So, you say, there are a lot of downsides to writing free articles for exposure, but if I decide to do it anyway, there’s no real harm in it, right? I don’t mind writing about (x) subject, after all. Unfortunately, there are ripples that continue to disrupt the freelance market each time a writer takes on a task gratis:
The “just one more thing…” issue. If you think that a site is going to be happy with a single piece of free work, it might be time to guess again. Once many of the unscrupulous sites out there soliciting for free work realize that you’re willing to cough up quality pieces for nothing more than a vague promise of “exposure,” they’ll keep hitting you up like a font-filled piñata. Product descriptions, ads, articles, blogs, social media likes and comments – the list never ends, and your inbox never empties as wheedling plea after plea for free writing work floods in.
Devaluing your coworkers. If you’re willing to work for free, it doesn’t hurt anything but your own schedule, right? Wrong. Freelancers are already facing an uphill battle to be paid fairly and considered as legitimate workers; free writing work muddies the waters and convinces clients that writing isn’t a “real” job that requires fair pay. If you wouldn’t walk into a store and work an eight-hour shift for free, you shouldn’t be willing to devote your time to writing for free either.
Your work may not stay yours. Ghostwriting is a common practice in freelancing, in which writers give up claim or name on their work in exchange for being paid. If a client alters an article, uses it as spam, or engages in other nefarious purposes with your work, you don’t have to worry about it coming back on your reputation because you’re behind the scenes. Without the explicit work-for-pay agreement in place, it’s not unthinkable that an “exposure” client may be tempted to play fast and loose with your free work, yanking your name off of it or feeding it through an article spinning program until it barely resembles your original piece. If your name is gone or your work has been turned into garbage, suddenly “exposure” can leave you pretty darn exposed.
There are (very few!) exceptions. Certain large projects – hundreds of product descriptions, several websites’ worth of landing copy, etc – may request a project-specific sample to ensure your skills fit with the project. The key is not to respond to cattle calls (think craigslist ads) with this specialized content that can’t really be used elsewhere; save your efforts for the 2nd or 3rd volley of back-and-forth with a client on a freelance platform such as Odesk. These specialized samples, which should adhere to the word counts mentioned above, can also be used as a bargaining chip – offer to do a small snippet to “help with the decision-making process” if it’s a job you just gotta snag.
My advice is to start your freelance career by writing samples – pick a favorite lamp off of Overstock, create a fictional dentist office in your town, and so on – and describe and/or write for them. Product descriptions should be about 100-150 words, while landing pages and articles are appropriately sized around 300-400. Whenever a sample is requested for a prospective client, toss one of your (expertly written and polished, natch) samples their way. This keeps the freebie frenzy to a dull roar and keeps value in your work – you’re worth it!