By Kate Gace Walton
In 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.