Why Writers Should Say No to Writer Mills and Yes to Free*

Do I really think writers should write for free? No. As I’ve written before, writers should be paid for their time, expertise and skill. More specifically, writers should be appropriately paid for their work.

Am I encouraging writers to say no to $15 for a 1,000-word article at Demand Studios (or similar content mills), but yes to writing for free? Yes.

*But only in certain circumstances—such as those listed below—should you consider unpaid writing opportunities.

  • It’s mantelpiece worthy. If there’s a publication where you’ve always dreamed of seeing your byline, it might be worth it to you to write for free (or, at least, for what feels like free). For me, it’s an indie magazine that I’ve been reading for years. They pay writers very little but offer lots of opportunity. Many of the mag’s contributors credit their bylines there with new high paying, high-profile work.
  • Your portfolio is anemic. If you need a portfolio piece or two to get into a new industry, it may make sense to craft copy in exchange for work samples. Should you go this route, try to do the work close to home, such as for a non-profit you support or through contacts you trust. Be sure your client understands why the work is at no cost and get permission to use the work on your website. If the client is extremely happy with the results, don’t be shy about asking for referrals!
  • You need a good deed. Many non-profit organizations are in need of specific skills and your way with words could help. Now, I’m not recommending that you do grant writing for free or on spec. But you can give back by editing a newsletter or helping to refresh stale web copy. Bonus: Thinking this can help with your tax bill? Not likely. Check out June Walker’s tax advice for indies if you want more information.
  • It’s better than writing a check for advertising. If a guest post on a highly respected industry blog can get you in front of your prospective clients and give them a taste of your expertise, then it’s better than advertising. Ideally, you’ll build this into your marketing plan and treat your investment (your time) as part of your budget. Using her own experiences with Mashable and Copyblogger, Maria Schneider (of Editor Unleashed) offers 5 Questions To Ask Before You Write For Free. I’d like to add a sixth question: Is your next client reading this blog/ site/ publication?

Writer mills are not good options for meeting the circumstances above. Here’s why:

  • Writer mills don’t have PIE. Michelle Goodman describes PIE as “paid in exposure,” meaning that you actually benefit from the low-paying or free work through new work that pays you what you’re worth. Places like Demand Studios, LoveToKnow, eHow, AllVoices and the like are not destinations for editors scouting new writing talent or marketing managers seeking a sizzling copywriter.
  • You have to write and promote. With writer mills, you are responsible for promoting your articles through avenues such as your own blog and social media accounts. Your efforts are to drive traffic to the company’s site. If you write a guest post for a popular, highly respected site in your industry, that site can help generate new readers and even new clients for you without you having to do any promoting. The benefit is yours.
  • You’re making someone else a whole bucketful of money. Erik Sherman’s WriterBiz blog digs up the truth on these sites and shares the chilling numbers. For example, Demand Media (also known as Demand Studios) has received more than $355 million in venture capital since 2006. Compare that to paying a writer $15 for an article and the numbers don’t add up.

As always, when it comes to writer mills and writing for free, there are arguments on all sides. Personally, I was disappointed to learn that Copyblogger doesn’t pay its guest bloggers. It’s such a fantastic site for writers that I just assumed the posts were paid. And, I admit it, I still think it would cool to see my byline there. Something tells me it gives great PIE.

Have you had experiences working for free that you would or would not repeat? The floor is yours!

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