I recently had a conversation with someone who balked when I told her that I was guest posting on a popular blog. She knows that I also blog for a website called Patch.com and have submitted to The Huffington Post. "But you are basically working for free. That's your time, your energy, your talent that you are giving away for nothing."
I understood where she was coming from because on the surface it seems exactly like that. But you see, I have no intention of never being paid for my work. If I'm lucky, I'll eventually earn enough to buy myself lunch at Subway. I will count that as a success. I just understand that when you are a newbie and are still learning the ropes, you have to pay some dues.
In your last year of college, when earning a degree in Education, you have to do this thing called student teaching. You get the privilege of working alongside people who work in the business of education. You get acclimated to the climate, you learn some tricks of the trade, you work hard--very hard but what you don't get is paid. You simply get the experience.
It's the same thing if you want to become a doctor. You are required to work through a residency and are usually paid very minimally, as in...enough to eat and do your laundry kind of minimally.
My point is that, when you are learning a craft, it means you have to pay your dues before you get paid in return. There's lots to learn if you expect to make anything out of a career in writing. I'm not saying that you should never get paid, that should eventually be your goal but you can't expect to hit the ground running. If you are lucky, you will start earning cold hard cash with magazine submissions and skip to the bank with your $.25/word.
Honestly, writing for free is nothing new. The only difference is that nowadays there are forums to showcase your work. Fifty years ago, a writer couldn't submit to The Huffington Post but they could write editorials in newspapers. They could write for their family and friends. We still have to write. The only difference is that our audience is bigger. We can't expect to be paid for our mediocrity. When you get good enough to make money you will start making money but let me tell you, if you get into writing for the big bucks, you are setting yourself up for some epic disappointment.
Maybe you'll be the exception to that rule. Maybe you are a rare talent and will shoot straight to the best seller list but for the rest of us who have to scratch and claw our way just to see our words in print, there is no shame in starting at the bottom and working our way up. There is no shame in working for the love of the craft. I've learned some invaluable lessons from writing for free. Its taught me to submit to editors, take criticism, be rejected and learn the sting of defeat.
That first rejection slip stinks! When you open it up its as if they folded the paper in just the right way so that when you open it, it unfolds and gives you the finger. But just like a novice beekeeper must expect that he will be stung, so must a writer expect all kinds of rejections (and lots and lots of unpaid writing) in their future. If you really love it, that magic of expression that comes from filling a blank page, you'll even do it for free.