Writers, Stop Giving It Away

Guest post from Cohere member Heidi

First, I’m going to share a quote that sums up my thoughts on the issue of writers doing work for free. A week ago, Rick Reilly, sportswriter and ESPN star, was asked to deliver the final commencement address at his alma mater, the University of Colorado’s School of Journalism. He said the following:

“When you get out there, all I ask is that you: DON’T WRITE FOR FREE! Nobody asks strippers to strip for free, doctors to doctor for free or professors to profess for free. Have some pride! What you know how to do now is a skill that 99.9 percent of the people don’t have. If you do it for free, they won’t respect you in the morning. Or the next day. Or the day after that. You sink everybody’s boat in the harbor, not just yours. So just DON’T!” (Read more: Husted: Alum Rick Reilly puts CU J-school to bed – The Denver Post)

Here’s what I would like to add to Reilly’s eloquent statement.

Think about your future and don’t mess with my present

Young or new writers often give away their work. Perhaps it’s because they are building a portfolio or maybe they’re just overly eager to see their byline. Whatever the reason, writing for free is bad.

First, if you write for free, you are setting a precedent establishing that your work is not worth real money. When you decide to start charging for your time and work, you’ve already established that your price is free. Last, but far from least, as Reilly points out above, by writing for free you are hurting other writers. Working for free undercuts our industry, period.

Trade is not free, but tread carefully

A trade is only legitimate when both parties are truly getting equal value from the exchange. Some writers are happy to free write articles in exchange for hotel stays or other travel freebies. I know writers who write reviews for free products; this is popular with mommy bloggers. While this isn’t my preferred type of payment, this is a legitimate trade.

I would caution writers against doing frequent trade. I promise that the mortgage company will not take the organic oven cleaner you got as trade in lieu of a house payment, no matter how good it is.

Boost your portfolio without undercutting yourself or others

Look, I know it’s hard to break in to this industry, and believe me when I tell you that you’ll always feel as though you are “breaking in.” Making a living as a writer is tough, but I do have some tips on getting clips without undercutting your future or my present.

Find a nonprofit and DONATE your time – My first official writing gig was producing a quarterly newsletter for a small, nonprofit organization. I wrote all the articles, took the photographs and even did the design and layout work. And yes, I did this for free because I believed in the cause, but, above all, I needed clips. Happily, these clips helped me secure my first paying writing job at a local newspaper. If you must work for free, support a non-profit or charity that you care deeply about.

Blog, blog, blog – If you have a blog that is published and updated weekly with well-written work, then *presto* you have clips. Here’s a tip: build a professional looking blog by paying the small fee associated with removing the /wordpress or /blogspot from your url.

Guest blogging is another great way to get clips and to establish yourself as a sought after writer. Again, limit the number of guest posts you write; there are bloggers who will take advantage of free work as well.

Don’t do it alone – Networking with other writers is priceless. Join a writers group, join a writers association, or join an online industry organization such as Media Bistro and Avant Guild. Believe it or not, Twitter has an active group of writers, and is a good place to connect. Coworking at a facility where there are other writers is also a wise idea. Find out more about coworking here.

By surrounding yourself with people you want to emulate, good things will happen.

For the rest of you

It may sound like I’m picking on writers, so I will leave you with this:  PEOPLE, STOP ASKING WRITERS TO WRITE FOR FREE. You wouldn’t expect your dentist to fill a cavity for free or your accountant to do your taxes for a box of chocolates. The fact is that you can’t fill your own cavity and you aren’t good at doing your taxes. You are also a terrible writer – that’s why you’ve asked someone else to do it – so pay them!

-Heidi Kerr-Schlaefer is the Mayor of HeidiTown and a working writer. You may follow her on Twitter or join the HeidiTown block party on Facebook.

Image credit: photosteve1o1


  • Anonymous

    Hallelujah and AMEN!! Preach it sistah-writer. As someone who put in time doing my free (and almost free) writing before summoning the balls to demand payment for my work, I can tell you this post is the gospel truth. The right words are priceless, and for professionals in many industries–elusive. And it’s total bullshit to say that because words are published online, instead of in a magazine or newspaper, they are worth any less. Asking writers to work for free is to tell the world that you’re willing to publish bad writing. Take some pride in yourself, and your company, and invest the money in a talented writer that will actually care about your brand and the topic at hand. You won’t be sorry!

    • Well said (of course), Beth. 

  • AMEN! RT @CohereLLC: Writers, Stop Giving It Away http://bit.ly/jKGbyI #coworking #writing #freelance

  • Cheri

    that goes for photographers too. bylines don’t buy groceries…

    • Cheri-nice point! What other professions should be reading this post and applying it to their craft? 

  • Jen

     except, so far I am blogging for free.  so how is that not writing for free? 

    • Jen-I think you’re blogging for your own blog. Am I correct? In that case, you’re a-okay. Personal blogs are a great way to build up your content stores. As a matter of fact, Feasting Fort Collins started out that way but now she’s making money with sponsorships on her blog! 

  • Phil

    Awesome post, I completely agree!

  • Anonymous

     I am SO guilty of being a writing (and more) hussy.  No one’s going to buy the cow if you give the milk away for free!

    • SarahJaneG-Unlike the wise Red Hot Chili Peppers, we shall not “Give it away, give it away, give it away now.” 

  • RT @HeidiTown: My guest post for @CohereLLC is now posted: Writers, Stop Giving it Away http://bit.ly/iBSi6s #writing #cowork

  • Excellent post Heidi. Too many people are giving away their talent. Thanks for writing this. I have written for very little, but never for free. Of course, I am an old-school journalist who thinks my old Pica pole is a treasure. Kudos to you for standing up for writers.


    • Alice-thanks for weighing in! I wish I knew what a Pica pole was! 

  • Be sure to share this with your #writer friends! Writers, Stop Giving it Away: http://bit.ly/iBSi6s

  • RT @HeidiTown: Be sure to share this with your #writer friends! Writers, Stop Giving it Away: http://bit.ly/iBSi6s

  • I've been screwed by bloggers doing free promo work more times than I can count RT @HeidiTown Stop Giving it Away: http://bit.ly/iBSi6s

  • TheMayor

     Wow, thanks everyone for chiming in!!!  This has been a rant of mine for awhile, so when Angel gave me the opportunity to write about it here, I was most pleased to share my thoughts on the topic.

    Jen, if you are blogging for yourself that means you are portfolio building and establishing yourself as an expert in your field.  Like Feasting Fort Collins, HeidiTown started out small, but now has paying sponsors.  It has also served me well as an online portfolio.

    Cheri, I think this goes for photographers, graphic designers and anyone else who is in the creative arts. 

    Sarah Jane, that cow produces pure organic milk and she’s nearly priceless.

    Alice, writing for a little is better than writing for free!

    Beth, you rock.

  • Wow! My post for @CohereLLC is getting a lot of traffic! I seem to have struck a nerve. http://bit.ly/iBSi6s Writers stop writing for free!

  • My guest post for @CohereLLC is now posted: Writers, Stop Giving it Away http://bit.ly/iBSi6s #writing #cowork

  • I like that you gave advice for how to break into the field so that new writers can find an alternative to writing for free.

  • Anonymous

     Word! Writing costs money (a mantra I have to chant to myself occasionally). Great post, Heidi!

  • Wow! My post for @CohereLLC is getting a lot of traffic! I seem to have struck a nerve. http://bit.ly/iBSi6s Writers stop writing for free!

  • Listening to seminars at #TBEX — I will share this guest post I wrote 4 a #coworking community. Stop Writing 4 FREE! http://t.co/eCPRbGIL

  • @HomeExchangeKey the article we were chatting about! http://t.co/eCPRbGIL

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