If you’re an aspiring writer or better yet, an aspiring travel writer, you might run across several opportunities to make a name for yourself by writing for free.

I know many people have covered this before, but recent events have changed my mind about the entire write-for-exposure market.  If you had asked me two months ago, I would have said, “Sure!  Why Not!”.  Now I’m convinced that the fastest path for getting paid for your work, is to get paid for your work.

Online Contests
The recent Spirit of Exploration Contest held by Bombay Sapphire (the gin in the blue bottle) asked bloggers, like me, to write a single essay about, wait for it, The Spirit of Exploration.  At first I thought this was a great idea and even sent it to some of my online contacts encouraging them to submit.  But it occurred to me:  this was a blog with no traffic, they wanted free content from bloggers, the bloggers would hopefully send their readers to the site and if you won (by getting the most positive votes, ie. you sent the most traffic), you get a jpg icon that says “Bombay Sapphire Winner” to post on your blog.  You write, send them traffic and get nothing but a jpg I could have made in Photoshop.

Disappointed, I decided to write a snarky version about the Spirit of Exploration and submitted it as my form of protest.  I began,

“The “spirit of exploration” is a carefully designed play on words intended to make you purchase high end liquor.”

I then proceeded to cram the essay full of random observations about travel, listing as many countries as I could and generally being a wise ass.  They posted it.  Clearly they weren’t even reading these things.  If you’re curious, you can read the full version here.

And I was right.  You know how many people click on the link to my website?  2.  My mother has sent more traffic to my site.  (Hi Mom, yes I will call you, and by the way I won’t talk to strangers in Paris anymore).

The Unpaid Content Writer

The writer Rolf Potts had an announcement this week on his website vagabonding.  They are looking for a new writer, unpaid, with the not-too-subtle hint that you will get massive exposure from writing on his site.

Several writers have moved on to paid positions after writing for Vagablogging, and now– I can tell you from personal experience– they’re really raking in the dough.

Now I have immense respect for Rolf, his books and his writing in general.  If he wants to open his blog to what amounts to extended guest blogging, that’s all well and good.  But I have a hard time believing that this is truly opening doors for people.  First, there is no link to the author’s website when they post.  There isn’t even an author bio.  So if I am an editor and I love the writing by Lea Woodward, I would have to google her name to track her down.  Secondly, the writing style of the site is usually short, travel related quips.  This isn’t exactly allowing these authors to showcase their best work.  I know, because I follow many of them on other sites like World Hum, Brave New Traveler and Gadling, where they both get paid and write more intensively on any given subject.

Finally, I don’t think there is necessarily a causal relationship between writing on Vagablogging and then making it as a writer.  These are good writers, who get published plenty of other places.  Are they really using their clips from Rolf’s site in their query letters to paying gigs?

Feel free to apply (deadline July 25th), but I would hope for less carrot dangling and more real incentives.  Link back to the authors.  Create writer’s bios.  Make it easy to find all the posts by a single author.  Or (gasp) pay them a little bit.

Writing for a Little

If you want to be a published travel writer, there are so many sites that will pay you and the barrier to entry is relatively small.  You have to have an angle.  You must write crisply.  Most importantly your content should get lots of hits from Digg, Stumble or Search Engines– for example, write a top 10 list or a controversial subject.

I recently wrote a post for The Traveler’s Notebook called 21 Trains that are Cheaper than Flying.  Granted I wasn’t paid a huge sum of money.  The truth is, you can’t make a living doing this, unless you can produce 5 articles a day.  However they also linked to this site and listed my author’s profile.  In the days after the article launched I got about 50 visitors from that site, but the good news, 30 of them became subscribers (hello and welcome!).  If you have a blog, you’ll know that getting people to stick around your site (not just visiting only to leave forever) is your main objective if you’re trying to grow.  To me, this was an added value that they didn’t have to pay for, but is highly valuable to me.  If I could recreate this by writing an article once a week, I would have 1500 subscribers by the end of a year (not likely, but there’s the math).

The Exceptions

Guest blogging will always be an exception for me.  I will write for anyone who asks (as long as you don’t all ask at once).  Also, I think contests (with prizes) are fun and easy can be a good way to interact with the community.  For example, Nomadic Matt has a contest on his site right now.  Also, if you are writing for a good cause, like Julie Collazo who just launched a three week series on her blog (sans ads, even) about the children in Colombia.  She’s posting articles written by the students about their country in Spanish and translated into English.  It’s important work, and she clearly feels passionate about.  In these cases, I wouldn’t hestitate at all.

The Bottom Line

If you want to write for free, be selective.  Make sure you’re really getting something out of it.  On the other hand, I’m beginning to think that the experienced travel writers on sites like travelwriters.com have a good reason for being against it.  Exposure is priceless, but it’s so hard to quantify that it’s easy for unscrupulous marketers to offer phantom rewards.  Besides, getting paid for your work is a great way to measure your progress as a writer and to make sure that your focusing on topics that are financially feasible.  If your goal is to make a living writing, why not start now?

What do you think? Be honest.  Would you write for free?  Are there conditions you use to evaluate opportunities?  How has it worked out for you?