Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Why Working for No Fee is SOOOO Tempting

If you want to start a flame war on a list group or in a chat, say you like to write for free.

Everyone has written for free. Some justify it as charitable. Others call it building clips  before graduating to paying markets. Some just don't care because they'll do anything to see their work in print.

The Myth - Writing for free builds clips. Well, it may your portfolio in number, but not credibility. Listen. If someone can't afford to pay you, how is that a reputable clip? Furthermore, how the heck is a paying market going to respect a nonpaying market as a representative clip? When someone pitches to me and says they have 47 articles on Associated Content, Suite101, et al, I consider them uneducated in their profession. Sorry. That's me. (It's also a zillion other publishing markets out there. They just don't broadcast it.) I want someone who either has a phenomenal idea that's pitched very well, or someone who has been vetted in publications that actually reject people.

Charity - Okay. I can see writing for charity. As long as it's occasional. If it becomes routine, it should eventually become a paying market. By the way, writing for free for nonprofit publications is NOT writing for charity.

Byline Hungry - Yes, when you start writing, you want instant gratification. You haven't learned that writing takes a butt-load of patience, more so than any other profession I can think of other than research. Just know that gathering all those easy bylines, and receiving no pay, is not furthering your profession. If you write for fun, as a hobby, that's fine. Just don't complain about not making any money, because you can't write for a hobby and cry about being poor at the same time. Uh-uh.

So, why do people keep writing for free? We all agree that as long as writers write for free, those of us trying to fill up our cars with $4/gallon gas from our profession are suffering. However, people do it, and are afraid to stop doing it.

1. It's easier. Heck, you're giving it away. Who looks a gift-horse in the mouth?

2. It's painless. You're avoiding the pain of a big fat "not good enough for our publication." It's like swimming in the shallow end all the time for fear of water over your head.

3. It's quicker. You can build clips faster since most free work involves little review from a picky editor.

4. It's safe. You aren't competing.

Yes, writing for free is tempting. We're afraid to speak, dance, perform in public. We compare our wardrobe to others at work and parties. We worry we'll sound stupid, look stupid, behave stupid in all sorts of settings. Why should writing be different? Where else do you put your soul on display and say, "Look at me and feel free to take your best shot"?

So, I'm not beating you up for writing for free. I'm saying that like anything else in this world, you do not improve without a challenge. But as an editor, and like others like me, I can say this...I'd hire a writer who's written for three paying markets over someone who's written 100 articles for free.

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.
Martin Luther King, Jr.


sharono360 said...

You brought out good points. I really appreciate this viewpoint, as I have wondered about this over the years.

Keri said...

I have a question and I'm sorry if you have covered this before. If you have and you can point me in the right direction I would appreciate it. I am a new writer. I have a running blog and practice writing daily. I am a member of the BlogHer publishing network and occasionally do (paid) book reviews. While I build my portfolio, can I use these as clips?

Hope Clark said...

It depends on what you are pitching. If you want to write a journalistic feature story, book reviews don't count much. If you are applying to write other book reviews, maybe. Keep in mind that writing for venues that do not accept or reject don't necessarily carry much weight. That is unless your blog has a huge following, then you've made your own platform and market.

LAR1975 said...

Ms. Clark: Although I greatly respect your viewpoint and believe you make some salient points about no-fee writing, I'm also hearing a resounding "don't write for low fees" undertone in this article. I use your article as a springboard for a blog posting from the perspective of a writer who has written and will continue to write for lower-paying clients (http://1womanwordsmith.blogspot.com/2011/07/writing-it-real-and-more-criticism-of.html). The economic reality for those of us who are full-time caregivers and only part- part-time writers necessitates that we write for lower fees. I wish that it were not so, that I could phone multiple interview subjects a day, go out and take video for a writing gig, and so forth, but it's just not possible at this time. Thus, some online writing gigs do provide viable outlets for we part-timers; we help our families with the earnings, and I contend that we help our readers and our writing portfolios, too. (Many of the online portals, though far from perfect, also have copyeditors, so the writing is, in fact, tweaked and sometimes rejected.) In any case, I hope you will have a sizable number of readers and responses here. It certainly will be interesting to see how the Internet and social media further change the future of reportage and writing in our lifetimes.

Debra Stang said...

I have to admit, there is one organization that I will always provide free copy for, and that is the Alliance of Hope for Suicide Survivors. They reached out and helped me after the traumatic death of a dear friend, and if I can reach out to another person and help them feel just a little better, I want to do it.

Beyond that, though, I don't give away my writing and I'm trying to avoid the low-paying pubs, too. Key word being "trying."

Thanks, as always, for a thought-provoking article.

Deborah Taylor-French said...

Thanks for this post.

I appreciate your preference for hiring a writer with 3 solid credits, which require working with an editor, vs a writer with a hundred "written for free published works."

With the shrinking world of publishing, where do you suggest a new writer begin gathering those first 3 credits? Local newspapers? E-businesses?

Hope Clark said...

You look where anyone else would look - online venues, blogs, magazines, trades, lit journals. Because you are new doesn't mean you have certain places to start. Just start pitching to anyplace. Don't say you are new. Just pitch the best idea on the planet.

Look at FundsforWriters.com newsletters, and places like Worldwidefreelance.com, woodenhorsepub.com , www.writersmarket.com , The Best of the Magazine Markets for Writers (my favorite)by Writer's Institute. Guest blog. Enter contests.

But you can start local if you like. Local newspapers, magazines, even business newsletters. Look at those publications in restaurants and stores that are locally published. Don't think of yourself as a new writer. You are a writer, period.

Julie Nilson said...

The only time I think it's OK to write for free is in a tit-for-tat situation, such as writing a guest blog post when the blogger is a friend or when we've got a book to promote. The only time I have written for free is when a very good client of mine had to create a one-page newsletter for her professional association and was in a bind. She's always been good to me, professionally, so it was worth it to help her out.

Otherwise, I think that writing for free tends to propagate the myth that writing is "easy," that any old person can do it. If we don't treat our skills and talents as valuable, how can we expect anyone else to?

Benjamin Simms said...

I'm an unpublished writer and I've got to say that even from my view I understand your advice on writing for free. I recently submitted something to a local paper and it was accepted (for free) and I must say that the satisfaction was probably about as the same level as the reward. I get to see my writing in public print, but the standards and the rewards were low.

I understand clearly that there's nothing wrong with publishing for little or no fee, but if I want to be a serious writer, then I've got to write good enough to get paid for my work.