When I said, with a glowing "Oh ho!", that the Huffington Post had asked me to blog for them, I received minimal "Oh ho" back. "Write about unpaid journalism," snarked my Twitterfeed, apparently confusing writing the odd piece with being put in a sweatshop and lashed until a Pulitzer came out.
Writing for free is a grey area. Despite the ubiquity (and importance) of blogs and that many high profile sites trade content for prestige only, it's often looked down upon if it makes up part of your career. When, as a newly-hatched post-grad, I joined one journalism forum, the stance was: "Don't write unless you're paid. It undermines you and it undermines journalism."
The view tends to be that writing unpaid is something to do only on work experience, when every nib is a valuable cutting. I was certainly less keen on writing for free when I was unemployed for two months, but I wasn't any less keen on writing.
So why write for free?
Free is why people write fanzines, update blogs and tweet. It's pressure off, it's the opportunity to practise something you enjoy and share it with people immediately. And particularly online, there's a limited supply of people who will pay. My pitching skills are sufficiently atrocious that, if I were only to write for money outside my main job, I would probably forget how to hold a pencil within a year. I don't want that, because I love writing and I need to do it.
As the internet is absolutely massive, there's plenty of room for you to write about, or find, exactly what interests you. Six years into my career and I have yet to be hired as anyone's all-in-one The Archers, Pokémon, sharks, X-Men and cocktails expert, but that's ok because we have the internet!
The very reason I wanted to write in the first place was because writers made my life brighter. Instead of sitting in my rainy corner of England, I was reading about the Countess of Chichester and her show jumping llamas in Style. I was wandering around with Jilly Cooper, Dylan Thomas, John Donne and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I was following rock stars on tour and falling so in love with Laura Barton's barbed wit that I wrote her a fan letter when she left The Guardian.
Reading a piece that someone has written with care, reason and wit makes my day. It's what I want to do, to get better at, and you don't get better at something by sitting on your hands like a human vending machine, waiting for someone to put a coin in.
In the event that my online habits die and I become able to string more than 800 words together at a time, then fine: writing for free will be acceptable because I will be "working on my novel". Until then, I will be working on my navel. And why not?
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