Making it big as a small blog: Exercising your "No" muscle

{An occasional series based on my experience making a living while blogging small}

First, let me be a little bit obnoxious. It's a great way to start things, sometimes.

Do you know the Zen story about the empty cup? Here it is, in case you haven't heard it (or don't watch Bruce Lee movies):
A university professor went to visit a famous Zen master. While the master quietly served tea, the professor talked about Zen. The master poured the visitor's cup to the brim, and then kept pouring. The professor watched the overflowing cup until he could no longer restrain himself. "It's overfull! No more will go in!" the professor blurted. "You are like this cup," the master replied, "How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup." - via Zen Stories to Tell Your Neighbors

I am not telling you this because I fancy myself a Zen master -- far from it!

I'm sharing the story because I always bring it to mind when I have to say no to something. I remind myself that by saying no at that moment I'm making room for something better in the future. So if something isn't a good fit, I say no.

It was hard at first, and sometimes it still is, but I do it. When you're a small blogger, you have to say no. You have to say it a lot.

Why? People will ask you to work for free. People will assume that you are desperate for exposure, and will try to take advantage of you.

Here's the thing: You are not desperate for exposure. You are a blogger. You are out there. Maybe you are not famous (yet!) but you are out there enough that the person asking you to work for free found you.

Plus, you already blog for free. At your own blog.

They need you more than you need them. I'M SERIOUS ABOUT THIS.

That doesn't mean you should be a jerk when you are asked to work for free (or in exchange for less than an ounce of toothpaste. True story!). Everyone gets asked to work for free sometimes -- designers, consultants, big bloggers.

It's not a reflection of you, it's them.

(That everyone gets asked to work for free at times doesn't mean you should do it. Who made you the martyr of the internet? Just say "no thanks" and move on.)

So lesson #2 is : Learn to say no. You have to say it a lot, so you better get comfortable doing it.

Should you blog for a free at a big site?

Here's the thing: I sometimes write for hugely trafficked sites -- I of course get a byline and links and all that wonderful stuff -- and you know how much traffic I receive from that work to my own blog? Very little. Blogging for big sites has its rewards, but traffic and new readers simply isn't it. A paycheck (even a small one) is worth it -- as is all that you will inevitably learn from working with talented people. But here's a hint: Talented people don't give it away for free, so you probably won't be working with them at site that exploits writers. Sorry.

So how am I supposed to get work if I don't get my foot in the door by writing for free?

Writing for free definitely gets your foot in the door. People want to know whether you are a good writer before they will pay you to write. That is why you blog for free at your own blog.

What about blogging for free for a friend? Should I do it then?

That's tricky. Luckily Jessica Hirsch created a handy dandy chart to help you out. is perfect, so use her chart when trying to decide. (Or buy a letterpress poster, or download the free PDF and hang it up on your workspace.)

Do you feel like blogging for a friend? Do you really have all that free time to do it? Then I guess you should. I mean, it's a free country. I'm assuming you're an adult. So you do what you want. Sometimes we do things just for fun. So go for it if it's going to be fun! (Unless you feel taken advantage of. That's no fun.)

I love this poster and the "I am Designer Manifesto" is a must read for all bloggers looking to work. So read it. And remember this:
Don't work for free under the guise of 'good exposure'. It is bad exposure. If you don't value your own work, neither will anyone else.

Psst...Wanna know a little secret? I posted this note to PR professionals and the quality of the pitches I receive since then has increased dramatically. Turns out that valuing your work has a ripple effect. It is also handy to have a link like this to send to people who insist on pestering you to write for them for free -- or to work on their campaign for free by reviewing a product on their schedule. I just send the link and say, "sorry -- it's against my policy. But I'd love to work together sometime. Here is how to work with me. Best of luck." Works like a charm.

More on small blogging:

The Small Blog and The Marathon


Making it big as a small blog: You are more than page views