isn’t lucrative.

While I understand her feelings, I believe that the situation is a win-win for her. She gets her name out there on a site with huge amounts of traffic, and she gets a quality clip for her resume that can make her look more accomplished when she tries to get her next paying gig.

And that’s the key in unpaid writing: Teeing up your next paid gig. Unless you’re just writing for fun, don’t take an unpaid gig that won’t help you get your next paid job.

Entry into a new field of writing: I began writing for Scribe for free in early 2010. Why? My 20 years of professional editing and writing have been spent in journalism, and I wanted to get a foot in the door of the fiction writing community. I saw in a newsletter that the Writers’ League was seeking writers for Scribe, and rather than start a blog of my own from the ground floor, I jumped on the chance to write about my experiences as an aspiring author for an already established blog run by a highly respected writers’ organization.

Now, I’m not a published author yet. (I’ve got to finish my manuscript before that can happen.) But I’ve been thrilled with my experience with Scribe, in large part because of the people that I’ve met through writing it. And that brings me to my final point.

Networking: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” may be a cliché, but it’s as true today as it has ever been. Unpaid writing, as unglamorous as it may be, can help you know more people.

In writing for Yahoo.com, my friend may make a contact that gets her a full-time job sometime in the future. By writing for Scribe, I may write a Q&A with an agent who someday represents my novel and helps turn it into an international phenomenon. You may submit a short story to a small literary magazine, and it may be read by an editor from a major publishing house who’s blown away and shoots you a call.

Of course, none of this is guaranteed. In fact, the only things that are certain when you agree to write for free are that you’ll produce a piece and you won’t get paid for it.

But it can work. The key is to know what you want to accomplish. Once you’ve figured that out, make a plan and go for it.

Just be sure that you know when to say when.

What do you think? Is unpaid writing an absolute no-no? Have you made it work for you? Let me know what you think.

Matthew Schulz has written for the Dallas Morning News, Houston Chronicle, Associated Press and American Banker. He is currently writing his second novel and aspiring toward his lifelong dream of becoming a published author of fiction. His day job has him working as a Managing Editor at CreditCards.com, where he helps lead an award-winning news team and has even helped coordinate a video town hall with the White House. You can follow him on Twitter @matthewschulz and learn more about him at MattSchulz.com.

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3 thoughts on “Guest Feature: Don’t Be Afraid to Go Unpaid – Sometimes

  1. I agree. As a full-time freelance writer and editor, for several years I was resistant to the idea of writing anything for free. Finally, a few months ago, I decided that there were too many stories I wanted to write that no one wanted to pay me for, and I started a blog of people’s true stories. Although it hasn’t been long and I haven’t posted as often as I’d like, already I’m getting offered more assignments in line with the type of work I really want to be doing — and it’s so satisfying to be able to choose which stories I tell and how.

  2. Interesting article. At present, the only docs I get paid to write are my day-job evaluations. My blog articles, however, are starting to get a little more recognition (i.e.I’m seeing more trackbacks and have been asked to guest post at newsletters). Next: start believing I can make $ with my passion. Thank you for posting this 🙂

  3. Writing for free is exactly why editors can treat writers as disposable, interchangeable and low-paid when they do agree to pay for the writing. I get the idea of exposure, but I do feel the media outlets win more than the writers do. I did achieve my lifelong dream and got my book published last year. The Holy Grail for many writers. Then when I tried to leverage it into paid writing gigs, I found everyone wanted my stuff — but only for free. Why? Because editors had plenty of free writers in their stable. Why should they pay for it?

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