The Creative’s Guide to Making a Living on Exposure

Getting noticed is key. (President Truman in West Virginia in 1948. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
Getting noticed is key. (President Truman in West Virginia in 1948. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Ask any photographer, writer, designer or artist for their career secret. Unlike plumbers, chefs, politicians, wedding planners and the rest, they can work for free.

As a professional freelance journalist, proofreader and copywriter, I was thrilled to get an e-mail from the owner of a website for people with interstitial cystitis after I wrote an essay called The Sonogram Sadists.

The website owner said I could write another original article, at least 750 words long, and “we will publish it on our website for free.” As if having my work published online at no charge to me wasn’t enough of an incentive, he said he’d put my name on it, to be seen by 2,000 Facebook followers.

I was already trembling with exultant gratitude, but there was more: “you are free to write more free articles and we will publish them.”

My back has really been hurting lately, so as soon as I got that e-mail, I was on the phone to a chiropractor.

The initial consultation would cost $75, he said. Well, I said, what if I told you that you were talking to the newest unpaid writer for an obscure-disease website with 2,000 followers?

“That changes everything,” he said. “Are you really getting that kind of exposure? Holy cow. Just send me a link to your byline before the appointment, and we’ll call it even.”

My health insurance provider was even more accommodating. I called them up and explained that soon, as many as two thousand people with interstitial cystitis might be clicking on an article that had my name on it.

“How much are we charging you? $467.15 a month plus co-pays, and zero coverage for your $249.00-per-month medication?” they said. “I wish you had told us you’re a writer. Let’s just forget that monthly premium from now on.”

Later, I went to the grocery store for some flour and chicken and apples and stuff, but when my debit card was declined, I left the food on the counter. Fortunately, I didn’t need it anyway: I just poured the words from my latest article into a pan and fried them up. Healthy and delicious!

That reminded me of an e-mail I got recently from a friend, forwarding me a job opening with

“All applicants should have excellent writing skills,” the posting said. “As a Contributing Editor, you will have the opportunity to review the shows of your choice, conduct interviews with local and touring talent, design features of your own choosing for publishing, and work/network with your local theater press reps to bring exposure to the theatrical offerings in your area.”

And what is going to offer me for writing reviews, doing interviews, designing features and doing free PR for other organizations?

The “compensation” for writing for “the largest theater site on the net” is the press tickets, the chance to conduct interviews, “the opportunity to be published under your own byline” for “maximum exposure,” and “writing on your own time.”

It’s the special miracle of a writing career. The work itself is the pay.

I sent my resume immediately.

So instead of paying my student loan bill the next week, I e-mailed my lenders with a link to my latest piece.

“Congratulations!” a customer-service rep immediately replied. “Your byline is as good as currency around here any day. Just forward us the links to three or four articles a month and we’ll apply them toward the balance of your loans.”

It made me think long and hard about one of my freelance jobs, writing copy for clients’ websites. Having clear, compelling descriptions of missions, products and services, and projecting expertise and professionalism through correct spelling, usage and grammar, is not important at all.  Why should I charge for providing it when I have the satisfaction of knowing my words are out there for people to read?

So I called my manager and told her I wanted to rewrite my contract to eliminate my fees. And then I realized that other professionals were sure to do the same if I asked them.

The next time I got my hair cut, I told my stylist that instead of paying her, I would post a picture of my haircut, along with her name, for my 1,000+ blog subscribers. The salon happily accepted the exposure in lieu of payment.

Similarly, when the tile floor in our bathroom began to crumble and we called a repairman, I offered him a cup of coffee and suggested that fixing our bathroom floor was a great way to improve his experience—he could even take pictures of the finished work to show to other potential clients. He agreed it was the perfect opportunity to build his resume, and that there was no need to pay him.

I’m heartened because I’ve heard a couple stories lately from writing colleagues who met with potential clients, and learned that the clients would like to buy them dinner in exchange for professional writing, marketing, branding, and PR. When the act of writing and providing free promotional services is so exciting and rewarding all on its own (not to mention resume-building), compensation as lavish as dinner in a restaurant is an offer no writer can refuse.

So hurry and let me know what I can do for you at no charge. I can’t wait to thank you for the exposure!

You can boost my exposure, too! If you liked this essay, scroll down to subscribe.


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  1. Oh, and I’ll design your building for free if you just give me a byline in your blog, and let me take pictures. (not) That’s what I spent 8 years and tens of thousands of dollars on my education for isn’t it?

    By the way, love this tongue in cheek approach. I have to say not in the above statement because of professional governance.

  2. Everyone who is constantly able in meeting/succeeding his/her client’s expectations is putting a value to his/her service/product package that is unique to him/her. So with exposure comes experience and with experience comes the reward…

    The great news is that every freelancer is free in picking and choosing the chances that are given. If you are successful in what you’re doing you probably don’t have time or need to pick those ‘free’ gigs. Remember that it is every freelancer’s own responsibility to make – whatever you are doing – work for a fair price. If you can’t produce it for the offered fee you’re doing something wrong or the job isn’t for you. At the same time if you charge to less or to much you eventually will be kicked or priced out by the market itself.

    So, this said I believe that being able to deliver constant quality is the key to make it work. Thanks for posting this Alaina, and speaking of work: I have to keep it short, work is calling.

    • Yes, the right exposure can lead to long-term rewards. I learned this early in my career, when I wrote for free when I had no professional experience to show for myself, right out of college. I worked a day job for years and wrote at night to build my experience and continue my education through practice. Once I had built up a body of work, I was off on my career and did not do work for free unless I decided to volunteer for a good cause.

      Ideally, freelancers should be free to pick and choose their work, but the sad truth is that there’s so many desperate people, with major student loans struggling in a tough economy, that it’s easy for unscrupulous people and businesses to exploit them, promising that they might pay the creatives some day, if their work is really good. That being said, you’re right that it is the freelancers’ responsibility to choose what is right for them, and make sure they’re getting fair pay for the work they do. In my experience, you’re right about the consistent quality. That (and networking) is what has kept the gigs rolling in for me for years. Thanks for weighing in!

  3. nice read….enjoyed it, but think you might want to quit that habit,

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