You may at times wonder if it’s acceptable to write for free to either build your portfolio or get experience.
Chances are, you’ve already encountered publications looking for unpaid contributions. (Or worse, start-ups who promise to pay you after their business has launched).
It’s not black and white. Maybe a magazine you’ve always dreamed of writing for offers to print your article. The personal satisfaction you gain from having your name in print may outweigh any financial loss from the unpaid hours.
Compensation for your time doesn’t always have to be in the form of cold, hard cash. Compensation comes in many forms, including:
- Personal satisfaction – if you feel happy, excited or proud to write for a particular publication, you may not want or need to be paid for the work (only you can know this)
- Published experience – if you’re building your writing portfolio, and you’re finding it hard to get a break, getting published in a quality publication will enhance your portfolio and could help to boost your credibility
- Writing experience – if you’re just starting out as a health writer, writing and following through with a project from beginning to end are valuable learning experiences that can help you to grow your skills.
Remember: there should be a reward or incentive if you’re going to spend hours of your time working without financial compensation. Any unpaid writing should always be on your terms. Make sure nobody’s taking advantage of you, in other words.
I’ve written for free
When I was starting out as a writer, and before I entered the health writing niche, I interviewed bands for a music magazine. Though I was never paid, my rewards came in other forms: Concert tickets, backstage passes and getting to chat to – and, in some cases, meet – some amazing artists. I was happy to have these benefits instead of payment.
Over the years, I have written many more guest blogs and articles without financial compensation – and, I continue to do so today. I’ve done this for various reasons – the exposure was good, the experience was new, and I felt happy and willing to do it at the time.
However, tread carefully
If you decide to take on unpaid work for any reason, the most important consideration is that you are happy with the terms and conditions.
Obviously, you need income to survive – and any free work that you commit to could be taking time away from paid work.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself when you’re weighing up the options and working out what’s in it for you:
- Will it help me to learn a new skill?
- Will it enhance my portfolio?
- Will the work take me an excessive amount of time?
- Can I promote the work on my website and social channels?
- Is there a possibility of securing ongoing, paid work after I complete the unpaid work?
- Will I enjoy doing the work?
- Will I get useful feedback from an editor to help me improve my writing?
- Will I get backlinks to my websites and social media to help boost my online profile?
- Is the publication paying other writers?
- What could this work lead to?
- Do other health writers write for free?
You can check in with other writers and see what their views are on the topic, too. I asked a few health writer colleagues recently, and their responses were helpful.
Free should be strategic
“I think free should always be strategic,” said Bek Lambert, a freelance copywriter and marketer who runs Unashamedly Creative.
She pointed out that TEDx talks, for example, are unpaid yet there seems to be value in them for presenters.
Bek also said that existing clients who hit you up for freebies should be a no-no. “And I think entities that want to profit from your skills and only share ‘exposure’ should be shot out of a giant cannon into the sun,” she added.
Bek has worked for free before and it’s helped her to get PR and experience outside her realm that has converted to cash at a later date. “But I’ll never do anything where I can’t see a direct ‘what’s in it for me?’ lightbulb above the opportunity,” Bek said.
Write for free if it’s fun and leaves time for family
Dr Sarah McKay, medical writer and healthy brain blogger at Your Brain Health, agreed that writing for free could be acceptable in certain situations: like if it is strategic for business, is brand or profile building, seems like fun, and doesn’t take time away from other, more important things like paid work and family time.
“The fun aspect is really important to me too – I spend so much time at home by myself tapping away on the keyboard, that being invited along to an event as an ‘expert’ is such a lovely change of pace, and enjoyable,” Sarah said.
“I’ve done some writing and speaking work for free – for example, with the brain health initiative Neural Knitworks – and next week I’m speaking on a panel about science and wellness for science week. I didn’t get paid a cent to do my TEDx talk, that probably took a good month of my time to prepare, but it has more than paid for itself! I’ve had quite a few paid speaking gigs as a result, and the confidence it gave me, well, I couldn’t put a price on that,” Sarah added.
Sarah also tells the people she mentors that they’ll probably have to write for free when they’re first building their profile. Some of them, she says, are so stuck in the ‘NEVER write for free’ mindset that they can’t get a single piece published.
“I differentiate between ‘portfolio building’ and ‘freelancing’. The initial writing for free is part of the initial investment in the business,” Sarah pointed out.
Small pay can be as bad as no pay
Kym Campradt is a freelance health & medical writer who highlighted, among other things, an important point: small pay can be as bad as no pay. “I wrote up to three articles for free in the very beginning because I wanted to build up my portfolio,” she wrote. “I have recently done some free work because it will provide me with experience and feedback in an area I don’t have experience – so again, good for my portfolio. If it’s going to help give me new skills etc and give me confidence, so will pay off in the future I am ok with it. As I’ve gone along I’ve felt more comfortable to say no to things that aren’t paid well.”
Remember, it’s always your choice
Working out whether you should write for free is really about ensuring that nobody is taking advantage of you and that you’re a willing participant in the process.
Have you written articles or blogs for free? What did you get out of it?