Recently, a woman who has been jumpstarting her freelance career with some success asked me what I thought about writing for free. She wanted to know if, at some point, I did it, or had considered it while building up my clips.
I don’t think about writing for free. Never have; never will. I started out with the idea that I needed to pay my bills from the fees I charge for my writing and how many bills could I pay with nothing?
I embarked on my writing career while still a prisoner in a corporate cubicle. I knew writing was something I always wanted to do, but like many writers, I just didn’t know if my writing was worthy of compensation. But I built my clips being paid and every writer with the right stuff can too.
Prior to my writing, I had a craft business and started writing for a craft publication. The publisher bartered advertising for my articles. Later, I decided on making writing, my life long passion, a career. My first essay was published in The Kansas City Star Magazine. I worked on the essay for months. By the time I was paid $25, my hourly rate could well have amounted to 5 cents. Still, I was paid and I also owned one of the best regional clips I could attain. From the crafting clips and the essay, I was able to land small paying community newspapers, low paying advertorials and even more bartered writing pieces, but I was always paid in some form for every clip. More importantly, I found I could pay my bills with what I was earning.
I was raised in a union household, which taught me that for every person willing to make $22 an hour for their expertise and long-time loyalty to their skill, there is another person, “scabs,” they’re called, who will come in and help bust a union and take their jobs for minimum wage or less. They may not be as skilled – or as loyal – but they’re willing to do the job just because.
I consider people who write for free as the “scabs” of our industry. They’re willing to do for nothing what skilled writers need to do to support their families. By skilled, I’m not even talking about how many clips they’ve attained. Skilled can even mean writers with raw talent, who also possess the business know how to make a small operation work.
I don’t mean that writers should never lend their talents, just as with any skill or profession, there are times when we should give back to our community; donate our skills to worthy causes and work pro-bono. There might even be publishers/editors who we consider friends; we might believe in their mission or cause and we do favors by writing for them.
This is different than responding to every call for a writer we find on Craig’s list. Our talents shouldn’t be used to further the dream of anyone who says they just don’t have the money to pay their writers yet, or to further our own dreams by telling ourselves it would be a good exposure. People die of exposure and writing businesses can too.
Publishers should have counted on paying professional writers as part of their start-up expenses and writers should be able to develop the self- confidence to demand pay for their talents. If they don’t, maybe they don’t have the right stuff to make a small business a success.
No one financed my dream. I had to do it on my own. I stayed at a job – my own purgatory – a place I needed to be until I could make my way into my own professional heaven. We sacrificed and saved until we had cash reserves built for the bad times (and a good thing, because each new business always needs it). I used the other keys necessary for a small business – networking, building good relationships with my clients (editors) by being reliable and accurate and developing a lot of ideas to help my dream come true.
I am still building my dream; small business owners can never stop. But throughout this process other professionals I use get paid – the people who print my business cards and stationary, my office suppliers, my lawyer, – even my chiropractor and massage therapist that help me relieve the stresses I carry in my body. At no time, did I ever say, “I have a dream, but I can’t afford to pay you because I’m a new business. Will you provide your services for nothing?” They would have laughed in my face and I would have expected them to. Why do some publishers expect less of writers?
I recently quit a somewhat stable assignment because I was being shorted the money the company owed me for articles they asked me to complete. The company justified this by having a clause in their contract to pay only by what is printed, not the word count commissioned.
My family lives day-to-day and month-to-month like any other. I had just lost one regular paying assignment due to the economy and while I have other regular paying gigs, a writer is always afraid they’ll never have enough assignments. It was hard turning down a regular assignment: I was actually shaking as I sent the “no thanks” to the editor. But I knew their contract was less than standard in the industry and they would not change it unless they continued losing dependable, experienced writers.
I did it for myself, but I also did it for every writer in this business. I told the editor, “I hire an electrician to come to my house to install a light fixture I think I need. I learn I really didn’t need this light as much as I thought. I only use it once a day when I thought I would need it 4 times a day. I send a check for ¼ of the agreed amount. He did the work as requested; it was satisfactory. Is this fair? Of course not, and it’s just as ridiculous not to pay a writer at all, or pay me for what you use, not what you asked me to turn in.”
By doing this, I’m not only coming in from the cold, but hoping other writers won’t die of exposure either.