Traditional writing advice is to not write for free, or for “exposure.” The idea is writing for free for another outfit cheapens your work, and lets someone make money off your work with nothing tricking back down.
From 2003-2006 I wrote for free, and for exposure. The freelance success I had after that made it all worthwhile. I am the exception to that rule.
In 2003, the web and blogs weren’t what it is now. WordPress was just coming out. Free or low cost web hosting wasn’t as ubiquitous as it is now. A lot of blogging type sites required custom CMS platforms. Also, in 2003 I was rapidly approaching my 40th birthday. I didn’t want to be that guy bemoaning I didn’t give writing a chance.
At the time, I was pretty passionate about video games1. Worthplaying was looking for writers and were very clear the gig wasn’t a paying gig. I contacted them because I figured getting my writing out there in a public fashion would help my writing. I’d get used to working with editors, the inevitable commentary from internet readers , and writing on a deadline. It worked. I wrote a ton of stuff for them over those three years.
Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOs) were just starting to become the rage then. EverQuest was a few years old. World of Warcraft was close to coming out. Not many writers wanted to invest the time it took to review and understand these games. A traditional game might take 20 hours to form an opinion on, but an MMO was at least 50 hours of base work. I liked these types of games quite a bit and started to become known as “that MMO guy” in a period there weren’t many of us. I was also able to start building up my contacts with developers and PR people.
In 2006, I decided to take the next step: to see if I cold get paid. I sent clips packets off to the three major game magazines: PC Gamer, Computer Gaming World, and Computer Games Magazine. I remember standing in line at the Boston Post Office with my manilla envelopes of printed out samples with a cover letter offering my services. I had the weird idea that printing them out on glossy paper would make them look more like they were printed in magazines. These were also magnum opuses of reviews. My EverQuest 2 review was about 8-10 printed pages.
I was almost immediately contacted by the EIC of PC Gamer magazine. He knew of me from Worthplaying and needed someone to write a review of an EverQuest expansion. There was just one small wrinkle: famed Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling usually wrote the EverQuest reviews for PC Gamer. This was good for PC Gamer since they could put “Curt Schilling reviews EverQuest” on the cover. The EIC was torn at the time since Curt hadn’t said yes or no. I called him back a few days later and said something along the lines of: “Hey, if you want me to review this let me know. If not. I’ve got another place wanting me review it and I can just go with them. We can do the next review together.”
He gave me the gig.
This was an immediate eye-opening experience. The reviews editor emailed me and said, “Yep. We want you do the review. Give me 150 words in two weeks.” One hundred and fifty fucking words. My opening paragraphs for a review were 150 words. How the hell was I going to write an entire review in 150 words. I did it, though. A few minor revisions later, a few months later my review hit the newsstands. I wrote for PC Gamer until 2008 or so. I then wrote for WoW Insider for a year, then Gigaom for another five years. I haven’t had a paid writing gig since 2015.
The line for me is clear: writing for free for Worthplaying lead to paid writing gigs. It gave me the experience I needed to go pitch to editors with a body of work from a reputable source. I also got a lot of free games out of the deal. Where the exposure gigs falls flat for some people is no one approached me wanting to pay me to write. I had to go out there, pitch the work and do the legwork to make those contacts. I also established myself as an authority on a niche market that was going through a growth spurt. Even now, spending three years trying to cram massive reviews into 300 words or less has help make me an economical writer at work.
I don’t know if this path would work today. Back in the 2000s, there was a viable print market and publishers would pay for writers. For gaming PC Gamer is the only real gaming magazine these days. CGW and Computer Games Magazine are gone. A lot of the big gaming sites are now consolidated into IGN and Gamespot. The market has consolidated. As I said in my piece about writing, making money creating content these days is hard.
As much as people bemoan the idea of writing for free, I feel you gain some valuable experience. Even if you start your own blog and pump out content, paid writing typically requires collaborating with someone. Be it an editor, or the artist for something you are working on. The ability to create content on someone else’s schedule is invaluable for creators. Obviously you have to weigh the pros and cons. With Worthplaying, it was obvious the site was such a labor of love for Rainier and Judy I didn’t mind helping out. I’d write for them again, even for free.
- Still am, to be honest ↩