When should you write “for exposure?”

The economy is putting many experienced writers out of jobs and leaving once-busy freelancers fretting over shrinking contracts and vanishing clients. I’ve had one client go out of business and two others are capping my hours on particular pieces of work.

At the same time, there’s still a lot of writing work available. Many companies are advertising for freelancers to come in and do the writing work previously handled by staff writers or agencies. But the bad news is that some of this work has plenty of strings attached and suspiciously little money.
What I’m talking about is a freelancing issue that’s always out there, but which comes into greater prominence in tough times: Working for exposure.
It’s tempting to work free (“for exposure”) to develop a portfolio in an area where you may have some experience, but no published or bylined pieces to show to a prospective employer or client. It’s even more tempting to work for exposure when times are bad, and you have available hours to fill.
As a rule, I don’t think writers should work for little or no pay. It’s demeaning to the writer, and it’s unfair to others in the writing field who charge professional-level hourly rates so they can pay the rent and eat. 
But…rules are meant to be broken. And some “pay for exposure” gigs can be just the stepping stone you need to go on and land a great contract or position. Here are some ways to tell if a “pay for exposure” gig is going to be worth your time and effort:
• The people who hire you should be taking the same chances you are. A talented friend doing a start-up who needs you to write the website might be worth your time. A well-paid manager hired by an out-of-state company to recruit a herd of starry-eyed freelancers via Craig’s List is not.
• The publication or website you are writing for should look professional. It should be attractive, sound intelligent, and be kept up to date. Otherwise your “exposure” is likely to be of the embarrassing type. If you find yourself being hired to post fake comments on a rival company’s website, flee!
• The “pay for exposure” work agreement should be clearly seen by all parties as a short-term stepping stone for you — not the start of a system in which you work your way up in their organization. Sadly, it’s not unusual for the types of companies that offer “work for exposure” to try to make the writer feel there is some obligation to stick with the company at low wages because it “gave you exposure.” Keep in mind that when you work for free, you’re giving a company hundreds or thousands of dollars of writing. You have absolutely no further obligation to them.
• You should be having fun, and truly developing your writing skills. This is your chance to prove yourself in a new area of writing, and, if you are lucky, to collaborate with a great editor or a great designer to make your work shine.

Author: Karen Anderson

To paraphrase Mark Morris, "I'm a writer; I write!"

2 thoughts on “When should you write “for exposure?””

  1. This is excellent advice! I’ve certainly done my fair share of writing for exposure, and sometimes it was worth it, but a lot of the time it wasn’t. I always found it much more gratifying to get paid, even if it was peanuts 🙂 However, there are a few cases where writing for exposure can work well- I love blogging in part because it does that, but it’s on my terms, and I’m interested in what I’m doing.

    I semi-recently left a job where I was indeed being paid to post comments on other sites intended to draw traffic. I can’t tell you how uncomfortable that made me… You’re right to tell folks to run. Ick!

  2. I wrote this post because writing (free) for a friend’s start-up site, and being edited by a great editor involved in the project, resulted in a portfolio that helped me land a job at Apple. But that was during the dot com boom, when writers with a print background needed to put together a web content portfolio. Now there seems to be a need to show that you know how to write using SEO keywords.

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