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Freelance Writing: Should You Work for Exposure?

One of the pitches you will get as you embark on your career in freelance writing is the idea of writing portfolio pieces for exposure.

There are certain emails that prompt diva moments from me. In fact, I received such an email a few days ago. This email introduced me to an exciting network that offers great content. The email writer had seen my writing on this blog, one story in particular, and thinks that I would make a great addition to the blog network as a content provider.

Oh, really? Do tell me more.

[A]ll of our content is syndicated on branded mirror sites…so your writing would get some great exposure to this demographic through our huge readership base.

This is the point where the email writer lost me. “Great exposure” is code for: We’re not paying you.

Freelance Writing for Free

This is also the point where I turned into a diva. “Could she have Googled me first?” I asked my husband. “Really? The last thing I need at this point in my freelancing writing career is more exposure.”

What I’m looking for right now are higher paying freelance jobs so that I can reduce the amount of freelance writing I’m doing and concentrate on other projects. I’m not exactly looking to write for free so that I can enjoy the benefits of exposure.

These emails also remind me that, really, not everyone knows — or even cares — who I am. This “exposure” ploy was just some form email, with a few details altered to personalize it, to see if the blog network owner could get some free content. So, really, there’s not a reason to get all diva. What really needs to happen is for me to just press “delete” and move on.

When It Makes Sense to Write for Exposure

This doesn’t mean that you should never write for the sake of exposure. In some cases freelance writing for free can be a smart move. Here are some of the reasons to consider writing for free in order to get a little exposure:

  • Access to a particular blog’s readership: Guest posting on a high-quality blog can provide you with a new audience for your work, as well as a good-quality link.
  • Social proof: Another reason to post on a blog for free is for the social proof. Sometimes, it’s nice to say that you write for a certain site. When you do this, you can raise your prominence and credibility. It’s one of the reasons bloggers write for major news outlet blogs, even if they aren’t being paid much (or at all).
  • Portfolio building: If you are in the early stages of your freelance writing career, it can make sense to offer free posts as a way to build your portfolio. That way, you have some solid examples of your work to point to on sites other than your own blog.

However, it’s important not to get trapped in the freelance writing for free rut. A couple of years ago, I offered to write for free for a site in the freelance space. I said I would only contribute one post every other month, since I didn’t have a lot of time to write for free. After awhile, though, the blog asked for one free regular “guest post” a month. I caved, and then they asked for two regular posts a month. That’s where I drew the line and quit altogether.

At some point, you need to figure out at what point you will no longer write for free, just to get the exposure. I rarely write anything for free. I have to really, really like you to even consider writing a guest post without any compensation at all. Most of the time, when a guest post appears from me on another site, someone, somewhere has paid for it.

What do you think? When is it worth it to write for free?


11 Responses to Freelance Writing: Should You Work for Exposure?

  1. I suppose this question could be reworded…

    Plumbing: Should You Work for Exposure?
    Waitressing: Should You Work for Exposure?
    Engineering: Should You Work for Exposure?
    Driving a bus: Should You Work for Exposure?
    Teaching first grade: Should You Work for Exposure?

    The answers boil down to pretty much the same thing.

    • I think Miranda hits the points well when she discusses when it’s a good idea to work for exposure. It it can bring a bigger audience to your work that could lead to better opportunities then it could be worth it. I’d also add that goodwill/charity work is another time where you would consider working only for exposure.

      • Good point about the charity/goodwill work! That karma is almost always worth something, even if you don’t see the dollar signs.

  2. Reminds me of this excellent post by Kerry Taylor (Squawkfox) – http://www.squawkfox.com/2011/03/09/work-free/

    I recently tried out a freelance writing gig for ‘exposure’ but didn’t get any traffic from it so I think I’ll move on.

    In the blogging world, links DO count for something so at the very least you should have a bio linking back to your own site. But if your bread and butter is writing then you need to get paid.

    • I also really like the link she has to the Should I Work For Free flowchart. That has long been one of my favorites. Here’s a link to the (not-child-friendly) flowchart: http://shouldiworkforfree.com/

      You make a good point about linking in the bio. But yes, you do need to get paid for the most part. One or two well-placed guest posts is one thing. Providing regular “guest” content for free is quite another.

  3. Oh come on, there’s no such thing as too much exposure! 🙂

    For me, it’s pretty simple: I only write for free when I decide it’s worth it. That usually means I go to someone else to write a guest post. If they come to me, it’s usually a no. Besides, from my experience, most people pitching “great exposure” can’t really offer that anyway.

    • I like this idea of writing you go to someone else. After all, you approached them. It must be worth it for you on some level. It’s all about weighing the pros and cons when you decide to write for free.

  4. I did a little bit of writing for free when I first got started. The numbers just don’t make sense to me for me to continue to do it.

  5. Hi Miranda, I have a question for you, and would take any insight that you can offer kindly. I am a staff writer for a finance/investment that wants to publish more content, and I confess to having written a few emails in the last few days that probably look a bit like the one you received. We want writers who will work for exposure at least initially.

    So obviously, most working writers won’t jump at that opportunity, but the thing is, I’m not a spammer at heart. The offer I’m making is one that could be a real boon for a fledgling writer. It’s one I wish like hell someone had made me 20 years ago.

    Presumably, there are as many fledgling writers today as there have ever been. I wonder if you have any tips on contacting them, as opposed to writers who are accustomed to being paid. Also, when I have contacted the sort of people for whom this would be a good opportunity, they are often too jaded to even look. Clearly, most of the people who sound like the writer of the email you received are not exactly on the level. I refrain from telling people how legitimate this opportunity is, how honest I am, etc… as that only puts people more on guard.

    So other than Googling everyone I write (a good point, btw–will do from now on), any insight on how I can reach the people I’m trying to reach?

    • There are numerous blog boards where you can put up your opportunity. You can also put the opportunity out there on Twitter with a hashtag like #writingjobs. There are some cases when exposure and portfolio building can be a real help to starting writers. I’d start with boards and social media outlets like LinkedIn and Twitter. But you’re right; it is hard to find writers who want to work for free. Most of us either want to get paid, or develop our own sites, since if you’re going to write for free it might as well be in building up your own site with the potential for earnings at some point, rather than building up someone else’s site.

      • Thanks Miranda,
        We’re certainly trying all that. I’m planning on teaching evening writing classes in my field as well, as I think to get the writers I want, I may have to make them myself.
        Good luck – I admire freelance writers – seems like it would be two jobs: writing, and finding new jobs. Both full time!

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