Why should you write about games for free?
Recently, a large UK gaming site (NowGamer) posted an entry outlining the terms of a contest. One fortunate reader out of many will submit a 1000-word blog post to the site's editors and win the dubious honor of contributing a regular column to the site. The prize is not a paid position, but it's a chance for exposure at a large outlet and NowGamer is working from the assumption that this will be an offer too good to refuse.
Editors at many other outlets have taken to Twitter with the usual advice: don't do it! As an aspiring game journalist, many of them say, you should not write content for free. Writing free content devalues the work done by other skilled writers, it casts you as an unprofessional who isn't worth paying and it gets you very little or nothing for that hard work while rewarding someone else with bountiful income.
As the founder and editor-in-chief of HonestGamers, and as a freelance writer who makes my living writing content for other sites (it's literally my day job), I feel like this topic comes up often enough that I should weigh in with a hearty "I disagree." I can't explain myself effectively using only 140 characters on Twitter, though, so I'm doing it here.
Before I go any further, let me stress that no writer with any real experience should routinely produce free content for a site that pays other writers good money for the same sort of content. If you're a skilled writer and that outlet pays skilled writers, it should pay you. That's a fact (and that fact arguably means that whoever "wins" the NowGamer contest is coming away with the short stick). If you don't have sufficient experience or skill, though, there are two very good reasons you might still want to write for free.
The first reason is that there aren't enough paying outlets in the world to hire everyone who wants to write about games. Given how huge this industry is, and given how much revenue it generates, you might suppose that related sites would be rolling in ad revenue and each paying dozens of writers to produce stellar content that pushes discussion forward. Unfortunately, the reality is that most traffic goes to one of a few sites. Most of those sites are owned by IGN or GameSpot or Future. They're the oasis in a desert of fan sites that can barely afford to pay hosting costs, let alone scrape together a budget for freelancers or full-time writing staff.
I could ramble for thousands of words about the challenges faced by sites that aren't IGN and GameSpot (challenges that those leading outlets avoid simply because of their size and momentum), but this isn't that article. Instead, the point to take away is that there are a few obvious leaders in the field and every freelancer knows it. That means that editors at those outlets will be routinely hearing pitches from their favorite writers. They could probably put a bunch of names on a dart board, toss a dart 10 times and come up with the name of 12 writers who deserve any given assignment at least as much as you do. That sucks, but it shouldn't come as a surprise given the fact that you're competing for a job that can be summarized as "play games and write about them for money."
The same abundance of talent is also a factor at smaller outlets with smaller budgets for content. Freelancers are ambitious people and they can smell paid assignments before those assignments are even available. As a freelancer yourself, you already know this (or soon will). You also know (or soon will) that assignments often go to the interested writer who an editor believes has the most to offer. Often, that comes down to experience.
If you want to make a living doing this someday, in other words, you need to get some proper experience. The pursuit of experience is your second main reason to write for free. When you finally do contact an editor, you want to make sure that you are able to provide some writing samples and that they represent the best work you currently can produce. You want to make a terrific first impression and that requires experience.
This is why a lot of those very smart editors tell you to start your own blog. They sort of have a point, too. It's free to set up a blog on wordpress and tools are available to make that blog look terrific. You can post all the content you want on your schedule, without interference from an outside editor. If you're able to get enough of the right people reading your blog, you can eventually get constructive feedback that helps you to improve. In the unlikely event that you have a remarkable writing voice and some really amazing things to say (to the extent that you are unique in the field), you may even build an audience and never have to produce free content in your life.
Most freelancers aren't that fortunate. Starting a blog and maintaining a high volume of quality content that allows you to build an audience can be a soul-crushing endeavor. Now more than ever, your potential audience is reading regular reviews and news reports from the outlets who employ those helpful editors who tell you not to work for free. Those editors have contacts that allow them to post exclusive interviews with provocative game developers. They get early access to the latest and greatest games. They attend preview events. They post an article and within moments, social media has spread that content all over the place and people practically laugh at your ineptitude when you post about it five hours later once you arrive home from your day job.
Since it's unlikely that you'll attract a large audience to your own blog, at least initially, it's also unlikely that you'll receive a lot of feedback that can help you grow into the sort of writer you need to be if you want to find paid assignments. You don't have a built-in audience because on a good day, 20 people might read what you wrote and maybe two of those people will comment. One of those people might post "FIRST" and the other person might include a comment saying that you did a good job and should check out this link to meet Christian singles.
That brings me to my point: to get the experience and the audience you need, your best bet is to write for a semi-established site for free. Many such sites already have an audience that can double or triple your potential audience without breaking a sweat. They may also have PR contacts that allow them to provide you with review copies of games, or PR contacts so that you can conduct insightful interviews. Rarely, they may even be able to send you to events. Those are things that may not be accessible to the lone blogger.
In conclusion, you should write for HonestGamers and you should write for free because I'd really like to pay you but I can't so I won't.
As you have probably learned through trial by fire, this is a tough industry. If you want to get a foothold, you need to gain experience and feedback. You need to put yourself in a position to take advantage of the most opportunities. If you don't have the experience or the contacts to get paid work right now, look around and find a quality site that can provide you with those things. Or if you can't find a site that offers those opportunities, get together with a group of other freelancers and create the site you need together, the better to produce the sort of frequent content that will allow you to learn from one another and attract an audience.
There's no shame in writing for free if you're writing for free at the right outlet. There's no reason to go it alone for months or years when you could be doing so much more right now.
Side note: this helpful post is available for reprinting purposes. Just let me know what you're willing to pay and we can take things from there. After all, it's not like I'm going to write for free!