All authors and writers will tell you that there was a time in their lives when they wrote articles and stories for free. Whether it was in a school literary magazine or the school newspaper in high school and college, we happily wrote for free and for the glory and satisfaction of seeing our byline in print. There it is! My short story with my name as author! See that article? It has my byline! It got you noticed for doing something that you loved doing. It was soothing balm for the creative mind. I have been published!
Fast forward to adult years and you still want to be a writer. With the onset of the internet there are a tremendous variety of online magazines from which to choose. You've been told that you're good and you know it, too; it's not vanity to know you're good at writing.You have a passion; you have to express it. So you begin to send your work in to online sites who are looking for "fresh, new writers with something to say." You are psyched.
Your work gets accepted, and you are proud to see your name right under your article or short story. A request is made for a picture of you and a short, (less than 500 words, please!) bio. You are told that you retain all copyrights to your work and you're given a deadline for future work. It's a dream come true, you are a writer, an author. There's just one little fly in the dream come true ointment; you're not being paid for what you write. Damn!
You contemplate if you should basically give your work away for nothing more than online exposure and getting your name noticed. People in all professions get paid for their creative work, why shouldn't you? Is the exposure and name branding you've been promised, in lieu of pay, worth writing for free?
I say a resounding YES to your question and, having been there and done that as a writer and author, I know of what I speak, intimately.
The internet is a blessing as well as a curse to writers. The blessing is that it offers a plethora of online magazines and news media; finding a place to send your work and have it accepted is easier than ever before in the history of writing. Whatever story you are "selling" is sure to find a home somewhere on the web with your name prominently featured. The curse is that anyone without a whole lot of experience can create a magazine or newspaper. Most times the creators, even with the best intentions in the world of having a profitable site with pay for writers, are just breaking even with the cost of running it. Paying their writers is not always a viable option. Finding a paying job as a writer is as hard as finding that proverbial needle in a haystack.
Yet, I still say that every writer and author needs to write for free at the beginning of a career. Here are my reasons.
Remember the part about your byline, picture and bio? Along with what you write, these will become known to the reading public. Your writing is your brand and we all know about how important branding is today. Write enough, get noticed and your name will pop on Google and other search engines over and over again.
Despite having taken writing classes in college, when you write for free, you will learn invaluable lessons from other writers and editors. I learned about writing "evergreen" articles from my first editor. I was told to never to put a date in an article unless it was absolutely warranted. Evergreen means that an article about summer vacation can be used and improved for various other magazines as long as you don't date it. Only use a date if you're referencing a well-known event that occurred in a particular year.
If you're not tech-savvy you can learn from pros at the site. Editors and writers are more than willing to help you navigate the techno field. It isn't all altruistic; their site and quality of writing benefit from having tech savvy writers.
A paying magazine or site will notice your work. That does happen; it happened to me and to many other writers and authors I know. It may not happen immediately, but if you write good, quality assignments and short stories (the key word here is short), and post frequently, it will happen.
Your free work has provided you with a résumé. List the sites for which you have written and are writing. List any accolades or awards the sites have received; it reflects well for you that you're part of those sites. If you have written short stories for an online, list that as well. You want to send this bio to places that pay.
You will make writing contacts which is invaluable in the world of writing. You never know when one of these contacts will be in a position to help your career. I was introduced to my first agent by a former classmate of hers. I had written a review of the classmate's book, she liked it, and asked me what I planned to do next. I said I needed an agent for my own book. An introduction was made, the agent sent my book to a publisher, and I became a published author. You never know.
Now comes the part about when you should stop writing for free. The answer? Never. Well, almost never. You're a published, paid author and of course, that work comes first, but writing for free after you're established has its benefits. Now this doesn't mean that you will write for free for the rest of your life but even when you are being paid for your work you should always be open to writing the occasional freebie. Again it has to do with keeping your name in the public eye. Name recognition is priceless as it leads readers to search for, and find, your other work. And remember, just because it is for free doesn't mean you should skimp on the quality of what you are writing. Write it the same way you write for pay. Your name and your work are your brand.
My saying is "I write for the same reason I breathe: to live," and I think that is true for all serious writers and authors. Do not give up; remember no one will ever know how good you really are if they never see your work. Put it out there any way you can.