Professionals are compensated for their work. Period.
OK, now that I’ve said that, the truth of the matter is that when you are just starting out as a writer you will, more than likely, write things on speculation. Writing “on spec” means you do so with no guarantee of payment. This is true for aspiring novelists who may complete 4, 5 or even more manuscripts (completed novels) before selling a single one. It’s also true for screenwriters, freelancers and more.
So how do I justify my suggestion of writing with for no guarantee of payment and my belief that professional writers must get paid?
Here’s where I see the distinction. Those who are regularly writing and submitting and perfecting their craft are well on their way to being working writers. Like any other field, a professional writer needs on-the-job training and the more novels or screenplays you write the better you will get. The better you get, the more likely you are to sell your work and get paid.
Similarly, I see nothing wrong with someone who has never written anything other than school essays trying their hand at writing some very short items for a local community newspaper or newsletter. I know that there are others who will disagree with me, but I think this is a great way to learn: how to build a story, how the writer/editor relationship works and how the actual “writing part” of the dream of being a writer works. (Let’s face it, there are many, many people who “dream” of being a writer, until they actually try and write something!)
I do, however, have some caveats:
1. These assignments should not require a large commitment of time.
2. These assignments should not be more than a few hundred words at most (figure 300 words or less).
3. These articles should be of a standard story style for the publication.
4. You should also not be writing for free for a long period of time.
Once you get a handful of clips, you are ready to market yourself to other publishers or periodicals and show them what you can do. (BTW, if you are approaching a local paper, do try and get some form of compensation –even if all it is is a couple of extra free copies of your article.)
For some people, just seeing their name in print is payment enough. These may be very talented men and women, however, they are not professional writers. They are at best very talented writing hobbyists.
If, however, your goal is to be a published, working writer and you never see any profit from your work, you need to rethink your business model. That may mean finding new outlets for your work or trying a different form of writing.