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

6 Replies to “When Should a Writer Write For Free?”

  1. 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 Roy, I shall have to continue my creative journey evenings and weekends.

    My frustration lies with an abundance of talent and crossroads pointing me in too many directions. I just know writing is allowing me to be the real me, when everything else I have does thus far, has sometimes been creatively rewarding but most of the time tedious and just plain old hard labor.

    I began writing my web log 18 months ago and when I commenced, I had signed up believing I would be raking in the dollars. The cold cruel reality is that I have earned no money, no way to pay my bills and I feel disillusioned. Reality has a way of doing this to one. However, I have something going for me which is gumption. Men might say I have balls … same meaning, but there is something inside me calling out that I have chosen the correct path to follow and some way, some how, it will work out.

    Had I not spent this time in this cyber space world, I would never have found so many talented and interesting people, with whom I have shared good conversations and bonded new friendships.

    Thank you for your very well written article. Sorry I have no money to give to you, but had I money to share I would willingly do so. Happy Holidays!

    “Sleeping Kitten – Dancing Dog!”

  2. 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 urge anyone to follow my same path. We all skip down our own yellow brick roads. Charlotte and I are good friends, but we are on totally different roads toward the same publishing goals. I work for “The Man” while she works for herself. There is no correct, perfect road. Our individual lives create the road we walk upon. I urge you to follow your own path toward publication.

    I loved your sentence, “My frustration lies with an abundance of talent and crossroads pointing me in too many directions.”

    Just because you have a talent leading you in a particular direction doesn’t mean that you should navigate in that direction. I am a professionally trained journalist, and I’ve worked as a reporter for a good many years. But I chose fiction. Take a look at your talents and hopes and passions and desires, and when you get at the crossroad, take the path that improves your life the best.

    Gumption is a cool word. I use grit. Both come from the same point of reference, I think.

    There’s nothing wrong with your writing in cyberspace, and I encourage you to continue doing it. My intention wasn’t to urge you to stop doing it. In cuberspace, you are writing for yourself, and that is a wonderful thing. Ah, don’t worry about not having money to give me. If you did so, I’d just spent it on puppets for my kids, anyway! 🙂

    Feel free to email me offline if you want at roylb@tds.net and I will be more than happy to take up more of your time.

    The point isn’t that we are not making money at the moment with our creative writing. In its own good time, those things will happen. While we are writing, all we are to do is write a true sentence. Write something that you believe in. Write something that makes some part of the world just a little better place. Write something that you would be proud to show a best friend or a child.

    Merry Christmas Sleeping Kitten, Dancing Dog.

  3. 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? We’re doing you a favor by publishing you.”

    At the time, I was submitting a novel to agents and working on a second. If I was going to take time out from the novel, I needed to have better options than “we’ll post a bio and a link to your Web site” or “send you two free contributor’s copies.” If I was a plumber or doctor and you needed the service, you’d have to pay me. Why is writing different?

  4. 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 to draw that line in the sand and say: pay me, I am worth it. No one will say it for you.

  5. 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 will say that might influence the directions I have before me. I must confess that I also rely on sweet Charlotte for her guidance, too.

    What a wonderful place cyber space has turned out to be. Thank you, sir.

  6. 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 instructions.

    Just like “Hell’s Kitchen,” there are quite cruel chefs and supervisors, who just love to torment their pastry cooks. Besides, I want to add in my love for French Pastry on a tinier scale. Somewhere like Pix’s Patisseire, located in Portland, OR. Quality in place of quantity.

    However, I will continue looking into the writing jobs. Although I gladly admit to feeling overwhelmed and a bit lost, as to how to proceed. Perhaps I will bend your ear to figure out which ones might be the best place for me to commence.

    Thank you so much for your expertise.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *