Sunday, June 05, 2016


The maddening answer to the perennial question about writing for no fee is that it depends.  When I began freelancing for magazines as a new writer in the 1970s, I was always paid. It was a given. Now periodicals, whether print or online, have a habit of attempting to get your work at no charge. Some even want your copyright as well.
Offers like this are frequently explained with, "It's great visibility for you." 
I always respond with an emphatic, "No, I don't write for nothing. Nor do I need more visibility." Freelancing is part of my livelihood and when you've been writing as long as I have, it's easy to decline unpaid work on principle and sell it elsewhere. But it's not so easy to refuse at the outset of your career when you are building a portfolio of published work. 
Today's editorial budgets are slim for most periodicals except the huge international ones like the New Yorker and National Geographic. An emerging writer shouldn't start with these as disappointment will surely follow.  Instead focus on smaller markets close to home and build up to the biggies slowly. If small, local magazines or newspapers won't pay but will publish you, give yourself a deadline for moving into paying markets once you have a few articles in your portfolio. You may hear complaints from some established freelancers who believe unpaid writers encourage the practice of not paying fees and were the cause of the drop in fees over the past twenty years. I don't fully agree with this opinion because new writers have to start somewhere and proven writers can always find other markets. However at my stage in the game, forty-five years and counting, I want a fee.
There is another aspect to the issue of writers' fees. Some freelancers never accept pro bono work; others do. Once you have made your mark as a freelancer, you'll be surprised at how often you are asked to write for nothing by friends, companies, non-profits, and associations, etc.
I do write for nothing, but I pick my moments carefully. Early on, I developed clear parameters for pro bono writing that have become my guiding principles. Writers must make their own decisions on this issue that are firmly rooted in their knowledge, common-sense, ethics, and circumstances that best suit them — then you will have a fair set of guidelines to apply whenever you're approached.
One way to develop your own philosophy about pro bono writing is to tell you how I select when or if I will work for no fee and my reasons for doing so. Promotion is a prime reason for choosing visibility over dollars and the other is philanthropy:
  1.  When I am writing a new book: I sometimes want to get articles into specific print or electronic publications ahead of release, which do not have editorial budgets, but my book buyers read regularly. However I do ensure that the majority of my articles relating to my books go into paying periodicals.
  2.  When I want to target a specific audience to increase sales of my books post-publication and my speaking services: For this choice to work for me, there must be strong potential for the return on my investment.
  3.  When I choose to support a charitable organization or an association: I write for only one or two each year and decline all other requests. I explain my decision to decline by saying that I could end up writing for no fee all the time and suggesting that the organization pitch me for next year's slot. As many professionals donate their skills occasionally, and I consider myself a professional, this is the “right” thing to do for me and I choose causes to support that are dear to my heart.
In the first two situations above, I negotiate energetically over my by-line and the rights that I am giving away to the publication. I want a longer by-line than the standard one sentence so that I can mention my upcoming book and the services I offer, as well as my contact information. I limit the rights to first print or electronic only and never give exclusive e-rights. In other words, I retain the right to immediately sell the piece, which I have given away, as a reprint and to put it up on my website. Thus I can still use/sell the no-fee article exactly as I wish.
In the third case, I make no demands and let the charitable organization do whatever they like with my work. Sometimes this means I even donate copyright, and my name might not appear on the piece, especially if my writing is to be used for promotional purposes.
Here is another consideration for pro bono writing:
I usually restrict my freebie articles to about 800 words and I often aim for as few as 500. Why? Because articles of this length are quicker to write and can be fleshed out to 1200 words, the standard length for many magazines, then subsequently sold for first rights. However, I do breach this personal guideline if the visibility is too good to miss. If it is promotional copy, I do not restrict word count, but find that the client usually does.
So there you have it – some ideas to assist you in determining your own parameters for charging a fees and selecting how and when to write pro bono.
For more info on freelance writing fees, find your national association on Google. Canada's is the Professional Writers' Association of Canada at, which maintains a current list of appropriate fees.