Writing for Free?
The writing world is rife with controversy, from people debating who has permission to write what, to whether or not we should consume or even publish the art of those who have done wrong in our eyes. These conversations are fiery and frequent, but they are more or less expected. A topic that surprised me with its contentiousness, however, was that of writing for free.
In some online writing groups, I will see strings of arguments by irate writers on both sides of this issue, arguing about giving away a service for free or for a rate that is deemed unacceptable. As is the case for me with many topics, I see both sides of the issue, but I'll say up front that I side with the camp that doesn't deem it a cardinal sin to write for free or for low pay.
Although I think all writers should be paid a fair wage, and that it sucks for artists of all forms that many people do not seem to value our work (and yes, writing *is* work. It's not a craniectomy but it's work) enough to pay up, I don't think the solution of this is to shit on other writers who accept low-paying gigs. For one thing, 'low-paying' can be relative, and what people need to pay their bills or get by, or simply to line their pockets a bit more thickly that month varies from person to person. We don't all have the luxury or experience to accept only what the bluebloods of the writing world deem allowable. And writing for free is often an effort to build a portfolio. This was why I initially produced and edited a lot of content for free, as well as why I completed not one but two unpaid internships. It was not ideal, and in retrospect a couple of companies were exploitative, but it helped to get me started and then land some paying gigs. In short, I know that exposure doesn't pay the bills, but it set some things in motion for me that did pay a tiny, almost immeasurable fraction of the bills. I am still at the point where I am finding my footing; a long way from the established, successful scribe that I aspire to be. But writing for free got me the experience and connections. If I had held out for good pay, I might still be waiting for my first byline. But it's not just us newbies who do this. Even some seasoned writers sometimes work for cheap. Some assignments don't take long to do, so while we might make only $50 for a roundup, we've spent only 20 minutes of our lives and expelled very little brain power. It all depends. And I'll also say that these days I enjoy the writing and editing that I do for free far more than what I do for pay because the former is a labor of love. I made a pledge to myself last year that from then on I would only do work for free if I was passionate about the assignment, such as supporting a non-profit I believe in, or if it gave me a chance to write about something I found especially compelling. And I've managed to stick to that. Occasionally, these freebies don't even feel like work as I'm typing them out or scribbling drafts in a notebook, and the satisfaction from it overshadows what I'm lacking in monetary compensation. I don't like the times when I have written stuff just for the money; I don't feel proud after I submit the work, just glad to have rid myself of whatever project it was. There are several things published with my name on it that I wouldn't have completed at all—some things I even wanted to refuse—but that I did because I wanted some cash flow. There's no shame in it; this is the way of the world. People perform jobs every day in exchange for a paycheck, and pretty much every job is guaranteed to have aspects that are undesirable. But I know myself to be an idealist, and I want to connect in some way to the art that I put out. It doesn't always have to be anything deep or profound, but I'd rather not have to abide a sense of detachment. Of course the sweet spot is right where I write something I enjoy and get a nice chunk of change in return. But that, at this point in my "career" (I hesitate to even use the word in my case) is rare.
I'm not here to argue whether one should or should not take on an assignment if they are being devalued. That is neither my place nor my purpose here. But I am also opposed to the shaming that I see around me. I've witnessed people accusing others of not being serious writers; of bringing down the entire field; of betraying other women writers for accepting low pay or no pay. I think we should advocate for ourselves insofar as possible and collectively lobby for fair wages (New York's 2017 Freelance Isn't Free Act is a fine piece of legislation, for example) but there's no need to turn on each other. Guidance is great, as is wisdom on how to negotiate pay and how to educate yourself on what is equitable according to industry standards. I could have benefited from advice, and I would have made some different decisions. But someone telling me I'm a sellout, or just a hobbyist, or saying that I'm ruining the whole damn art form does not work on me, nor does it seem to work on other writers who are early in their careers (or who take low- or no-paying projects for a host of other reasons, all of which are none of my business and perfectly valid).
It is the people hiring us who should pay us (and artists of all types!) more for our labor; the individual writer next to you is doing the best that she can. We can all try to be more understanding and work together, not against one another.