Pretty much every writer has at some point been asked to write for free, and it’s most common with travel writers. It’s a ‘dirty little secret’ that we don’t like to admit to, but most of us have done it, and will continue to do so from time to time. We certainly don’t want to make a habit of it, because even though the most important reason that we do what we do is because we have a passion for both traveling and writing, the bottom line is that we need to earn a living, so naturally we want to be paid for our travel articles.
So why do we occasionally write for free? Simple – getting published can sometimes be a catch-22. Quite a few publishers just won’t accept travel articles from a writer unless they’ve already been published elsewhere, so getting the first “elsewhere” can be a challenge. There are a lot of travel writers out there, and some of them are very good. A few are even quite well-known. And many publications are inundated with article submissions, meaning that they can be choosy about whom to publish — it’s just easier for them to go with a “known” author who has a track record of attracting readers. They don’t need to ‘take a chance’ on a new, unpublished writer. So what’s an aspiring travel writer to do? Yep, write a few articles for free – whether it’s for an online or offline (print) publication, writing for free will at least give you something to point to and say “here you go – I was published here”…..getting published attracts other writing opportunities, most of which (hopefully) you’ll get paid for.
Another reason that we sometimes write for free is when an article is written as a “thank you” to the sponsors of a Media Trip. Although there is rarely any “obligation” when you accept a media trip, there is always the unspoken expectation that you will write an article to help promote the destination or resort you were invited to spend time at. Be aware of the fine print before you do partake of a media trip, in case there is some contractual obligation, but in any case count on submitting an article for publication about your trip experience to any number of outlets regardless of whether you get paid for it or not.
The most important thing to keep in mind if you do decide to write an article for free, is to be clear about ownership and who has the right to republish your article. If the publication is a well-known and respected one (for example, National Geographic or Condé Nast Traveler) and they simply insist on total ownership of your article, then I’d advise you to agree rather than pass up the opportunity, but use your best judgment to weigh all the factors and don’t give up the right to republish on your own if you don’t have to. At the very least – if at all possible – you want to retain the right to post the article to your own travel website, and to potentially submit it (in a modified format) to article marketing sites as well.
Any articles that you manage to have published become part of your ‘portfolio’. Ideally you should have your portfolio in one easy to navigate location online (say for example your own travel blog….). Why? Because often potential employers and Editors will ask to see samples of your writing before they decide if you are the right person for a writing assignment. Some of them would prefer to see these samples online, but it also just makes it easier to give someone a single link to view your work, rather than a list of links or mountains of paper.
So should you write for free? It really depends on you and your situation. If you’re new to travel writing, you may have to consider writing at least some articles for free to get your career off the ground. Remember that it’s a great way to build your portfolio. And we all do it, even if we do it quietly. :)
Do you write for free? Why? Why not?