When Should a Writer Write For Free?

We interrupt regular programming to bring you this guest post by Roy Burkhead, as Charlotte is beating her head against the wall at the snowstorm blanketing the city, repeating over and over, "Why, oh why, did I wait until the last minute to shop?"

Enjoy! And cheer her up by commenting.

Do you agree with Roy's rant? When should writers write for free and when should we insist on payment? 

Here's his post:

Writers Deserve Respect and Money, Too

When, precisely, did the professional creative writer become a financial liability in the marketplace and the payday equivalent of trailer park trash, as if he or she was Oliver with an extended hand, saying, “please sir, I want some more.”

Bah—bleeping—Humbug.

Allow me to clarify.

I’ve been using nouns and verbs to pay my bills since the mid-1980s, first as a message handler in the military and later as a young newspaperman in rural America. In the 1990s, I wrote under the titles of technical writer and developer in the emerging eCommerce and high tech fields. Then, in the early 2000s, something happened. That something was a shift from technical to creative writing.

The catalyst that drove this change was my acceptance into a MFA in Writing program, and from the beginning, there was a shift in how people treated me.

My then-employer told me flat-out that if I went back to college-on my own time, she would change my status from full-time to contract. (A suggestion that signified I’d be facing a huge demotion.) I left the company a month later.

I remember with clarity what happened two years later, a few hours before my MFA graduation ceremony. I was in a room with my fellow graduates, listening to the staff of published, name-drop-able writers and poets tell us that we were about to become professional writers.

And we did—and we are.

Since that time, I’ve had a Batman-esk existence with dual writing careers and dual lives.

By day, I am a technical writer using software with fancy names to create documentation that helps keep products moving along assembly lines. By night and on weekends, I am a creative writer.

While there remains bills that I cannot pay (not the least of which are my MFA student loans), the technical writing profession pays a living, respectable, fair wage for a day’s work. And there’s even health benefits. However, I work just as hard (if not more so) at nights and on weekends, and yet the prose has never brought a penny into my home, never put one Happy Meal in my kids’ mouths. Truth be told, that’s fine. As any aspiring writer and poet will attest, we write because that’s who we are; cash does not fuel our need and desire to put words on the page. But I would bet a $25 contest entry fee that—of those same writers—each one of them dreams about that first novel or book going to auction.

The path to that fantasy auction is paved with favors: Web site text, newspaper copy, columns for blogs, newsletter stories, brochures for writing programs.

Self interest is a big part of it; we need publishing credits (and boy-o-boy does everybody in the industry know it). Nothing is wrong or inappropriate with this practice…but only when it’s done at a certain stage in an aspiring writer’s career.

At some point, the freebies must stop. Creative writing is a profession like any other profession (many put it up there with lawyers and doctors), and those working within it deserve to be paid. Perhaps (perhaps) creative writers shouldn’t be paid the same as lawyers and doctors—but a fair wage is warranted.

How much free is enough?

The answer to this question will vary from writer to writer, but I believe that at the DNA level, each writer knows when it’s time to stop giving it away. I reached that point about six months ago. The feeling had been bubbling for a long time, and the last literary straw fell when I discovered that a writing organization of respectable size stopped printing its newsletter. Instead, it posted digital copies to its Web site. It was an excellent business decision—no paper, no ink, and no postage mean more money to allocate to other activities. A few days after discovering the policy change, I received a request (an open offer, really) to write something for the newsletter. I replied, saying that I would love to write something, but I would need to be paid something. Not a million dollars. Not a thousand dollars. Not even a hundred dollars. But something: anything.

The response? Silence. Nothing. I knew then I had made the correct decision, and whenever similar requests came in from similar organizations, I sent the same reply and received the same silence.

The result has been a lot more time to write my fiction, verses spending all of that time and energy writing things for others. While it may be true that small (even medium-size) organizations cannot afford to pay a lot, most everyone—I believe—can and should pay something.

Earlier this month, I learned that New England College is taking a poet and former employee to court.
According to the blurb posted at pw.org, “New England College (NEC), a small liberal arts school that houses a low-residency, poetry-only MFA, claims that poet Anne Marie Macari transplanted its faculty and students to the newly established program at Drew, where Macari is now the director. NEC, which is seeking to bar Macari from her job at Drew for two years, is also pursuing compensation for lost tuition due to a drop in enrollment (from ten students to five) and $33,000 for the salary the school paid Macari during her final year on faculty, according to the Associated Press. Drew increased Marcari's salary to $56,000.”

I don’t know who did what and when. But I do know $33,000 is chump change for a professional working in a profession. No wonder Macari left NEC. I congratulate her on her escape. The $56,000 isn’t much better, but at least she’ll be able to pay her bills and even repay a student loan or two.

Of course, we won’t be able to stop everything we do for free; life is about compromise and friendship. For example, Charlotte is not paying me for this column, and I am fine with that outcome. She has made so many deposits in my professional, emotional bank account that I would never be able to turn her down. (In fact, I contacted her, asking her to consider this column for publication.)

My point is that as a profession, we treat one another with professional respect in all ways. If you’re reading this and you're in a position to pay or not pay a writer, please don’t expect things to be done for free; offer to pay your writers an honest wage for honest work.

–Roy Burkhead

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6 Comments on "When Should a Writer Write For Free?"

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Theresa111
Guest
Dear Roy and Charlotte, This article could not have been better timed. As you know Charlotte, I have been wondering how to get a publishing deal whereby, I would be able to pay bills and stay at home to write. I have been writing all of my life, some on paper and computer, while much more is swimming around in my head. Reading this makes me understand I will have to go back to a regular day job, pretending to embrace my duties and all the while my brain will be screaming for me to escape. Just as you do… Read more »
Roy Burkhead
Guest
Greetings & Howdy Sleeping Kitten-Dancing Dog! I am breaking the rules. I told Charlotte that I would remain silent and see what sort of responses came in. Then, if there was enough interest, I would write another column. And if Charlotte allows me, I will. But your comments were so sincere and heart felt that I wanted to put a few words “out there” in cyber space for you–to read or reject as you like. 🙂 In no particular order, here are some words in response to your phrases and clauses: My purpose in writing my words was not to… Read more »
Linda
Guest
Great topic! I especially agree with the point about it being in the DNA when each writer comes to the decision about no longer publishing for free. I’m working on novels now (none yet published) and am not freelancing, but I’ve published a number of articles and a few short stories. Very few of them I got paid for. And I was perfectly happy with that because I was building credits. Then the DNA kicked in. I think it was a gradual thing, especially after seeing so many online magazines that came across with this attitude: “Payment? Are you kidding?… Read more »
Lindsay Price
Guest
There is this notion that art (all forms) is not work. Teaching is work. A doctor is work. Accounting is work. So why would we want to be paid? Don’t we love to write, dance, paint, act? The number of times that I get asked to provide my plays for free is staggering. And they never consider the turn around – would you teach for free? I have columns now of what is free and what is not. And if it’s for free, there better be a reason (such as a marketing opportunity for the not-free stuff) Sometimes you have… Read more »
Theresa H Hall
Guest
Merry Christmas Roy. What a kind gift for me to find that you have thought about what I had written. I entreat you to make more posts whereby, we might learn even more tidbits of a Journalist’s lifestyle. I find profound joy and release when I put pen to paper, or in this instance allowing my fingertips to caress my iMac keyboard. The flatness of the keys, plus my not having to strike them hard, lends to the ease and plain fun of penning my thoughts. In a few days, I shall write to you to see what more you… Read more »
Theresa111
Guest
Merry Christmas Charlotte, This is good advice about the job, but for the money I need to make, I will not be able to take one of those positions. Unfortunately, the jobs I perform, command me to pay close attention to detail and interact with the public by telephone. Were I to return to the brutality of the hotel pastry kitchen, it would be a similar situation. Not much time to lend to expressive thoughts, because you must be quite attentive, be extremely careful, move fast, follow recipes and listen to the barkers sounding out their demanding and sometimes oppressive… Read more »
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