Why I sometimes write for free

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You’ve received them. I’ve received them. We’ve all received them at some point. In fact, I’m sure there are a bunch of them sitting in my email inbox right now.  I’m of course, talking about those vaguely impersonal emails, peppered with grammatical inconsistencies and asking us  if we'd like to write for their publication or website. If you notice, almost all of them follow a set standard pattern:  

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  • It starts by saying how much they admire your work.
  • It then goes on to say how they think your articles and posts are a perfect match for their publication;
  • and completely omits any details/offers about payment;
  • or worse yet, the ‘Unfortunately, we are currently not offering any monetary compensation to our contributors. However we will be happy to offer you some good exposure…..’ dialogue

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We all get them. And if I’m honest, the first time I received it, I actually thought of writing for them. But after the initial amusement (and sometimes, excitement) wears off, the distressing sign is right there. The very fact that they admire your work, but not enough to offer you any kind of payment.  And that’s when our bubble bursts.

 

So with that thought in mind, let me put this question out there: Would you write for free?'

 

Even as I type this sentence, I can hear the thunderous response of ‘NO’s’ shaking the very existence of my blog. I mean, who would want to write for free, isn’t it? I mean, it’s ignorantly stupid to think that someone would write something for free. But then again, is it?

 

Let’s take a step back. On a ‘strictly technical’ level, we all are writing for free. Not always, but yes, we do write for free. Wait! Hold back those weapons and shut down those battle cries…hear me out.Think of that last long-wound status that you put up? Or that beautiful metaphor-laced description for that gorgeous sunset that you photographed? Or that funny tweet of yours that was Re-tweeted 50 times? Did you technically make any money off it? No, I didn’t think so. Did the platform that you wrote it on - say Facebook/Twitter/Blog host - make money off it? Maybe not directly, but yes. They did in traffic, hits and numerous other parameters that we no longer care to remember. So, in effect, technically you are writing for free. But it matters not because we are often writing it for ourselves.

 

So clearly, our issue is not writing for free, but the fact that these ‘publications’ who approach you clearly have no value for your time and the effort that you put in.  These days, I hear the rally cries. I remember, how they used to be mere murmurs - like the sort of gossip that you’d overhear at the bar or a family function. But the voices are stronger now. They are louder and more demanding than ever. And soon, someone will have to pay attention to it.

 

The ‘rally cry’ that I’m talking about is something that is on each of our minds. It’s about ‘being asked to write for free’. Nobody can deny it  - if all of us refuse ‘free work’ enough times, these people will understand. At least, that’s what we would normally expect to happen. Of course, the truth is slightly far from that.

 

The is a simple reason why so many publications get away without paying anything. Thanks to the Internet and the general (mis)belief that ‘Everybody  who can write, must write’, there is an almost endless supply of enthusiastic writers who :

a) will believe that very ‘overused and oversold’ line about ‘exposure’

b) are genuinely excited to be part of a publication, that they are ready to do it for free

 

You know how I know that ? I was one of them.  In fact, when I initially started looking at the prospects of writing as a career of sorts, I sent countless number of emails and letters asking for a chance to write for their ‘esteemed and prestigious’ magazine/publication/websites. If at that point, someone had broached the topic of ‘payment’, I probably would have said I’ll write for exposure. Why? For one, I was naive and stupid. But two, the ugly truth - I was a nobody. In fact, most of us have similar experiences when we first start on this journey of writing.

 

[tweetthis twitterhandles="@iwrotethose" displaymode="box"]Today, I am a nobody that somebody knows. And that "free" has played a small part in it too. [/tweetthis]

 

The simple truth of this is that, thanks to the Internet, more people are making a living out of writing than ever before. The challenge is that unlike other mainstream professions, writing these days require no formal training. Secondly, even if you did have formal education in writing, it does not mean that people are waiting to give you a chance as soon as you graduate. Your USP is sometimes having contributed (freetributed, perhaps?) to a reputed publication.

 

If you remember, last year (or perhaps it was towards the latter past of 2014), there was this long-ass viral post by Wil Wheaton about why nobody should write for media giants like the Huffington Post, who (apparently, quite proudly) stated that they would not be paying contributors. I remember reading it, the temperature of my blood rising to dangerous levels and almost deciding to join that bandwagon.

 

But then, I desisted. There was plenty of truth in what Wheaton had written - about it being a matter of principle; about these sites making money off us; and of course not being able to pay rent with exposure. But when you dig deeper, you realise something.  We writers fall in the same category as the rest of those ‘artists’ - musicians, actors, stand up comedians and the likes. Just like they have open mic nights and bars and community theatres, we have websites that don’t pay but can get you noticed. The ugly truth is that today, if you need to make it as a writer, you have to go beyond the actual craft - which is writing. You need to grow a community and network, promote your work (Yes, even if you don’t like doing it!), think outside the box, meet people and use social media to generate interest. 

 

And sometimes exposure is a good part of being a writer. It all comes down to what you want from your writing and where the exposure is coming from.

 

Take my HuffingtonPost  journey for example. Yes, they don’t pay their contributors; but I’m only offering them posts that I’ve already offered free on my website or blog; not fresh content. They don’t require exclusivity nor do they ask you not to cross-post on a different site. Yes, they probably get hits. But you can always get it back linked to your blog too.

 

Today, despite the fact that I get commissioned quite frequently for articles, I continue to submit copies of my blog posts to multiple sites for free. In fact, my ‘free work with HuffPo’ got me on two separate editions of The Times of India as well as opened a number of other doors with leading publications. It also got me noticed by an award-winning Canadian  filmmaker, who subsequently commissioned my post on Indian queues to be made into a full-length documentary.  So see, sometimes exposure can do wonderful things.

 

So, if I’m brutally honest - if you ask me the question again - ‘Would I write for free?’ I can’t say there is a right or wrong answer for this. During the initial stages of our ‘writing’ career, there will instances where most of us will have to jump through hoops to land a writing gig with a reputed publication. We may even have to accept sub-standard pay to get that big break.

 

But always remember these points: Writing

 

Good luck!
Author's note:

Personally, I am in a better place now where I can afford to turn down 'free' writing opportunities and negotiate better rates for what I do. However, it wasn't the case always. The reason that I'm writing this is not to ask you to accept all free-writing tasks or opportunities. But it's just to say, that dependent on where you want to go and what your future plans are, offering some 'sample-free' work for exposure might not be a bad idea either. And yes, in an ideal world, publications must pay us for to write for them. But, it isn't always going to happen. And yes, these days, I do not write for 'exposure'. I can afford not to.

PS: Some of you are  veterans when it comes to writing for publications. This is not for you; it is more to answer a question that I've been asked a number of times in the past year. However, I'd love for you to share your story, if you have one.