The Worlds of R. A. Hortz
Should You Write for Free?

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Should You Write for Free?, by Rochelle Caviness
Originally published June 10, 2005
Reprinted here with the permission of the author.

The controversy surrounding writing for free is a continuous issue. Some people are fundamentally opposed to writing for free, while others will consider it under certain circumstances. However, when push comes to shove, each writer must decide whether or not writing for free makes sense for them.

For Non-Fiction Writers

For non-fiction writers, having published clips is nearly always essential if you want to get a paying assignment. If you don't have published clips (copies of published articles), you can get your foot in the door by writing on spec (speculation), which means that you first write the entire article and then the editor will either accept it - and pay you, or reject it - without compensation. If you write an article on assignment, and it is rejected, you will usually receive a kill fee (partial payment) for your efforts, however when you write on spec, the publication is not obligated to compensate you in any way. So all your time and effort in researching and writing your article is for naught, unless you can sell the article to another venue.

An easier way to garner those first few, vital, published clips, is often to write for free, or for a token payment. Many newspapers, the kinds that are distributed freely, are often eager to find people that will write short articles for them - but if they pay at all, the payment is minimal. You can also write for a school, religious organizations, or community newsletter. While such publications may not be 'slick' or 'high-end' publications, they do give you an opportunity to showcase your talent. There are also thousands of websites that will gladly publish your work - for free. The value of such publication is based more upon the quality of your work, than the site that it is published on.

If your work is good, you may only need one or two clips to get your foot in the door of a paying market. Personally, I can see the value of writing a few articles or essays for a free or low paying market simply to get a few decent clips. That was how I got my own start - I began writing for a couple of school newspapers, had one book review published online, and walked right into my first well-paying writing assignment. However, once you have your foot through the door of the paying markets, I'm of the theory don't write for free unless the benefits you receive are worth the loss of income. This is especially important if you are trying to earn your living by writings. This isn't to say that I still don't write for free or below a living wage, I do - but only for select publications that I feel will advance my writing career in some manner, or who offer some other worthwhile incentive. I also write for free about causes that I care passionately about, for charity, and occasionally because a friend really needs me to help out...

Should you write for free? In the end, it is your choice, but before you give your work away - make sure that the benefits you receive are worth it and that the people asking you to give your work away are not unduly profiting from your work. Also, when you give or sell your work at a reduced rate, consider the rights you are giving away. If you retain all rights, all's fine and good, as this allows you to resell your work to other venues, however, if you give away your article and all rights - you've done just that - given away your article with no recourse to ever use it again. Even when you are being well payed for your work, selling all your rights is never a sound business move - but that is another entire controversy!

For Fiction Writers

When it comes to fiction, writing for free becomes an even murkier question. Fiction writers seldom need clips, and most fiction editors don't care a wig if you have ever published anything before - unless of course you are a big 'name' like Tom Clancy, Steven King, or Danielle Steel. In the realm of fiction, the story either sells itself, or it doesn't.

So should you ever consider writing fiction for free? It really depends on why you are writing. If you are trying to make a living writing fiction - first, don't give up your day job, and second, approach your writing as a business. Develop a business plan, and stick with it. When you come across a non-paying market, before submitting your story, take into consideration the possible benefits of having your work appear in such a publication. If it is a high quality literary magazine, your work may be seen by numerous editors, and such a credit may advance your career. If your story is published in the XYZ e-zine that no one ever heard of - are you receiving any benefit?

On the other hand, it you write for the simple love the craft, and you don't care about making any money, and all you really want to see is your name in print - go for it. There are millions of want-to-be fiction writers in the United States alone. If you can spin a well plotted and well-written tale, and you're persistent, odds are that eventually you will have a story purchased by a paying, professional level magazine or other publications. The sad truth is, however, that this might take years - if it ever happens. If your goal is simply to see your name in print - writing for free may be the ideal way for you to achieve your goal.

In Conclusion

When all is said and done, as long as writers, for whatever reason, are willing to write for free, there will be publications more than willing to publish their work. After all, the more they save from not having to pay anything to the writers, without whom they could not have a publication, the more profits that they'll make. Despite all the controversy, and the strong feelings that writing for free engenders on both sides of the isle, only you can decide for yourself if writing for free is sound business decision for you. No matter what you decide, happy writing...

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