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pro bono writing

Penniless writer?

How can you start a writing career if you have no clips? When and why should you offer free services? Don’t think of pro bono work as wasted time, and don’t tell yourself that you’re only going to offer free writing services until your business takes off. Making pro bono work a routine part of your business will earn you more money than the time you could have billed for it.

Writing For Free

Of course, an obvious time to offer free writing services is when you’re starting out. You need clips to show future editors you’re capable of not only stringing sentences together for a defined readership, but that you were able to meet deadlines. If you focus on business writing, you’ll need links or hard copy samples to show potential clients that, yes, in fact you can provide error-free and interesting content. (If you have analytics, this is a plus—showing that your content produces traffic and reduces bounce rates is an even more substantial credit for you.)

3 Examples of How Pro Bono Work Made More Money

  1. My 2009 article in Dog Living was unpaid. (It was also the first time my work appeared in a four-color glossy magazine!) I used it as a clip when I pitched a piece to FIDO Friendly. FF published my piece, and another, and then I used these clips when I pitched to Dog Fancy. Then, a design company asked me to write dozens of blogs for local dog trainers. Total earnings from my initial pro bono piece? $1,500+
  2. I have volunteered with Raleigh’s annual SPARKcon festival since 2008. The past few years I’ve been involved with poetrySPARK and I’ve met thousands of people. A few dozen had never heard of my Raleigh writing group, but after meeting me at our poetry on demand booth or hearing me read, I’ve gotten new members, clients, and repeat students in my workshops. Total earnings: $1,000+ and growing.
  3. My 2010 article in Triangle Gardener was unpaid. I pitched to trade magazine Produce Business, they didn’t like my pitch, but put a different spin on it and offered me two assignments. I also published in Vegetable Growers NewsTotal earnings: $950

3 Ways to Find Writing Gigs That Don’t Pay

Well, this is a silly subheading. You know there are plenty of content mills and places that “just don’t have the budget” and start-ups that offer references in lieu of payment. Since there are so many choices—be choosy! Look for opportunities where your time will be invested best.

  1. Volunteer. When I started freelance writing I looked for virtual writing opportunities on Volunteer Match, a site that makes it simple to find volunteer work that you have an interest in. I wrote a brochure for a non-profit that needed to solicit funds for clean water and micro-farming in South Asia. (As of this writing, I did a quick search and found 6 pages of virtual writing volunteer projects. Not only do you get credit, but you’re helping out an organization too.) For writers interested in journalism, volunteer for your local newspaper or community guide and offer proofreading services. Who would turn away a free pair of writerly eyes to make their copy better?
  2. Look for new businesses. Try not to wait until you see a “Grand Opening Banner” on a new retail or restaurant space. Connect with a commercial Realtor or subscribe to new business lists. Opening a business is expensive—business owners would love someone to offer free press release writing.
  3. Craigslist. Always be careful!! Everyday there are businesses, websites, and fledgling magazines looking for people to write for free. Interested in transitioning to a new niche? Do a pro bono piece in that field to help you break in for future paid work.