The quandary of writing for free — or close to it

The brief, but polite reply to my query is quite familiar to freelancers scouring the Web for writing opportunities:

“The position has been awarded to another writer, but if you’re interested in writing on a volunteer basis . . . “

Um, when the “v” word comes up, that’s when I put my foot down. Very briefly, and equally politely, I explained that my freelancing policy is to pursue only paying work.

In my still-evolving policy I write without compensation only for my own sites. I’ve also offered to barter my writing services to a friend who allowed me to use his photos and videos on one of my blogs. He offered his work to me for nothing; the least I can do is return the favor.

But what if paid work turns out to more of raw deal than the volunteer kind?

Last week freelance writer extraordinaire Erik Sherman dug into the nitty gritty of some freelance aggregators, aptly dubbing them “writers mills” and “intellectual sweat shops” for their paltry terms. He got a response from one such place, but kept plowing on. Love his description of who’s got the upper hand here:

“They want experience, they want productivity, they want . . . trust fund babies.”

I’ve felt despondent myself looking through similar sites, signing up for a couple, and then reading the grim fine print. You’ll knock yourself out and get very little in return.

Earlier this spring the topic flared up on Word Count, an excellent digital age-oriented site for freelancers, when a veteran freelancer urged novices not to write for aggregators. He received a quick retort from a popular aggregator. Michelle Rafter, the Word Count proprietor, suggested new freelancers approach hyperlocal sites or consider starting their own.

I won’t suggest never write for a “mill,” even though it’s not my preference, because I do know some people who are going down this road. But if you’re trying to build a full-time freelance writing career there won’t be enough time to do all the work for aggregators that won’t pay you a living wage.

If you’re not, you might as well start your own blog and run with it, hard. Put all of yourself behind it, make it your own, and build it into something that might lead you to some substantial money — some good freelancing offers or contract work or even a job. Your time will be better spent.

The individual with whom I had been corresponding did reply to my request to keep me in mind should he have another paying slot in the future. I really did mean it when I said I enjoyed reading his sites, while directing him to some of my work. Perhaps something will materialize; regardless, I’m glad I didn’t give in to the temptation of a cheap byline. Or a free one, actually.

This week Tracy Record of the West Seattle Blog replied in a comment to a post here about her hyperlocal site, which brings in enough advertising revenue to support her family. This is a terrific guideline for freelance journalists newly confronting the unforgiving world of writing for the Web:

“I’ve been trying to say this for a long time. . . These people who are slaving away for Examiner-dot-com or the zillion other ‘hey, we’ll pay you, really, at least, um, you’ll earn coffee money’ websites — or worse, ‘volunteer’ to write ‘blogs’ on newspaper websites — WHY oh WHY are you doing that? You don’t need tech expertise to set up your own site.

“God knows, we’re proof. We’re still running on the same out-of-box WordPress theme I chose 3-1/2 years ago when I thought this was going to be  ‘just a blog.’ We’ve gotten some help, pro bono and paid, to make some tweaks, and we can’t keep this theme forever, BUT if you’re just starting — go to WordPress or Blogger or wherever and GET GOING!

“Make your OWN name. Own your OWN page views. Rock your OWN world . . . if you do good work, Google will index you on your own site just the same way it would do so if you were buried in somebody’s bigger site. Don’t let somebody else earn money off your work. Aggregators aren’t the problem in that regard — writing for free or cheap for some big company IS.”


8 thoughts on “The quandary of writing for free — or close to it

  1. and have flooded the market with virtually unlimited bylines you can set up for yourself on a lunch break, so they aren’t worth as much as they used to be worth.

    I’m fortunate I got into web development where there’s still some paying work. It never ceases to amaze me when some people balk at the suggestion that, I dunno, I might need to feed myself occasionally. I’ve learned that charging even for initial consultations scares away people who are intent on “just picking my brain” (i.e. looking for free consulting).


  2. Agree with you on the first one. I’m guilty of that practice; now I set up hosted accounts mainly as a laboratory for new blogging ideas and concepts. Although I wish I had gone self-hosting with this blog from the start, I’ll keep it right where it is.

    Surprised to hear about some of your experiences as a Web developer; I figured they were so invaluable they could name their price.

    Web workers of the world unite . . .


  3. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a much better place to be than writing right now as far as there being money. But like a lot of other professions, you still have to fend off a lot of people looking to get something for nothing.


  4. Thanks for mentioning WordCount in this ongoing conversation about writing for content aggregators – if it’s not the no. 1 issue facing freelancers today, it’s in the top 5.

    If you’re really interested in following my advice about writing for hyperlocal news sites – or starting you own – and you happen to live in driving distance of Portland, Oregon, I’d highly recommend attending the Digital Journalism Camp that’s happening on Saturday, Aug. 1. It’s an all day, FREE, conference on digital media that’s open to any writers who are interested. I’ll be moderating a panel discussion on hyperlocal sites that will feature proprietors of three such ventures from Portland and Seattle.

    You can find out more about it at the Digital Journalism Camp website,


    Michelle Rafter
    WordCount: Freelancing in the Digital Age


  5. Thanks for mentioning my pieces on writers mills. I’ll probably be doing some more from time to time – someone just emailed me with the name of another one. My thought is that if you’re going to give it away, and occasional coffee money counts as giving it away, you might as well write for fun and do what you want. Why crank out service-type stories or tutorials for nothing? And those that want to make money should know that there is still work out there to be had, though you have to do the research and marketing and selling to get it.


  6. Not mentioned directly here … We PAY freelancers to write for us, on assignment. Usually fairly simple assignments, such as, can you cover that neighborhood council meeting that we can’t get to? Nobody gets rich – I pay $50-$100 in general depending on the complexity of the assignment (would never pay that for a multiday job, though, just haven’t had one to assign yet) and the experience of the writer. My husband (whose primary focus is dealing with our advertising clients) and I busted our butts to get to this point (and continue to bust them of course) and I am very proud of the fact that we can pay … I just wish more freelancers would find us and notice that we run bylined articles. And I am frankly still embarrassed that at least one local big-media company asks for volunteer writers (and “bloggers” – I loathe that word – ARE writers) instead of saying “we need your content, we’ll pay you a token $100 month” or SOMETHING.


  7. I have to say, this is getting to be such a big problem I think labor types are going to have to get involved. Congress, national DOL.

    I question the legality of some of these. The bait and switch is interesting, where they say the paying position is filled but they have a volunteer position.

    I don’t know labor law totally, but the bit I do know – I don’t think these writer mill companies’ right to do this is all that clear cut in every case.

    Just on misclassification of freelancers is one that comes to mind, where they classify a worker as freelance who has little to no independence or freedom over the work assignment, prices, deadlines etc. They should in that case be employee. It skirts the minimum living wage law.

    I don’t know. Maybe they can get around it, but I have yet to see an in-depth investigatory piece that examines these with interviews by labor experts.

    If I can get my life half-squared away I am tempted to look into the viability of doing a story myself, following up a hunch that these are not all legal ads.

    Even if they are legal, there is still a story there, because it is becoming a national crisis, it really is. I doubt there has been a time since living wage has been on the national radar, maybe in a hundred years in this country, where a whole profession, writers in this case, had the bottom fall out on pay so egregiously.

    Child factory labor made more per hour a hundred years ago than some of these outfits are paying.

    There are ads out there for freelancers that say exactly how much time the project will take and reveal the pay will be pennies an hour.

    There are others advertising for interns that don’t meet the legal requirements for interns — there are legal requirements having to do with school credit. Those ads definitely are illegal. Those ads are probably the most vulnerable to prosecution. They are, in fact, under the law, slave labor.

    This is a national crisis and I think Congress should be looking at it. I really wish I could find the time to do a story like that. ERik, on his blog — you are almost firing up a series of stories that are heading in that direction, and I hope you keep it up and develop it far further. YOu have the seeds of some great national reporting on this topic already planted.

    I love how you answer the ads to see what they pull next on the applicant.

    Maybe some writers could get together nationwide to participate in undercover applications to these ads and pool the results for a story. I am game. I didn’t post my name, but the email address is legit.


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