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Ways to Profit from Writing for Free
by Audrey Faye Henderson

Return to Book Promotion Tips · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

Writing is one of those functions that many people don't think anyone should be paid to do. Worse, a whole segment of the population believes that anyone who can produce a sentence, coherent or not, is entitled to call himself or herself a writer. As a professional writer, you may resist perpetuating such ideas by producing your work for free, and you would be well justified in harboring that resistance. Nonetheless, whether you're writing guest blog posts or producing your own blog, distributing a newsletter or providing writing services for a worthy cause, writing for free now can pay significant dividends in the long run. In many cases, you'll realize monetary benefits much sooner.

In his book Get Slightly Famous, Stephen Van Yoder promotes the idea of generating more clients by taking a proactive approach to the Law of Attraction. Namely, the best clients are those who seek you out, and his book spells out the means to cultivate those clients. And he's right. If someone approaches you, he or she is more likely to be willing to pay your going rate without balking because, and this is important, that client is already positively disposed toward you. In other words, you've been pre-sold. A definite potential advantage of foregoing immediate cash compensation for your writing is the opportunity to reach that pre-sold client.

Your efforts may also generate publicity that would otherwise cost big bucks in ad space or air time, if you could manage to generate that sort of publicity at all. You may not wind up on Today, but you may very well find yourself invited to appear on your local newscast at noon or during the dinner hour as an expert on a given subject. If you are so inclined, you may be able to generate lucrative speaking engagements or a paid position as a commentator for print publications, radio or television.

Guest Blogging

Although guest bloggers sometimes receive financial compensation, more often than not, guest bloggers are not paid for their posts. At least not in money. My guest blog posts not only serve as high-profile writing samples, they have increased my "street cred" as someone who possesses expertise in my field.

If you decide to seek guest blogging gigs, target blogs that are compatible, or at least not in conflict with your work, and, just as important, in line with your core values. For instance, I focused on blogs that deal with issues such as affordable housing and progressive politics. I wrote several guest blog posts for JustMeans, a website promoting socially responsible business practices. I also wrote a one-time guest blog post immediately after the 2008 Presidential election for tcrBLOG, the online venue for the left-leaning, well-respected publication The Chicago Reporter.

One indirect benefit I realized from guest blogging was to be invited in 2009 and again in 2011 to be a presenter for the Chicago Green Festival. After my 2011 presentation, I was approached by a staff member from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, who informed me that she had specifically sought me out. Since our initial encounter at the Green Festival, this individual has provided information and contacts for organizations in and around Chicago that are involved with sustainable development, many of whom frequently use research services such as mine.

Your Own Blog

You may also choose to launch your own blog. However, unless you have already built a following, your blog is unlikely to generate more than pennies in revenue, if that. Instead, the purpose of maintaining your own blog would probably be either to provide increased exposure for your work to potential clients, produce work product samples for your portfolio, or both.

In the former case, you must supplement your writing with efforts to increase online traffic to your blog. Specific strategies to accomplish this goal can be found elsewhere on this website (see Moira Allen's To Blog or Not to Blog). At the same time, your blog entries must contain sufficient substance to avoid giving the impression of serving as so much window dressing for banner ads and affiliate links.

In the latter case, you have the luxury of focusing on your writing without an overt emphasis on increasing eyeballs examining your blog or enhancing the bottom line by prompting ad click-throughs or page views. What you don't have is license to produce written or electronic diarrhea pouring forth any random thought that comes to mind. Choose a theme or direction for your blog that you would be willing to maintain over the long haul. You don't have to box yourself into a corner -- acceptable themes include subjects as broad as commentary on current events, reports on local nightlife or as specific as your favorite hobby or following the career of a single prominent person.

If you're blogging to provide a showcase for your talents, the key is to develop a consistent voice and unique perspective that makes your blog compelling. Come to think of it, this is important for a blog for which you wish to cultivate an audience, as well. In either event, a well-produced blog effectively presents you to potential clients as someone who is capable of providing high-quality work.

Working with Nonprofits and Charities

You would be far from the first professional writer who obtained lucrative freelance work by offering your services gratis to a local charity or nonprofit organization. By working for free, you become a known quantity. When the opportunity for paid work arises, nonprofit organizations, many of whom have no dedicated HR staff, are often relieved to turn to you rather than plow through a physical or virtual stack of résumés.

Find an organization that is launching a major initiative, such a collecting warm coats for needy families or conducting a food drive to restock local food pantries. Offer to write press releases and promotional materials supporting the initiative to submit to local media. Another approach is to offer to generate website copy for a charity or nonprofit agency, assist with drafting the annual report or write letters designed to reach out to potential donors.

E-mail and Hard-Copy Newsletters

Many people, probably including you, already suffer from email and junk mail overload. However, a well-written, content-rich newsletter that is targeted to the interests of the recipient(s) is more likely to generate a reaction of "I want to read future issues." Your newsletter can provide a soft-sell, value-added vehicle to promote the services for which you charge money. For instance, if you write white papers and other content for corporate clients, your newsletter could include as analysis of current events as they relate to the general business climate. If you are a grant writer who works with nonprofit agencies, your newsletter can provide insight about how to motivate donors to give.

For an e-mail newsletter, it is absolutely essential to include a prominent opt-in (preferable) or safe unsubscribe (acceptable) mechanism. Most people are tolerant of one well thought-out prospecting email. However, no matter how well written your newsletter is, no one wants to receive an endless deluge of unsolicited e-mail in-box traffic.

Hard copy newsletters should allow would-be subscribers to opt-in via a postage-paid subscription card or some other convenient means. However, unless you have an angel investor or a very flush personal bank account, conducting an unsolicited direct mail campaign to generate an audience for your newsletter may not be financially feasible. Direct mail marketers often consider a return rate (i.e. responses or paying customers) of 1 or 2 percent to be excellent, which translates to an expense far out of reach for many freelancers.

A better tactic may be to arrange to leave copies of your newsletter with merchants or in offices in your local area where your prospective readers are likely to see it. How do you find merchants or offices willing to serve as pickup points for your newsletter? You already know the answer -- generate a carefully constructed prospect list and contact the individuals on that list personally, a process that will be explained below.

Approaching Your Prospects

Once you've determined the appropriate vehicle(s) for your unpaid writing, it's time to construct a proposal and generate a list of prospects. Whether you've chosen to write a blog or newsletter or if you've decided to offer your writing services for hire, one of the best ways of finding receptive markets (yes, they're still markets even though you're not being paid in cash) for your work is to make contact with individuals included on a carefully constructed mail or email list. Check that, a very carefully constructed mail or email list.

The idea is to prequalify those organizations and publication outlets that could benefit from your writing services. Perform your due diligence about the type of person who is likely to want to read what you have to say on a given subject. Start with an Internet search using your blog subject or cause you wish to promote as a keyword. Talk with friends and professional colleagues, especially those who are experienced writers, subject matter experts or who have connections with potential targets for your work.

When talking with fellow writers who might be potential competitors, you don't have to give away the store. A general inquiry like "I was interested in writing a blog about cats, what are your thoughts?" can yield fruitful results. On the other hand, be as specific as possible with subject matter experts who may be potential interview targets or contacts who may provide leads to possible outlets for your work.

The end result will be a list of potential organizations, news outlets or individual subscribers (in the case of a blog or newsletter). Because you've done a lot of work on the front end, your efforts will be more likely to generate positive responses from the recipients of your outreach efforts.

Potential Tax Savings

In working for free, you may generate out-of-pocket expenses, not to mention the time you are taking away from paid work. You may be able to recoup at least some of those expenses on your federal income tax return. Keep diligent records of the expenses you rack up in executing your unpaid writing gig, including receipts. A signed statement or receipt from the news outlet or organization would also enhance your claim.

If you're working with a nonprofit organization or even a for-profit news outlet, you cannot claim a deduction for compensation to replace your customary hourly or project rates. However, the IRS may allow you to deduct the cost of the fruits of your labors if you can demonstrate that you provide a tangible product for which the organization would otherwise pay someone to perform. The distinction is subtle but real.

For instance, you cannot deduct your hourly rate for the time you spend writing website copy. However, if your organization paid someone to write website copy in the past, you could claim that you provided a tangible product to the organization by writing fresh website copy. You may use the figure the organization paid previously as the basis for claiming a deduction for the website copy that you produce for the same organization.

You may be also able to deduct the costs of cross-town commuting or even out-of-town travel you undertake on behalf of your client. You may also deduct the cost of paper, stamps, phone calls and other legitimate expenses directly related to your unpaid writing work. However, you must be able to document your efforts or the IRS will disallow the deduction, hence the need for a log and receipts. Consult with an attorney or accountant before claiming any tax breaks pertaining to your unpaid writing work. You definitely do not want to trigger an audit because of an improperly claimed deduction.

Negotiating Non-cash Compensation

One of the first determinations you must make when negotiating an agreement with a publishing outlet or nonprofit agency is precisely why you are willing to write professionally without receiving monetary compensation. The key to successfully writing for free is to negotiate non-cash compensation that is mutually beneficial to you and to your client. Writing for free does NOT mean working without a contract.

An organization you choose to work with may have its own boilerplate agreement for pro bono services. If the terms are adequate to deal with the services you wish to provide, that's fine. Otherwise, you may draw up your own specific agreement that outlines exactly what you will provide for the organization. The document need not contain an overload of legal jargon; however, it can't hurt to have an attorney look over your agreement for potential pitfalls.

Your contract should state who owns the rights to whatever written copy you produce along with how and where it will appear. If you are relinquishing the rights to your work, ask if you would be able to provide excerpts on your website or as work samples to potential clients. If you are negotiating a long-term working relationship, consider provisions such as confidentiality agreements and deadlines.

Your contract should also include provisions for the non-cash compensation you will receive for your services. At the very least, you should receive a byline for individual written features and public acknowledgement for promotional materials. You should also request copies of any printed materials including your work or mentioning your contributions. A written reference or verbal referral for potential future clients is totally proper. Press credentials or even a place on the masthead as a contributing writer constitute legitimate compensation for ongoing contributions to a newspaper, newsletter or magazine.

That said, you must be careful to avoid the appearance of quid pro quo. It's well and good to receive recognition for your work or to recoup the financial expenses of your pro bono efforts. However, if it seems as though you've struck a deal with an organization or charity to realize a profit for your efforts, you run the risk of destroying your credibility. Back-links to your blog, Twitter feed or public LinkedIn profile are fine. A week-long, all-expenses-paid jaunt to an exotic resort destination, not so much.

Further Benefits of Your Efforts

Career experts often advise job hunters that volunteer appointments, internships and similar experience can greatly enhance their résumés. The same benefits apply to your freelance pro bono efforts. By all means, include your blog, newsletter or column contributions on your online portfolio or professional website. Unless you are producing confidential documents, consider including samples of your work along with testimonials or references from your clients. If your work contributed to or was directly responsible for a huge jump in donations, don't be shy about claiming your share of the credit you're your own promotional materials or in approaching potential new clients face to face. Document your claims with statements from your client organization or reports from published news sources.

Find Out More...

Should You Write for Free? by Moira Allen

Copyright © 2012 Audrey Faye Henderson
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Audrey Faye Henderson is a writer, researcher, data analyst and policy analyst based in the Chicago area. Her company, Knowledge Empowerment (http://www.knowledge-empowerment.net/), specializes in social policy analysis concerning fair housing, affordable housing, higher education for nontraditional students, community development with an asset based approach and sustainable development in the built environment.


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