In the last two days, two separate people asked me this question. I’ve also seen it up on discussion boards in places like LinkedIn and other sites, so I thought I’d chime in publicly.
Having thought about it, I find the question shocking. Are there any writers left who have not, in some capacity, at some point, written for free? The most common “pay” an author gets for contributing to a literary journal, for example, is a few copies of the journal itself. You get to claim that your writing appeared there, and that makes your introduction at a reading a bit more interesting.
I wrote for free for years. I had an editing job with the potential for a big payout—it was based on clicks and hits—but realistically never came close to earning even minimum wage. While doing it, of course, I had something in mind, and that was the growth of an audience and access to groups of people I’d normally never find. So there was an economic angle on it, albeit a long term one.
I guess my simple answer is that you do what you can with what you have. If you’re writing for free out of a sense of masochism, and without a long-term plan, that might not be the best strategy. There’s a difference, obviously, between writing literary fiction and self-help (or whatever) so you have to weigh your goals and options. People who want your content believe, rightly or wrongly, that it will help them achieve some end. You should have the same thing in mind. What end will providing content to x help you achieve? If you can’t answer that question, you need to figure out why.