Why Writing For Free is Better Than Writing for $20

Carol Tice

Business man refusing money offeredRecently, I took on 200 new members of Freelance Writers Den. It’s always interesting to hear the stories of members and why they join.

One tale I hear from many of the writers. The details vary, but the basic drift goes like this:

“I’ve been making $8 an article on [insert name of your favorite content mill or bid site here].

Now I’m broke and never have time to figure out how to earn any more money. I’m burned out from having to write hundreds of articles quickly to make even grocery money.

Can you help?”

Yes, I can. I’m going to tell you to do something that may sound crazy, but trust me, it’s going to pay off big in the end.

Stop writing for peanuts.

I know. That sounds terrifying. But if you’re serious about building a lucrative freelance writing career, it’s really what you should do.

Why? When you write for a pittance, bad things happen.

What should you do instead? Write a few projects for quality clients for free.

How is writing for free a faster road to great freelance earnings than writing for cheap?

Let me tell you what you get when you do free-sample work instead of being underpaid and overworked by a bid site or content mill:

Clarity.

When you write for free, there’s never a confusion that this particular writing activity could turn into a living somehow, if you could just figure out how to crank out six or ten articles per hour, eight hours a day. With free writing, you know it won’t ever pay your bills.

You’re clear on why you’re doing this writing — because you love writing short stories, you need a writing sample for your portfolio, or you love the charity whose newsletter you volunteer to create.

It’s a step on the road to where you want to go. And because it pays nothing, it’s not a step you’ll be tempted to linger on. Instead, you’ll want to quickly move forward from your pro bono work to paying gigs.

Self-esteem.

There’s something about writing for laughably low rates that kills writers’ souls.

You start thinking somewhere deep down that $8 is all you deserve. That your writing must not really be very good. When in fact mill pay is low because their business model is broken. It’s nothing to do with you.

The way writers are treated on content mills can be unpleasant, too, along with the low pay.

Pretty soon, you feel scared to even pitch anywhere better.

Every time I see a writer comment on a forum that “content mills are a great place to get started,” I just cringe.

Honestly, I have to say I don’t think it they are, if your dream is to pay serious bills from your craft and not just earn a little date-night money.

If you simply need to get a few samples and do some practice writing, start your own blog. That way you’ll have control over what gets published, and be creating a site you could build and monetize if you want, and you’ll keep the rights to all your posts.

When you do a volunteer project for a local business, small-town newspaper, or local charity, you have the pride of knowing you wrote for a real-world client and pleased them. That work can get you noticed and often lead to the next client, too.

You’ve proven you can write professionally, and it feels good. That helps you pitch paying clients with confidence.

Clips.

Besides the skinny paychecks, cheapo articles for content mills often don’t produce any viable clips for your portfolio. Maybe you get lucky here and your Demand article ends up in USA Today online or something…but those breaks seem to be rare.

We all know many editors throw queries right in the trash when the writer’s bio line reveals their whole experience is writing for Textbroker or Demand Studios. This is another reason writing for mills is a trap…you often don’t get any clips that help you move up.

When you do pro bono work for legit companies or nonprofits, you end up with real samples that can impress prospects and get you hired for real-pay gigs.

Marketing.

When you write for $8 — or $15, or whatever the pittance is — you never have time to market your business and find better clients. You’re trapped in a gerbil-wheel cycle of having to write every waking moment just to keep the lights on.

When you let that go and focus on the long-term goal of finding real paying clients, you realize there’s only one way to get them.

You’re going to have to aggressively market your business. So that’s what you do.

Because you’re hungry. And you want to find those clients fast, so you can make real money and avoid having to crawl back to a cubicle job.

Raises.

It’s impossible to get a raise from super-low rates to anything reasonable. Raises are usually incremental, but getting a 10 percent raise on $8 isn’t going to change your life. You’d have to get a tenfold raise for the pay to start to amount to anything, and that just ain’t gonna happen.

And you can’t get that raise anyway, because mills almost never raise their rates. These are clients whose pay won’t ever change, so you’ll never move up.

To create a freelance business where pay will steadily grow, you have to find a different kind of client — the kind where after six months or a year, you could get more money.

 

If you’re too broke to quit writing for cheap right now, come up with a savings plan now that could free up a few weeks of your time to try the free-writing strategy for building your freelance writing business.

Then challenge yourself to stay away from Craigslist ads, content mills and the like for just 30 days. Nobody I know who’s tried this has ever had to go back to writing for peanuts.

Have you written for free, or for cheap? Leave a comment and tell us what you do and why.

70 Comments

  1. AAron

    Hi I have been writing health & lifestyle articles for an online newspaper for free during the last year (2 articles a month). It was mainly just to create content and something I could add to my cv.
    I initially contacted the company to ask if i could write, they liked my style but said they didn’t have the budget for it, they said they would allow me to promote my ‘business’ which i dont have ( its just a facebook link).

    I think its about time that I start charging, but have no idea what kind of rate to ask for, i did read you mentioned no less than $100’s an article. There are example’s of my work on the website link, im just not sure what they are worth.
    Any thoughts?

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Aaron — I’m not able to do free blog reviews for the many writers who ask me each week…but yes, I do like to see at least $100 a post, especially if it’s not something you can just write off the top of your head.

      You won’t be able to charge this free site anything — they still don’t have a budget. But you can charge other clients you prospect for and find.

      It’s not a question of what they’re ‘worth’ — it’s a question of finding a client who appreciates the value of good writing and has the budget to pay well for it.

    • AAron

      Thank you very much for replying Carol, I appreciate it. Sound advice which ill use in the future.

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