One, two, free.

Of all the words guaranteed to fire a writer up, few inspire as much passion, controversy and vitriol as the word free*. Many writers, starting out, are happy (or, at least, prepared) to allow their work to appear for gratis. There are some valid reasons for wanting to do it: gaining a publication byline, gaining a link / pdf for your portfolio, or gaining feedback, to name but three.

Critics argue that everyone deserves to be paid for their time and their labour, often bringing out the time-honoured plumber analogy.

I’ve been vocal in the past about the perils of writing for nothing, unscrupulous editors who exploit desperate writers and competitions where the rules insist that all entrants give up first rights to their submission, even if they don’t make it to the final.

By way of balance, I should point out that I’ve written material for royalties that only existed in principle and never materialised in my bank account. I’ve also willingly written and edited for free because I wanted to help out or because the cause / publication / website interested me.

The thing is, much as it pains me to say it, I’ve started to realise how much all writers rely on free stuff.

I use online news gathering services and websites to source topical material for gags and sketches. Similarly, YouTube and websites for lyrics enable me to create parody songs for performance. The web is also a brilliant research tool when I’m checking facts for articles and features (not just Wiki, honest!).

When I’m not listening to old radio progs on BBC iPlayer, I tend to go for either Beatles Radio or one of the Live365 stations. Need some writing advice? There’s a ton of it out there. I regularly read tips, links and content from Sophie Lizard, Jon Morrow, Gary Smailes, Mark Silver and others.

Looking for free information about paid writing gigs? Craigslist has been good to me.

And let’s not forget a few of the essentials for jobbing writers – Skype, Dropbox, Webmail, Blogs and all those free apps.

Of course, as you’ll have surmised, some services and information are given freely as an incentive to sign up for a more comprehensive version. I think that’s fair enough. It’s the closest you’ll get to a free lunch.

So, free or not free – what’s the verdict?

Everything may be black and white on the page, but trust me, off the page, it’s a lot more colourful.

* Okay, maybe plagiarism – I’ll give you that.


  1. Chloe says:

    I guess whether you should work for free (and I'm not counting volunteering for a good cause etc. in this) depends on lots of things. It's not a black and white issue. If I'd just decided I wanted to write this week and someone offered to put up my first story on a website without paying me I don't know that I'd feel as if that was outrageous and I deserved to be paid already.

    It reminds me of the intern debate. Is it OK for companies to use unpaid interns to do jobs that they would normally be paying an employee for? It all comes down to what's being written, for who and by who. In general experienced writers should expect to be paid, and by doing stuff for free or very cheap they do belittle the industry. But there will always be some circumstances where working for free makes sense.

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