If you're just breaking into the writing business, you may be wondering if you should start by offering your work to nonpaying markets. Do new writers need to serve some sort of "apprenticeship" in such markets before moving on to those that pay? Are nonpaying markets the only way for a new writer to break in?
Sadly, some writers don't ask this question at all, assuming (for various reasons) that the answer must be "yes." Too many talented writers end up wasting considerable time writing for free, unable (or refusing) to believe that they could be paid for their material.
At the heart of this issue are two misperceptions. The first is the assumption that one must somehow pay one's dues, "crawl before one can walk," in the writing business -- and that this involves working for no money. The second is the phrasing of the question itself. Instead of asking "Should I write for nonpaying markets?" many writers should be asking "When should I write for nonpaying markets?"
The Apprenticeship MythMany writers believe that one's career must begin with nonpaying markets. Many articles extol the value of such markets for building clips, enabling one (theoretically) to move on to paying publications. Writers often assume that without a history of publication, no paying market will consider their work -- and thus, that they have no real choice.
It isn't true. My own experience offers a good example: In the beginning of my career, I wrote exactly three "unpaid" articles. The first (my first-ever publication) was for a monthly community paper. The second and third were for a weekly newspaper -- and these were based on the editor's promise that he would pay me once he had a freelance budget. By my fourth article, he did, and I was earning a whopping $15 per feature!
Did those unpaid articles help me break into better markets? No. My first magazine sale was to Omni -- and was due to a chance meeting between my boyfriend (now hubby) and the editor at a conference. My second was to Quilt, and was due to a query that described my enthusiasm for, and knowledge of, crazy quilts. (My career has been a bit of a patchwork ever since...)
Omni, alas, is dead, but specialty magazines like Quilt abound, and are more than ready to welcome new, unpublished writers. All you need are a good idea, the ability to turn that idea into a well-written article, and the confidence to send that article to an editor. If you can do all of the above, many editors truly do not care whether you've been published before or not.
In short, if you have a choice between offering your material to a paying or a nonpaying market, there is no logical reason to choose the latter. The nonpaying market will always be there if you fail to sell the piece -- but it need not be your first choice, or even your second or third. If your goal is to become a paid professional, it's far better to exhaust all possibilities of payment before turning to markets that don't pay (rather than the other way around). After all, you only have to "break in" once to be considered a paid author!
When Should You Write for Free?Does this mean you should never write for free? Not at all! There are many excellent reasons to do so; it's just that "being new" isn't necessarily one of them. Here are some better reasons:
Ways to Profit from Writing for Free - Audrey Faye Henderson
Copyright © 2001 Moira Allen
Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.