On Freelance Writers Who Write For Free or Low Fees

by John Soares on August 22, 2011

Many freelance writers write paid blog posts in order to pay the bills and further their writing careers. One freelance writer who has had success at it is Carol Tice, but she recently wrote an insightful and important post called “Will Huffington Post Syndrome Kill Paid Blogging?” in which she discusses how two of her well-paying blogging gigs ended recently, and why many sites that formerly paid good money for posts are now asking writers to write for free or for greatly reduced pay. Her post triggered me to clarify and share my thoughts on this and related matters…

Unpaid Huffington Post Writers and Bloggers

For those of you who don’t know, The Huffington Post has arrangements with thousands of bloggers and freelance writers who write for the site for free. Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington sold the site to AOL last February for 315 million bucks. In the aftermath, some of HuffPo’s unpaid writers (there are also many paid ones) complained that if the company was worth so much, it should have been able to pay all its writers.

I’ve Been Asked Many Times to Create Free Content For Other Sites

Many of you know that I started my writing career as an outdoors writer, that I’ve written two mainstream hiking guidebooks, and that I write the Northern California Hiking Trails blog. I’ve been approached by at least two dozen outdoors sites, from start-ups to very large, to write free content in exchange for “exposure” and a link to my hiking blog. (In many cases the links weren’t even Do Follow.) So far I’ve always declined.

On Writing Free Content for Blogs and Websites…

Many websites have built their business models around getting large numbers of people to create free (or low-paid) content that draws web searches that in turn leads to ad revenue, like the sites I just mentioned that want me to create hiking articles and posts for them. There’s a lot of controversy about this, but many people are willing to write free content for blogs and websites in exchange for the exposure, link, experience, etc.

Let’s examine this in more detail…

Perhaps That Exposure and Link Will Pay…

Most freelance writers have websites that advertise their writing services. A few writers, like Carol Tice and I, also sell our e-books, consulting, and other products and services on our websites. A link from a large site can do two important things:

1. Bring direct traffic to your site, which can result in product sales, writing assignments, and consulting gigs.

2. Get you an important backlink from a high-page-rank site that will increase your site’s standings in the search engines, which will lead to more search traffic to your site.

And getting in front of all those eyeballs builds your reputation and your brand awareness, which can lead to important people contacting you with business opportunities.

Many Bloggers Do Guest Posts…

Which usually are not paid, and they do it for the reasons just mentioned. I’m working on a new product for freelance writers. After it launches, I’ll do guest posts on select blogs, and many of them won’t pay me money, but I’ll be rewarded in the ways just mentioned.

Key Point: Don’t Blame the Websites…

It’s a free-market society. If you don’t want to write for free, then don’t.

And About Those Low-Paying Content Farms…

There are thousands of posts on blogs and forums complaining about sites like Demand Media that pay extremely low rates for articles. Same argument just given: If you don’t want to write for the $10-$20 per article that so-called content farms pay, then don’t.

You Can Always Move to Another Freelance Writing Niche…

If you’re a writer who specializes in writing blog posts (or articles for content farms), consider developing another freelance writing specialty.

I’m a strong advocate of specializing in one or more freelance writing niches. My main niche: writing educational materials for college textbook publishers. My secondary niche: outdoors writing. I’ve been fortunate to support myself quite well for 17 years in my main niche, with significant help from the royalties from my two hiking guidebooks, but if my main niche suddenly disappeared, I have a couple of other niches I’d move to.

Every freelance writer, and everyone who works for a living, needs to think about what else they can do to make money and how they will respond to changes in the market for their services, and they must prepare accordingly.

You cannot count on the world to give you what you want, because…

Life Isn’t Fair

This is one of my key guiding principles. Often things happen in life that just don’t seem fair, and that’s because Life Isn’t Fair. I take a philosophical Taoist attitude and adjust as best as I can to adverse circumstances and events. This can include changing anything in my life, including my career.

Your Take

What do you think about websites that ask writers to write for free? The content mills that pay very low fees? Have you done it? Would you do it? Is life fair — or not?

Freelance writers who specialize make much more money than those who don't. My short and focused course Find Your Freelance Writing Niches: Make More Money for Less Work guides you through all the key steps you need to take to discover the specialties that will take your freelance writing income to a much higher level. Click here for all the details.

{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jenn Mattern August 22, 2011 at 9:01 AM

High paying blogging gigs aren’t going anywhere. I landed a new one last week. Writers just have to learn to adapt. The biggest budgets aren’t always held by those you might think. There are plenty of smaller businesses that pay good money for professional freelance writers because they know better than to risk their reputations on a freebie or cheap labor. One of the best compliments I’ve received from a client was that they appreciated how I treat their business the way I’d treat my own. You don’t buy that with links or $15.

That said, there will always be people willing to write for free. And there’s a place for it. But to make that work you have to know when and how to swap your writer hat for your marketer one. Sites like Huffington won’t kill paid blogging gigs any more than free expert content to trade pubs “killed” paying freelance submissions over the last decade or two. There’s room for both. That’s not to say I agree with what HuffPo did. But I also don’t have much sympathy when writers only respect themselves after the fact. Do it now, or you can’t expect anyone else to.
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2 John Soares August 22, 2011 at 10:25 AM

Excellent points Jenn. There will always be high-paying markets for high-quality blog posts. An important question is whether or not the total number of high-paying blog assignments is declining as some businesses either see that they do not get enough return on investment for the blog posts or decide they can get good-enough content for free.

Carol Tice’s observations are only a small portion of the elephant, so we can’t draw definitive conclusions from them.
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3 John Soares August 22, 2011 at 10:26 AM

And I agree completely on what you say about writing for free: it definitely has its place and can be an excellent marketing tool.
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4 mike kirkeberg August 22, 2011 at 9:17 AM

You are right on the money. I think people write for a lot of reasons, and there are many ways to get “paid” as you have outlined in your post. I write my blogs, but don’t consider myself a freelance writer, buy my aim is still to get read. I guess that is how I get paid, because I have never turned any kind of a profit, which, so far, must be fine with me!
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5 Mike Carlson August 22, 2011 at 9:23 AM

Hi John,
You’re right, this low pay/no pay topic is a controversial one, and one I have mixed feelings on.
I know there are people who do these “content mills” and whip out a lot of articles to make a side income or what have you. You’re right, it’s their choice, but I can’t see doing it. However (Carol might kill me for this) some new writers battle with confidence. I think by starting out with some short 500 word articles and actually getting paid for something they did could be a benefit and a confidence booster. Having a first article published in a print mag might be a confidence booster, even if it was for free. They may want to avoid the DMS editors though…
Internet marketers do put out free articles, as you said, for the link juice. Bloggers guest post for the exposure. These are a valid component of marketing or networking IF it fits a writers model.
Whatever a writer does, it has to be part of an overall strategy to help them get paid, or develop their career to the point of getting paid. Otherwise it’s just a hobby.

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6 John Soares August 22, 2011 at 10:29 AM

Mike, I agree that beginning writers may be well served by writing for Demand Media or a similar company for a month or two. It can be a good way to learn some basic writing skills, get better at writing faster, and boost confidence.

The very first article I ever wrote was for free, and I’m glad I did it.
John Soares recently posted…My Guest Post and Live Call on Carol Tice’s Make A Living Writing Blog

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7 Harleena Singh August 22, 2011 at 10:11 AM

Hi John,

Interesting post!

While I agree with all that you mentioned in the post, I wonder if there is any respite for writers, as they are caught somewhere in-between. Even if they don’t wish to write for free or for low rates, they are at times compelled to do so, maybe for self promotion, or their circumstances. This leaves them with no option other than to do what most people are doing, writing for peanuts or free.

I guess writers have to learn to adapt to various circumstances and situations, which may differ and depend upon their clients, or the kind of work they are willing to do, how much of self promotion they want to go ahead with and if it matters that much to them etc.

Thanks for sharing!
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8 John Soares August 22, 2011 at 10:33 AM

Harleena, there are definitely times when people have to do what they have to do. Bills must be paid and groceries have to be bought. If someone can write a $15 article in one hour, and they can write six of those articles a day, they’ll make $90 per day, which is significant.

And as Jenn Mattern said so well in the first comment, writing for free is an excellent marketing tool.
John Soares recently posted…When You Should Write a New Edition of Your Book or Ebook

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9 Carol Wiley August 22, 2011 at 10:22 AM

There’s a place in the world for everyone, from those who are willing to write for free or a few dollars to those who charge $150 or more per hour. By condemning the choices of someone else, we only limit our own choices.

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10 John Soares August 22, 2011 at 10:36 AM

I hear you Carol, and I don’t wish to condemn anyone for their choices.

I do want people to recognize that they are responsible for the choices they make — whether in freelance writing or any aspect of life — and to not be angry or bitter because of the consequences of those choices.
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11 Kristi Hines August 22, 2011 at 10:41 AM

Since I’m juggling my freelance writing with my full-time job, I can only take on so much writing at a time. I have a minimum amount I’m willing to write for, and the only exception is a site that has strong authority and would offer great exposure. I’ve had the fortune that I haven’t had to apply for most of my freelance writing gigs – they have all found me through various guest posts on other larger sites. :)
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12 John Soares August 22, 2011 at 12:47 PM

Kristi, you’ve done a great job at building authority for yourself and creating backlinks to Kikolani.com by guest posting on major blogs. I assume you think the time spent has been worth it, or will pay off in the future.
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13 Ruth Zive August 22, 2011 at 1:32 PM

I think there is a big difference between a content mill and HuffPo. I guest blog, and I will selectively take on free gigs if they offer meaningful exposure within my niche markets. I do think that as demands change, writers/bloggers have to think strategically about how to best spend their time and energy.
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14 John Soares August 22, 2011 at 1:52 PM

I agree Ruth. There is a very big difference between content mills and HuffPo. I think many of the people who write for HuffPo for free are happy for the exposure — totally in line with your statement about strategic thinking.
John Soares recently posted…When You Should Write a New Edition of Your Book or Ebook

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15 Dave August 22, 2011 at 9:58 PM

I recall reading that Seth Godin claimed anything someone could write down immediately drops to near-zero value.

That is, once it’s written down, it has no further intrinsic value as the information can be infinitely replicated for free.

This is certainly happening in software as well as writing. I work both sides of that fence.

However, it’s not the whole story. Performance still and probably always will command a premium.

Thus…

My strategy: pursue long term mastery of marketable programming skills.

I’m getting good feedback, that is, money. While it’s true everything I know is written down somewhere, mastery requires far more than the “How.” The What, When, Why, Where, and for Whom matter even more… along with the How of being able to snap out excellent product really fast.

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16 John Soares August 23, 2011 at 8:26 AM

Dave, you’re a prime example of the importance of specializing in a marketable skill. That’s were the good money is.
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17 Greg Walker August 23, 2011 at 3:36 AM

Writers should always develop a few income streams, especially if they are writing for the internet. That way if one stream dries up or they decide they have had enough of it then they can still carry on earning a living.

As for writing for very low fees, each to his own. I personally wouldn’t write for below what I thought was reasonable, but that figure is different for each writer.
Greg Walker recently posted…Get Paid to Write: Go from Nothing to Getting Your First Client – Part I

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18 Cathy Miller August 23, 2011 at 6:05 AM

In my primary niche (health care), there are plenty of sites that established online magazines built on the backs of experts’ free content. I wrote one article a couple of years ago that I still receive leads from.

I also have regular, ongoing gigs for paid blogging in that niche. I’m with Jenn, I don’t think those are going away. In fact, there is opportunity for industry articles where you ghostwrite/blog for the experts. I do that as well. For many experts, they don’t have the time or inclination to write their own and I see it as another marketing tool for them to get their message out.

The bottom line, as many have expressed, it’s your choice. You can be strategic about the free content from a marketing standpoint, and you can also use your expertise to help experts get their message delivered.

Thanks for another insightful post, John.
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19 John Soares August 23, 2011 at 8:16 AM

I agree that it’s important to be strategic about what we do for free. I’ve done a few interviews and guest posts for websites, plus written articles for print publications, all for free, but with the intention that they would be of significant help to my freelance writing business and product sales.

And I like the idea of ghosting blog posts for experts.
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20 Pinar Tarhan August 23, 2011 at 7:31 AM

I really respect Carol Tice. Not only because she always encourages other writers to write for their worth, but also because she is paying her guest bloggers.

I once considered having guest posts on my entertainment blog, a site I can’t update as much as I’d like. But then I realized that there aren’t many paying markets for entertainment bloggers for this very reason. Many blogs work with staff writers and/or guest writers (who write for free). And I didn’t want my own blog to yet be another non-paying market for writers, so I quickly ditched the idea.

Guest posting on vast sites such as Copyblogger sure has many benefits and I’d love to write for them. It is a great tool for marketing and building authority and traffic.

But when it comes to making a living, I am more fond of decently paying markets. Writers can surely choose to start with low fees, as long as they don’t make it a habit. Because there is too much supply from writers, low-paying markets continue to exist in large numbers.
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21 John Soares August 23, 2011 at 8:18 AM

The low-paying markets can be a good way to learn about the craft and business of freelance writing, but like you say, it’s important to move up to the better-paying markets as soon as possible.
John Soares recently posted…Write Faster: 12 Top Tips for Freelance Writers

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22 Anne Wayman August 23, 2011 at 7:53 AM

John, as usual, I agree totally. And Jenn – I agree with you too. There are plenty of high-paying gigs out there. Sure there are more low paying and write for free gigs, but it’s always my choice. I’ve written for free, and probably will again. I’ve suggested earning $2-3 for an article or two may be exactly what a new writer needs to do – and if they stay there, well it won’t be at my suggestion.

Ahhh, but I’m preaching to the choir… so I’ll stop. ;)
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23 John Soares August 23, 2011 at 8:23 AM

One writer I know spent the first month of her freelance writing career writing for Demand Media, but then she landed her first college textbook supplement project and never looked back. Sometimes she has more textbook supplement projects than I do.

She told me that she became a better writer through those few articles she did for Demand.
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24 Sean Cook August 23, 2011 at 9:15 AM

Hi John,

A very helpful article and also a very helpful comment section. I do some free writing but am looking for paid gigs. An unnamed relative wrote for Demand Media for a while under a pen name, just for the money and the practice. I’ve thought about doing that myself, but I’d rather get high-profile free guest posts and get exposure. I’ve very interested in writing for money as well, and have been looking at community manager positions for companies that would involve blogging and social media. But, as you know, I have an interesting niche (higher education) and I’m not seeing much out there. Any tips on good places to look for paid writing gigs for coaches and academics?

Also, I want to point out that there are a lot of smaller sites like mine that have paid for articles before. Last year, I had several regular contributors and I paid them $20 a post (of course, all posts had to be approved because I am not made of money.) I also traded guest posts with other edubloggers for free.it Most of those sites were small potatos like me, but I do believe in long-haul thinking and that relationships can take you in unexpected places if you just nurture them a bit.
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25 John Soares August 23, 2011 at 6:05 PM

Sean, I’ve made a good living as a freelance writer of college textbook supplements, but that may not be your cup of tea. I’d look for companies that are involved with higher education and offer products or services. They likely need someone to write sales materials, website content, etc. I think you have enough knowledge and writing skills to bypass companies like Demand Media.
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26 Karen August 27, 2011 at 10:40 AM

It really is a case of deciding what your objective is and working towards it. Freelance writing and marketing are two different things. If you’re writing for free to market a product you (should) get ‘paid’ in sales of your product.

I haven’t written for low or no pay for a long time now, but I did start off writing for content mills and my clips for those mills landed me my first paid online work and my first (well-paid) magazine writing gig. We rarely write with just one objective. Now I look at each new potential writing job from a few different angles. My ideal job provides a decent pay rate, a chance to build my writing portfolio, and a link/mention of my website for marketing purposes. Not every job is ideal but at least I know what I’m aiming for.
Karen recently posted…How to Read Like a Writer

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27 John Soares August 27, 2011 at 1:07 PM

Karen, you’re a very good example of starting where you have to and then moving up to the better markets — congrats!

There’s nothing wrong with beginning a career writing for free or very low pay. The important point is to quickly move beyond that first step.
John Soares recently posted…Write Faster: 12 Top Tips for Freelance Writers

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28 Eric Soares August 27, 2011 at 4:19 PM

I would have no compunction writing for free or for big bucks, as long as all parties understand what the deal is and no one plays tricks.

What I don’t like is when someone says one thing and does another. Usually, even a gratis guest column has strings, or at least some reward for the writer. All parties need to be up-front about this. As long as expectations are communicated and met, no problemo.
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29 John Soares September 1, 2011 at 5:49 AM

Agreed Eric. Complete and honest communication on both sides is necessary.

And as a side note, people need to be sure that if they’re promised a link to their website as part of a deal, that it’s a DoFollow link.
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30 Barry Wheeler September 9, 2011 at 8:42 PM

I’m wondering why people continue to write for free or for so little.

I’ve got no problem getting what I feel is great dollars for articles of about 400 – 500 words in length.

Is it just the niches I occupy?
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31 Boomergirl December 15, 2011 at 3:48 PM

I think a blog is a good selling feature especially for professional jjournalists. We work with successful bloggers AND with many professional journalists who have had long careers writing about travel, lifestyle, food and outdoors. A writer’s blog helps us determine whether or not a new media contact and his or her outlets are a good match in terms of our client’s target markets (demographics / geography). We can also refer our clients to writers’ sites especially if we want a client to consider hosting a specific writer on a travel press tour. Membership in a professional writer association is also important information. These associations generally have strict membership guidelines and codes of conduct in place which is important to the clients we represent.
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32 Philip Greene December 23, 2011 at 7:33 AM

These sites remind of me a time when I was working in a small community theatre herein a small town in Ohio. I was on staff as Technical Director and, being the only person there with any actual professional experience, I was constantly training volunteers in how to properly put on a technical performance. I also called in on a fairly regular basis to play small roles when there weren’t enough people who auditioned. Those of us who had worked in professional theatres or who knew the business for what it is would spend many nights laughing at the poor saps who came in, did a show, and were convinced that they were on the road to stardom — as if they would actually be “discovered” in a little 140-seat playhouse in a town that was considered more of a suburb than a city. Writing for exposure is no different than an actor being told that, if they work in films for an indeterminate number of years, they might get discovered and become the next big star. It’s poppycock opportunism perpetrated on the unsuspecting and gullible.

Anyone can bill themselves as a professional freelancer — there are no credentials, no standardized qualifications, and no real way of sizing up the abilities or knowledge of someone who claims to be an expert on their subject. People who are actually not professional writers and who want to be — or want to call themselves professional — see these opportunities and jump on them, thinking they will be the next great American writer to be discovered. The fact is, they won’t; at least not by writing for some fly-by-night website run by someone who is just looking to make money without actually doing a lot of work. If their work isn’t buried amongst the hundreds of thousands of similar articles on any given subject, it will more than likely stagnate due to a lack of support. Very few of these sites offer any sort of editorial support or critique so a person who writes crap is probably going to continue to write crap without anyone telling her or him that it’s crap.

I spent 12 years as a professional journalist and another eight years as a freelancer who was published on a fairly regular basis. I still write occasionally, but not as much as I used to because of the reduced market in jobs that actually pay what the job is worth. As you said, if I don’t want to write for $20 for 750 words, don’t do it. I don’t do it.

I don’t because I realize something these aspiring writers who do write for that price don’t realize: the actual writing of an article is only a small percentage of the work you do. A 3,000 word feature — for which I would be paid between $375-$450 — I would write for a print magazine would take me anywhere from one-to-two hours to actually type, proof and edit. Maybe a little more. On that basis, a paycheck of $20 looks acceptable — $10 per hour, at least.

But when you take into consideration that before I ever sat down at the keyboard, I would put in anywhere from 60-150 hours research (depending on the complexity of the subject) even that $450 would shrink to about $3.00 per hour. These hopefuls — if they actually do due diligence, or even know how to do it — research is a hell of a lot more than looking at a Wikipedia page — are actually working for about six cents per hour. One trip to the library will put them in negative figures.

I am a professional, as many who read this blog are. No one would expect an electrician or a plumber or a doctor or attorney to work for less than professional wages, so why should we? The skills needed to be a good writer — and a good journalist — are just a specialized and just a important as any other, so why should we settle for peanuts?

But the fact remains that the Internet is changing the shape of writing for a living. Many print magazines — those that are left these days — are getting the idea that they can pay cut rates as well by offering the same lame promise of exposure. What good is exposure if you’re not going to realize a reasonable return on it.

We need to find and support writer’s guilds that are going to assure the quality of the craft and those who profess to be good at it, and that will work to assure a reasonable pay for their members.

Let the wannabes work fall for the scams. But those of us who are actually professionals need to resist that “temptation” and insist on being paid a reasonable amount for high-quality work. There will be markets that will want the kind of quality we have to offer and who will pay for it. But we need to have an advocate who will help us fight for it.

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33 Dustin December 5, 2013 at 10:36 AM

Hey there would you mind stating which blog platform you’re working with?
I’m planning to start my own blog soon but I’m having
a hard time selecting between BlogEngine/Wordpress/B2evolution and Drupal.

The reason I ask is because your design seems different then most blogs and I’m
looking for something unique. P.S My apologies for getting
off-topic but I had to ask!

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34 John Soares December 5, 2013 at 11:48 AM

Self-hosted Wordpress.
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