Yes, You Should Write for Free

A blog about business and economics.
March 6 2013 12:16 PM

Writing for Free: Part II

For the more whimsical, you could try writing for free on a typewriter.
For the more whimsical, you could try writing for free on a typewriter.

Photo by John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images

One common response to my praise for writing for free on the Internet is snark. Joshua Foust remarks, "Hmm, @mattyglesias, who does not write for free, thinks you should write for free." Joshua Kucera writes, "Nice that @mattyglesias has volunteered to write for free here. Or did I misread this?"

Am I a huge hypocrite? I would say no.

I started blogging when I was a junior in college and did it very diligently for a year and a half. Largely on the strength of that work I got a low-paid job at the American Prospect, where in addition to writing stuff for their magazine and website and also contributing to their group blog, I continued to diligently blog (for free) under my own name. After about three years of that, I got a paid blogging gig at the Atlantic. And good for me! While I was working there, I, at one point, went on vacation and needed some (unpaid) guest bloggers. I had been very impressed by Ta-Nehisi Coates' Atlantic piece on Bill Cosby and realized that he was blogging (unpaid) under his own name and persuaded him to do unpaid Atlantic writing. Yes, for the exposure. Now I'm reading in the Observer that he's turning down (presumably paying) New York Times column gigs. And good for him!

Advertisement

Is the moral of the story that if you work hard at unpaid writing you'll get offered a New York Times column? No it's not. You almost certainly won't. But that's because almost nobody gets offered a New York Times column.

The fact remains that if you have things to say that you think are worthwhile and nobody is offering to pay you to say them, you ought to say them anyway for free. If enough people agree with you that those things are worthwhile, it just may lead to something.

Obviously a word like should is loaded. If you don't want to write for free, you're certainly under no obligation to do so. What's happened is that as publishing has shifted to digital, there's been a structural shift in value away from freelance work and toward staff work. That sucks for freelancers, and nothing I can say is going to make it any less sucky. But aspiring writers should know that doing work "for the exposure" isn't by any means a crazy idea.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

A Plentiful, Renewable Resource That America Keeps Overlooking

Animal manure.

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10

Politics

Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Hasbro Is Cracking Down on Scrabble Players Who Turn Its Official Word List Into Popular Apps

Florida State’s New President Is Underqualified and Mistrusted. He Just Might Save the University.

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 30 2014 9:33 PM Political Theater With a Purpose Darrell Issa’s public shaming of the head of the Secret Service was congressional grandstanding at its best.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 30 2014 7:02 PM At Long Last, eBay Sets PayPal Free
  Life
Gaming
Sept. 30 2014 7:35 PM Who Owns Scrabble’s Word List? Hasbro says the list of playable words belongs to the company. Players beg to differ.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 8:54 PM Bette Davis Talks Gender Roles in a Delightful, Animated Interview From 1963
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:00 PM There’s Going to Be a Live-Action Tetris Movie for Some Reason
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 30 2014 11:51 PM Should You Freeze Your Eggs? An egg freezing party is not a great place to find answers to this or other questions.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.