Where New Writers Should Write for Free
Writers long have operated under the belief that they might need to write for free for a while to establish some credibility and earn bylines. But is this still the case? Should you, in fact, put words on the page without being compensated?
The function of bylines
Bylines do still count. But what they really do is show new editors that previous editors have liked your writing. This initial approval can go a long way in convincing the new editors to look at you seriously. And these days, anyone can publish anything anywhere. So lots of editors simply want to know whether you can communicate something of interest to their readers. They look at whether you can follow their specific editorial tone and guidelines. Clips from other publications or that you’ve self-published also can be drastically different from what they’d like to see. So editors often put much more weight on whether you can hook them in a query and submit a well-constructed draft.
Promote yourself when you write for free, not others
In the above context, my philosophy is that any writing you do for free needs to promote you, not others. And the point of the writing is to allow others to see that you are active, involved, and educated, to build credibility and visibility first with readers. For example, you can write articles on LinkedIn, Medium, or other free platforms. Even social media posts and blogs can serve to demonstrate your ability to analyze, find sources, or command a topic. But you always have complete control over this writing. No one else gets to profit from it. Once you have a following, it’s something you can mention in any query letter/submission, even if you don’t include specific clips.
Now, you absolutely have to be strategic about this. That means writing about trending topics, understanding SEO and page ranking tools, carefully selecting the right hashtags, backlinking, and asking others to share your work on purpose. You can’t just hit publish and hope eyeballs will connect with your words. You have to take proactive steps to ensure that they do. Remember, writing is your business. And if you’re the CEO, you have to make sure customers come through the door. There’s very little reason you can’t learn and execute the technicalities of content marketing.
All this said, if someone asks you, say, to write some free product descriptions, sure, maybe you can put that on a resume. But it’s not going to do much to have others know who you are. And that’s what you really want to be working for if you aren’t compensated.
Just ask what you improve
So recognize the value of public sway in addition to the value of a work history that shows you’ve connected with others. If you’re not going at least to improve your reach, reputation, and influence with the free work, then you need to insist that a client cough up real money for your effort.