Tag Archives | free-lancing

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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