What To Write?

The writing community is split on whether writers should take assignments for no pay or not. Some people feel it gives them the all-important clips for the portfolio, and sometimes it opens the door to a relationship with an editor. Others say it’s outrageous to expect someone to lend their talents for free, and advocate going only to paying markets. I fall somewhere in the middle. Let me tell you how.

There are plenty of markets out there that pay a very low amount for articles and sidebars. For a beginning writer, these places can be very useful, but with one caveat: don’t take on an article that requires a lot of time and research. If you write about what you know, you can knock out a project or two, get the clips you want, and you’re not out a lot of time in the process (you might even have earned a few bucks along the way). For instance, if you are a lifelong lover of African violets and have always grown this kind of plant, you might be able to get an article in a gardening magazine or community newspaper about “How to Grow African Violets.” You’d want to do a little fact-checking, of course, but you could write the article quickly for the most part, just based on your own expertise in this area. But you wouldn’t want to accept an assignment for a small publication that doesn’t pay much if it requires you to write 2,000 words on the pros and cons of interstate bridge reconstruction. It just wouldn’t pay.

Another place to look for low and non-paying assignments is the Internet. E-zines and content sites are always on the lookout for articles, and there’s another benefit to your byline: when prospective editors or clients do a Google search on your name to find out about you (and they surely will), your byline will come up on various sites as having written something. Your website will also pop up, we hope, and you’ll seem much more credible even if you haven’t done very much large circulation work.

But as a general rule, I wouldn’t encourage any writer - beginning or otherwise - to take on a low or no-pay assignment if it required them to spend a lot of time working on it. Imagine if you were a plumber, and someone asked you to come unclog their sink ... for FREE ... or, for a small fee of say, five dollars. How offensive! There are plenty of places who are open to working with unpublished writers, and many of them pay. Therefore, I don’t believe it’s worth your time to crawl on the bottom when you should be floating/swimming to the top.

Also, as long as you write for a non-paying market that doesn’t buy all rights, you can always submit the article to a paying publication, with appropriate readership changes. So just because you did all that work at first for very little pay, does not mean it won’t pay off at some other time in some other publication.



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Lawrence Clark Powell