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It’s Not All About the Money: How Writing for Free Can Pay Off


The topic of writing for free is a divisive one. In an ideal world, no one would work for free. The reality, however, is that many publications, even very well respected ones, are run by small teams (or even individuals) on small budgets. There are far more aspiring writers than there are publication opportunities, and the issue of payment is complicated by the fact that some people see writing as a profession, whereas for others, it is a passion they are willing to forgo compensation to pursue. And the hard fact is that for many of us, making a little extra money is a need, not a want.

Good writing has value and after you’ve worked hard to draft and polish a short story, it shouldn’t be tossed blindly to any journal a Google search will throw up. Still, financial payment isn’t the only reward that being published can offer an aspiring or emerging writer.

Building your writing CV, and your career

Money alternatives comic by Josh Quick

“Publication can lead to other opportunities…” Illustration by Josh Quick

As the adage goes, everyone has to start somewhere. When I first attempted to publish my writing, I submitted to every market I could find. After a year, I had earned less than $4. However, I did achieve a respectable list of publications, which was the first step in building my writing CV. Plus, creating a writer’s bio became much less daunting when I could actually list some publications in it.

Far more importantly, being published—especially, being published by editors with whom I had no prior relationship—gave me much greater confidence in my own writing. It also led to my first experiences working with editors, writing cover letters, reading contracts, and generally approaching writing with a more professional mindset. Together, all of this gave me the confidence to approach bigger, more ambitious projects: it equipped me to write nonfiction for paid markets, seek grant funding, and apply, in some cases successfully, to have my writing staged in art festivals.

Opening doors by writing for free

If you have another profession, as many writers do, could being published enhance your non-writing CV? It does, after all, demonstrate excellent communication skills and attention to detail. Depending on the publication you choose and the focus of your writing, publishing can give you a chance to add that extra something to your other employment credentials.

It could also allow you to benefit a cause you care about. Are you a kindergarten teacher? Do you write stories for that age group? Do you love animals? Think about contributing to an anthology which will donate its proceeds to an animal charity.

Publication can lead to other opportunities. I both wrote for and edited a mental-health themed creative magazine, which demanded a lot of time and energy. The magazine was a nonprofit and I worked for free, but my efforts led to a contract teaching creative writing in a mental health facility. This role provided a welcome side income while I was studying; it was also an enormously challenging experience that made me stronger and enriched my life.

Exposure and prestige

Exposure is something that all journals—especially free ones—promise, but might not always deliver. The more cynical amongst us may feel that if a journal can’t or won’t pay its contributors, it may not have the resources to promote sufficiently.

In this age of social media, however, a team with the right skills can bring its contributors significant publicity even without funds. And of course, if you are social media savvy, you will probably be able to turn any publication to your advantage by sharing on your own channels with a few appropriate hashtags, and reaching out to organizations who might be interested in your work to ask that they promote it to their followers.

If you decide to focus on submitting to markets that are likely to get you maximum exposure, here are a few things to bear in mind:

  • Look at the journal’s social media following. Not every publication will have every platform covered since many publications are run by volunteers juggling other work and family commitments. Still, there should be a respectable number of followers on at least one major social media outlet, like Facebook or Twitter. It’s also worth looking back over the journal’s past posts to make sure their social media channel is actively engaging their followers, not sitting still, gathering cyber dust.
  • If the journal is a few issues in, do a Google search and see if it’s been mentioned on other blogs/websites, or, even better, in the mainstream media.
  • If the journal’s new, look at who’s behind it. Assess their credentials and skills, and decide if they have a unique selling point or hook that will gain attention. I had a short story published last year in Mosaics: An Anthology of Independent Women. Although it was a new project, the book had a feminist theme and the editors possessed extensive experience, a strong marketing strategy, and planned to launch the publication on International Women’s Day. All of these factors eventually made for a great book, which I’m sure has contributed new followers to all the included authors.
  • Look for journals which will have a launch you can get to. Reading at launches, putting a face and a voice to the byline, is possibly one of the best ways to get both you and your work remembered. It’s also a fantastic way to meet and network with other writers, and provides the chance to have some good old-fashioned fun.

And if you are in it for the money….

There’s no shame in that. And arguably, once you’ve built up something of a publication list, the next challenge should be to set your sights higher, whatever that means for you as a writer. It could involve aiming for better-known journals or submitting to paid markets only. But don’t harbor illusions: there isn’t huge money in short-form publishing, and it’s a long game—you can easily wait months for an acceptance and months more for payment. PayPal fees may also slightly diminish your writing earnings, as could currency exchange rates. Making money from writing is fantastic, but it’s also important to be realistic.

How do you feel about writing for free? James Matthew Alston argues against it here.

author headshot
Naomi Elster (Guest Blogger)

Naomi Elster has a PhD in breast cancer. Her nonfiction, which has been published by The Guardian, The Irish Times and others, focuses mostly on science and women’s issues. She has had two plays produced and several short stories published, including in Cranóg Magazine, Sentinel Literary Quarterly and Geek Force Five. Find her on Twitter: @Naomi_Elster.