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Don’t listen to Rick Reilly: how writing for free can launch your career

University of Colorado J-school graduates, it’s a signature honor to be speaking to you today – and to follow a veteran sportswriter like Rick Reilly to the podium. Rick’s a legend, now at ESPN after all those years of having the last word in Sports Illustrated. So it pains me to have this be my own piece of advice: Don’t listen to Rick Reilly.

Actually there’s plenty you might learn from Rick. But one thing he told you was really, really bad advice, and I can’t in good conscience have you go out into the world thinking otherwise. Hang on, I wrote down exactly what he said that got me all worked up. Here it is

“When you get out there, all I ask is that you DON’T WRITE FOR FREE! Nobody asks strippers to strip for free, doctors to doctor for free or professors to profess for free. Have some pride! … If you do it for free, they won’t respect you in the morning. Or the next day. Or the day after that. You sink everybody’s boat in the harbor, not just yours. So just DON’T!”

Your biggest problem right now is one you can’t help: You have very little experience. Nobody knows you, and so you’re in a Catch-22. You can’t get writing gigs without experience, but the only way to get experience is through writing gigs. It seems like a locked door, and you’re worried about how on earth you’ll get through it.

This is not new: Young writers have faced this dilemma since the equivalent of the daily paper came on clay tablets and was written in cuneiform. They worked it out and so will you. But you might just work it out more quickly than they did, because you have tools available to you that they could only dream of.

If you’re not a publisher already, you can be after a few minutes typing on a laptop. That’s how long it takes to set up a blog and reach an audience for whatever it is you choose to write about. And that potential audience is global – you’re no longer limited by how far your publisher can send out printed material on trucks and still make a profit. That cell phone you’re using to text right now instead of listening to me? It contains a printing press and a world-wide distribution system. It’s an extraordinary change, one we’re all still getting used to.

And it’s created a new playing field in publishing that’s very different than the old one. If you want to write about the NFL or the Lakers or left-handed pitching prospects, you don’t have to spend years writing about other stuff before someone might let you. The web is a meritocracy – a dizzying talent show anyone can enter. If you are good and if you work hard – really, really hard – your stuff will be found. It will be read, and passed around, and people will learn who you are, and they’ll want to know what you wrote before and what you’re going to write next.

But here’s the thing: Nobody is going to pay you to do this, at least not at first. And that’s OK, because that’s not what you should focus on right now. You should focus on getting experience, and getting known. The rest will come – think of what you’ll be doing as an investment that will pay off down the road.

I know you have bills to pay now. You’re going to have to find a way to pay them. Maybe that will be a journalism job that’s less what you want to do than what’s available for you to do. That’s fine — just make sure your sidelight is done on your own time, and won’t get you fired. Maybe you won’t be in journalism at all at first. Maybe you’ll be temping, or making lattes, and writing will be less a profession than a hobby. That’s fine too – you don’t need as much sleep as you think. The history of writers is filled with tales of typing in unheated garrets at ungodly hours. Those writers did it and so can you. (And remember they still had to win over the guy with the printing press, while you have your own.) You may even look back and think, through slightly blurred distance, that it was pretty fun.

I’m not suggesting you act as a charity for publishers looking for free pixels. You’re going to need to be self-interested in ways you’ve never been before, constantly asking “What’s in it for me?” Just don’t limit that to a question of money, because you’re playing a bigger game.

Maybe you’re publishing your stuff on your own blog. If so, that’s your resume and clip file all in one, for anyone to see. You’re going to write so often that readers are constantly finding new material. You’re going to learn that hitting “publish” is only the beginning, and work on sharing links and answering comments and creating a conversation. You’re going to find who else writes about what moves you, and try to earn a place in that community. Every post that makes readers want to come back, every post that starts a discussion, every post that gets talked about elsewhere, brings you a step closer to where you’re trying to go. So make them count.

Or maybe you’ll have a chance to write for someone else, someone promising you no reward other than exposure. Don’t automatically turn up your nose. What’s in it for you? Here are some possibilities beyond money:

• You’ll get a byline and a link you can point to when people ask what you’ve done before.

• You’ll appear in a publication that people have heard of and take seriously, meaning they’ll be more likely to take you seriously.

• You’ll have someone reading your stuff who can make it better and teach you how to make it better before it ever gets to them.

• You’ll make a connection with someone who may have an interesting sidelight of their own, or who may be working somewhere else in a few months, or who knows people at other publications who are looking for reliable writers.

If you’re truly being asked to write for someplace that will give you not only no money but no byline, no valuable association, no help and nobody interesting to meet, that’s a bad deal — don’t write for them. But a lot of writing you’ll do for free won’t be like that. Find enough situations where there is something in it for you, even if it’s not monetary compensation, and pretty soon something else will happen: You’ll get an email, phone call, direct message on Twitter or something else from someone who thinks you might be perfect for something they want written. And they’ll tell you what they can pay you.

Do well on that assignment and there will be others, which you’ll be paid for too. And pretty soon you’ll only write for free if you really want to, and most of the time people won’t ask — because you’ll be experienced, and you’ll be known. When that happens, you’ll look back at the days you did write for free, and realize they were your digital-age apprenticeship — for which you were compensated after all.

Jason Fry is a freelance writer and media consultant in Brooklyn, N.Y. He spent more than 12 years at The Wall Street Journal Online, serving as a writer, columnist, editor and projects guy. While at he edited and co-wrote The Daily Fix, a daily roundup of the best sportswriting online. He blogs about the Mets at Faith and Fear in Flushing, and about the newspaper industry at Reinventing the Newsroom Write to him at, visit him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter.

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