Should You Write for Free?
Ask that question to your writer friends and you're liable to get as many different answers as you have friends. It is a question that those of us in this profession face often. There are times and places where it is reasonable to give your time and talent away, but make sure you know exactly what you are giving and what you are getting in exchange.
What if it is a "really good cause"?
Whenever you're asked or just thinking of giving away your services for a charitable cause, ask yourself three questions:
1. Will you want to use the material again? - If so, check the copyright status of anything you produce. Do you retain the rights? Is this classified as a publication, thus using your "first rights"? Is it a work for hire where all the rights stay with the organization? If the rights are compromised, you may not be able to sell the material again without a major rewrite and restructuring.
2. What kind of exposure will your work receive? Yes, you're working for free, but you can still benefit from your efforts professionally. Look at the size and the reputation of the group. Will you be credited either with bylines or in an event program? Who will see your work? Working for an event or cause can put you in front of people you might not otherwise meet. It could mean more work down the road so make sure you can exploit the experience to you advantage.
3. Do you really and truly support this cause? If so, forget the other questions and do the best job you can.
What if a website wants to publish your story but offers no pay?
Website publication is "real" whether or not the site pays you. In writers guidelines more and more magazines specifically mention that they don't want work that has been published on "a third party or nonpersonal website." Even if the website says you retain all your rights, other editors might not feel the same way.
But as with writing for charity, look at the exposure and your future plans for the material. If you're offering a piece point specific to the website, then you probably can't sell it elsewhere so the publication credit will be the only thing you can get for it. Also if this is in an area or genre you have no or little previous publishing history, and the website is a prominent fixture in this area, let the byline and exposure be your payment and your foot in the door. However, next time keep looking for a paying market.
When shouldn't you write for free?
Writers often lament that their families and friends don't see their freelance work as a real job and try to take advantage so the number one reason you shouldn't write for free is when you're "guilted" into the job. You love your family and you don't want to resent the intrusion but you will at least internally and that's not healthy. Besides writing is a "real job" and you should get paid for your time and talent. Who would expect a plumber to fix a clogged sink then not present a bill?
Don't write for free if you don't feel passionately about the job, the cause or at least some aspect of the situation. You likely won't do a stellar job and it could reflect badly on you with the people involved. Exposure is good, but make sure it is exposure to your best work.
Finally, don't write for free if you can't afford it. Clippings are great. Every writer needs bylines and resume builders, but he also needs money for his bills. No amount of exposure or prestige is going to pay your rent or put food on the table.
There's the old adage "You get what you paid for." If you write your best, you should be paid the best. Right?