FRANK TALK ABOUT WHAT WE DO WITH OUR LIVES

Should I Write for Free?

In Essays on November 2, 2014 at 11:23 am

By Kate Gace Walton

KateGaceWaltonIn part because I just published my third piece on The Huffington Post (a media outlet that does not pay contributing bloggers), I’ve been asked several times in the last few days, “Should I write for free?”

It’s a difficult question to answer. The proliferation of people writing for free in recent decades (by self publishing fee-free content or contributing work to non-paying sites) has definitely made it harder for those who write for a living to get by. For a glimpse into that reality, read this piece by Deboarah Copaken, a bestselling, Emmy-award winning author and Harvard grad: “How I Got Rejected From a Job at The Container Store.

The fact that it’s becoming harder for professional writers and editors to sustain themselves is truly troubling. Investigative reporters, documentarians, commentators, essayists, storytellers, and the editors who help shape and polish their work perform vital functions—as watchdogs, teachers, and entertainers. I know there’s a long list of great artists with “day jobs,” but as someone who writes and edits after hard days in an office, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say: on average, the work will suffer if more and more of our creative class have to burn the midnight oil.

For this reason, essays like Tim Kreider’s “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!” (essentially, an injunction to writers to stop working for free) land a powerful punch. So powerful in fact that I’ve pretty much stopped asking people who write for a living if they will write for Work Stew, since I, too, don’t pay contributing essayists. (So far, this hasn’t been especially controversial, because I don’t make any money from Work Stew—and long ago I promised that, if the site happens to yield any sort of monetary payoff down the line, I would share this hypothetical bounty with participating writers.)

Arianna Huffington, on the other hand, does make money—lots of it. So why am I, and many others, willing to work for her without getting paid? I can’t speak for anyone else, but here’s where I personally come out on this: I don’t write for a living. By day, I work in an office, managing a growing business. It’s fulfilling work: we connect talented people to interesting jobs, I earn a good salary, and I love my colleagues. What it isn’t, however—and what few business jobs ever are—is a channel for philosophizing and self-expression. For that, like most people, I wait until I’m off the clock. That’s where Work Stew comes in: it’s a chance for me to muse, openly and honestly, about the big picture: what are we doing with our lives? What, as individuals and as a society, should we consider doing differently? Or, on a lighter note: what happened today that was funny?

Having some part of every day go to these sorts of exchanges helps me immeasurably: it reminds me, even as I toil in the crucible that is corporate America, that work is not everything, and that I am not my role. In short, it keeps me sane. Most of what I’ve written, I’ve published on Work Stew; the small but engaged community here is more than enough to satisfy my late-night need for kindred spirits. But on the rare occasion when I’ve written about something other than work (being a mom, for example), Work Stew hasn’t seemed like the right place for the piece.

When I started Work Stew, I made it clear (I hope) that it wasn’t a site exclusively for working moms, or even for parents more generally. I’m both highly irritated and bored stiff by the “Mommy Wars.” One reason I’m so interested in the topic of work in the first place is because it’s universal: as I’ve said before, almost everyone has to make a living, and even those few who don’t, still need to make a life. I’ve always wanted Work Stew to have every sort of voice. As I wrote in the FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions): ideally, in time the “stew” will include pieces by “men and women of all ages, doing all kinds of jobs, in all parts of the world. Some will be parents; some will not. Some will be in relationships; some will not. The broader the collection, the more likely that someone looking for a piece that resonates will find what they’re seeking.”

In my view, this mission means taking my personal parenting musings elsewhere. So, why The Huffington Post?  That’s simple: a) with their user-friendly interface for submissions, they make it easy and b) they have a ton of traffic. As someone who writes and submits in the wee hours of the night, I don’t have a lot of time to try multiple media outlets. And what I chiefly want, since my paycheck comes from elsewhere, is to connect with readers. The Huffington Post has done that for me; it’s enriched my writing life, and it’s been fun. And, yes: I’ll probably keep doing it.

But what about you…should you write for free? It depends, I think, on your answers to two questions: 1) Can you, meaning can you afford to? and 2) what do you want, meaning what do you hope to achieve from it? If, like me, all you hope to achieve is the mental clarity that comes from writing, and the connection that comes from sharing your work, then go for it. If, on the other hand, you’re hoping that the “exposure” will catapult you to literary fame and eventual riches, think hard. Writing for free might give your writing career a boost, but as so many people have documented, it’s a rocky road, destined it seems only to get rockier.

Note: In some of the discussions about this piece (on Facebook and Twitter), I’ve raised another point I often think about which is this: does my occasionally writing for free help degrade the market for professional writers? I’ll admit that question nags at me, but so does the question that logically follows, i.e. if occasionally writing for free does help ruin the market for professionals, what does that mean? That people who do not make a living by writing should refrain from expressing themselves all together? That seems pretty problematic, too. So, yes, this is a thorny issue, and I don’t have all the answers. Comments, critiques, and discussion are all very welcome.

 

  1. This is indeed a thorny issue. My own policy is to write for free if 1) I feel I’ll gain some other potential benefit and/or 2) the publishing entity is not sitting on bags of money. So, for example, I would be reluctant to write for free for a website that sold two years ago for $315 million — cough, HuffPo, cough — violating Rule 2, yet I might conceivably do so if I had a book to promote, see Rule 1. If I had an essay that I wanted to publish right away and I thought paying publications either wouldn’t accept it or wouldn’t answer quickly enough, I’d consider an unpaid site, especially ones like workstew.com or fullgrownpeople.com, whose editors I like (:)) and to my knowledge are not multimillionairesses. Sometimes publication leads to other opportunities. The last essay I published for free got picked up by a newspaper that paid $250 and an anthology that paid $75. The essay before that initially earned $200 (i.e., practically free) but was picked up by a newspaper, an NPR website and an anthology, adding another $400, led indirectly to two staff jobs, a bunch of Twitter and FB connections, and a higher profile as a writer than I’d previously had. So although unfortunately grocery stores have not started accepting “internet attention” at the checkout, the attention economy actually is worth something. One other thing to consider is that, although we tend to think of this as an internet-age phenomenon, most of the small prestigious literary journals through which writers used to (and still do) build literary reputations and land book deals have *always* paid either nothing or practically nothing.

  2. Thanks for sharing your approach, Katy. I appreciate your thoughtful comments!

  3. […] really gone away. But I’ve been thinking about it again this week, in large part thanks to Kate Gace Walton’s thoughtful post over on Work Stew. I have a number of thoughts bubbling here, but I haven’t yet organized […]

  4. I have a lot of mixed feelings. I will write for free for labors of love (lit mags and literary websites and friends’ sites like Writer Unboxed, where I wrote a Twitter tips column for 6 months). Although I’ve had many articles in HuffPost, I stopped submitting about 6 months ago or even more. I appreciate your point about getting your paycheck elsewhere and looking to HuffPost for the audience. Thing is, HuffPost is by no means a guartenee for an audience. Many (maybe most, I don’t know) posts get buried quickly. They only put *some* posts on their Twitter and Facebook feeds. So unless the writer is willing to continue to promote the post and unless it got decent placement higher on the page, the post really just sits there earning HuffPost the SEO with the keywords instead of our own sites.

    In summary, if you have the attention of a HuffPost editor who places your work high on a page and puts your posts through Twitter and FB, great. Otherwise, not sure I see any benefit whatsoever, which includes no benefit to the resume. There are SO many writers on HuffPost. Is it really the boost to the writing credentials it was many years ago?

  5. Hi, Nina. Really good points about The Huffington Post. You’re absolutely right that you can be TOTALLY left to your own devices by them when it comes to promoting your piece. It’s so important for writers to know that–thanks!

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