You can make money by writing for free.
Volunteering your writing for a charity organization does three things for your writing career:
Yeah, I know, I don't usually start off my social justice posts telling people how rich I'm gonna make them.
“No, I mean what do you mean I can make money by writing for free?”
Oh, that. It's an oxymoron, I know, and if you're someone who wants to make writing a career, you've probably heard the phrase “don't write for free.” That is true at a certain point—if you take mere pennies per page you really do screw over full-time freelancers, and you make yourself less credible. (More on that, and sites where you can land paying gigs, here) But some strategic free writing can really advance your career. I'm not a superstar by any stretch of the imagination, and even my little inexperienced self managed to get news pieces published by four different newspapers across the country—paid as much as $100 per article—after building a resume writing a lot of really high quality free articles.
The trick here is strategy. I'm not talking about rifling off a bunch of whiny opinion pieces on your free blog. Your blog's there to give you a web presence and draw in long-term readers for your long-term niche projects—it's very unlikely, although certainly not impossible, that an opinion blog will generate gigs or create world change, mostly because everyone has one. What everyone does not have is a portfolio of high quality articles published for local charities.
• One, like it or not, institutions have credibility. Real-world resume credibility.
• Two, writing for a legit organization almost guarantees you'll turn in your best work, since unlike on your blog, there's a client or editor between you and the “publish” button. That's a huge plus for your portfolio, especially if you're a starting writer, and like me, you think you're a brilliant reincarnation of Edgar Allen Poe from the planet Mars, but you're actually just a normal human being who needs to polish your skills.
• Three, writing for charities gets you engaged with world-movers. The people who work for charities tend to be people who want to help people and who know how to network. That can work out really, really well for you.
So how do you make these sweet resume-building deals happen? By NOT trying to advance your career with them.
If you want to land good writing deals with charities, you need to focus on their needs, not yours. This means that instead of sending them your glamorous opinion pieces, you write what they need from you: a solid, AP-style press release for the local paper, or breaking news fact research their PR person can use in fundraising letters, or treasury reports. This also means that you should aim small—aim for the charities that actually need help, not the big powerhouse movements that have Obama's ex-roommate writing for them. A local clinic that helped indigent patients near me needed someone to edit and write their organizational newspaper; a Civil Air Patrol squadron needed a little PR in the local news; a small international mission asked me for website copy; and over time what started as feelings about causes became legitimate samples and references I used to get paying jobs. I discovered this entirely by accident, and I think that helped: I didn't give a damn about dollars, I just wanted everyone in the world to know about this or that awesome charity. But I found out local papers are often thrilled to receive hopeful stories—especially breaking news stories—about local heroes. And local charities are often thrilled to get help for their weekly e-mails and what have you. You can also submit short stories to charity anthologies (like this one for kids with cancer) to help fund causes you care about. Again, the key is to find who needs your help, and help them.
That's kind of the key with any writing job, really. The person who will hire you is the person who needs you. So, as a writer, you make yourself needed by:
1) learning to write correct AP style (or whatever else the industry standard is for your field—you gotta at least know how to use it before you choose not to);
2) bringing specialized research knowledge to the table (in my case, biomed and medicine—if you don't have specialized knowledge, go read a lot on a subject and get some); and
3) finding out what kind of person your audience needs, and becoming that person.
These all take a ton of preparation, but the last one's definitely the hardest in our society. It's also the most important. Because this time, writing's not about you, and your identity. It's about something bigger than you. Something that maybe you should tweet about, or blog about, or write to your Senator about, or even donate towards. Maybe this is even something big enough to take you away from the keyboard to get your hands dirty. A pleasant philosophy for life in general, or any time you're at a career crossroads: find out who needs your help, and help them.
Who needs your help?
Guest blogger Jen Finelli tweets about a number of human rights issues you can get involved with on twitter @petr3pan; the rest of the time, you can catch scifi/gamer news, writing contest/job leads, and free short fiction from her. You can also follow her blog at petrepan.blogspot.com.
Thank-you. And don't forget to chat us up in the comment box about the charities YOU'd like to write for!