The “experts” will tell you there are a lot of black and white rules in the world of freelance writing.

Always have a contract.

Never write for the content mills.

Never write for “exposure.”

On the surface, I agree. Setting your terms from the start of an engagement is important, as is earning appropriate rates for your work.

What I wish more people would acknowledge, though, are the grey areas where these rules don’t apply (or don’t apply fully).

As a case in point, in December 2016, I contributed an article to the Content Marketing Institute website titled “Why Freelance Content Writers Aren’t Getting the Results You Want.”

I didn’t get paid for this article. I wrote it because it’s a topic I care about – that clients who hire freelance writers often don’t know how to work effectively with them, leading to poor results. It’s also nice to get some high-level bylines, when so much of my work is ghostwritten.

A lot of people would say that contributing free content in this way isn’t appropriate; that working for exposure cheapens

And truthfully, I don’t fully disagree with them. In a perfect world, we’d all be paid appropriately for our efforts, at all times. But we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in one where it’s necessary to work within the systems as they are in order to achieve the outcomes we want.

Here’s what happened next…

A few months after my article went live on Content Marketing Institute, I received a request from another company, asking if they could syndicate the post to their site. I agreed, and also offered to write them something custom if they were interested in exploring the topic further.

They were, and a few weeks after my new article published, the company reached out again, asking if I’d like to join their team as a paid contributor.

Out of respect for their privacy, I won’t disclose the rates they offered, except to say that they more than met my professional standards.

My total earnings with them throughout 2017 for occasional contributions? $2,025.

Now, I can’t say with certainty that every guest article you publish will lead to thousands of dollars of new business. However, there are a few recommendations I’d make if you want to use guest posts to secure your own freelance gigs:

Only guest contribute to reputable publications

CMI is a well-respected, well-vetted publication (at least, in the industries I work in). Be similarly selective with your own guest contributions, looking particularly for publications that:

  • Have a good reputation in their industries
  • Have a strong editorial process to weed out weak submissions
  • Get a decent amount of traffic (you can gauge this using domain authority numbers)

Guest contribution opportunities abound at lower-tier websites, but consider that the trade-off to easy publishing is that far fewer people will see your work. Use them only if doing so is a viable stepping stone to landing spots at better-quality sites.

Only guest contribute on topics you care about

I honestly could talk for hours about the topic I covered for CMI. As such, I was happy to write on it and share my opinion – even if I was doing so for free.

If writing on your chosen topic is a chore, definitely don’t do it for free (and take some time to reevaluate whether or not you’re in the right industry to begin with).

Don’t make guest contributions your only customer acquisition channel

Finally, don’t treat guest articles as your only channel for attracting new customers. Guest posting should be the cherry on top of a much more robust marketing program – one that occasionally pays off with a sweet treat, but that doesn’t represent the total of your nutrition plan.

Tactics like cold calling and networking are far more likely to land you qualified leads. Focus your attention there, and use guest contributions as a fun way to mix up your customer acquisition efforts while also building your portfolio and sharing on subjects you care about.

Are you actively contributing guest articles in your industry? If so, share your biggest wins by leaving a comment below: