Is it ever ok to write for free?

Last week, the editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post admitted he is “proud” not to pay his writers because it makes their work more “authentic”. Does this amount to exploitation? Or is there real value (and authenticity) to writing for the exposure alone? We asked two Prime Writers to debate the issue…


NO, says Dominic Utton, author of Martin Harbottle’s Appreciation of Time

Dominic Utton

Dominic Utton

Should you ever write for free? It’s a simple question, with a simple answer. And the answer is “no”. If the person who asked you to write for them is getting paid, no. If the person who will be editing, laying out or uploading your writing is getting paid, no. If the publication (or website) you’re writing for is in any way profiting from your writing, no, no, no.

Why? Because every time you write for free, you’re not only defrauding yourself, you’re betraying every other writer who has ever thought of writing as a viable career. You’re helping kill the thing you love. You should hang your head in shame.

(Important caveat: contributing to a friend’s blog, or a community project, or a non-profitable organisation is different – if nobody’s getting paid, then fair enough, neither should you. But if money is involved – through subscriptions, cover price, advertising, salaried staff – then you have to demand your fair share.)

Whether you’re a professional journalist (as I am) for whom writing is a career, a way of paying the mortgage, or whether you’re simply desperate to raise awareness of your latest novel, you have a moral duty to demand payment for your work.

Don’t believe in the myth of “exposure” – if your piece is good enough to be published, it’s good enough to get paid for. Nobody’s doing you a favour by printing (or uploading) your words – they’re doing it because you’re making their product better. You’re adding value to their brand. And you deserve recognition for that, beyond a pat on the back.

Every time a writer agrees to spend his or her time working for free (or for “exposure”) it not only perpetuates the myth that we do this for fun, as a hobby, a frivolous distraction, it also devalues the very act of writing itself. It devalues writers. All writers. It drives our worth – and the worth of what it is we do – down.

And, of course, it means the bastards will try it on again. It means that pernicious organisations like the Huffington Post will continue to make vast amounts of money while we – the very people who make it a success – are expected to receive nothing.

“No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money” – Samuel Johnson said that, some 250 years ago. And if you believe in what we do, if you love what we do, it’s the only writing advice you ever really need follow.


Yes, says Sarah Jasmon, author of The Summer of Secrets

Sarah Jasmon

Sarah Jasmon

In taking this side of the argument, I feel about as comfortable as I did in the fourth year at school when I was landed with the task of defending the motion that homework was a Good Thing. Because who, really, is going to attack the idea that workers should be paid for their work?

The fact is, though, writing for free is how I got a foothold in the publishing world and I continue to use it as a tool for building a profile. For the debut novelist, it’s next to impossible to quantify the effect writing guest content has on sales. A very few novels every year get gold-standard publicity treatment; most of us create our own opportunities and say yes to everything. Are there less paid opportunities available because of other’s willingness to write for free? I’m not sure.

Proper journalism is a skilled trade. From the efforts I’ve made to get freelance work, I fully appreciate the time, commitment and hustle that it takes to make it into a paying career. The idea that unpaid work is somehow more ‘authentic’ is patently rubbish, and I’m sure that the editor-in-chief of the HuffPost knows this.

But… we’re in a world where content writing – for fiction or otherwise – is open to all. Tired of waiting for a publisher to pick up on your book? Self publish. Want to get a foothold in journalism? Build a profile via blogging. For most, it’ll provide little more than a moment of personal satisfaction, but the fact is, for a very few people, this will prove a jumping off point to a successful career.

Because, there is still paid work out there. (Here’s a piece by Nate Silver outlining the extent to which the paper’s business model actually depends on paid content.  And most paid work, it seems to me, still comes via the industry networks or through publicists’ contacts. I think I stand a better chance of capturing proper, visible, paid opportunities if I have a portfolio of well-written and thoughtful pieces to back me up.

If I’ve written articles for free, it’s as a loss leader, a way of making a mark in a densely populated environment. No, it’s not ideal, but I’ll make the best use of it that I can.


What do you think?