There’s been a bit of buzz ’round the internet over the past few days about the apocalyptic scenario in which we writers find ourselves. Some people don’t want to pay us, it seems, and some people are all in a huff about it.

It appears to have been kicked off by a New York Times column titled, “Slaves of the Internet Unite.” So it’s pretty clear where that piece landed. It was funny, clever and established the skill and experience of the writer who says, despite that skill and expertise – he is constantly barraged with requests for free content. I found him charming, but his argument started going south for me around here:

“Not getting paid for things in your 20s is glumly expected, even sort of cool; not getting paid in your 40s, when your back is starting to hurt and you are still sleeping on a futon, considerably less so. Let’s call the first 20 years of my career a gift. Now I am 46, and would like a bed.”

I’m assuming he’s speaking metaphorically, but even so: Dude, are you really still sleeping on a futon? Even a metaphorical one? Because if you’re not making ends meet, it’s not because people are offering you free gigs; I’m pretty sure you’re not looking hard enough for paying ones. (Also, when he confessed to accepting a free speaking engagement because the social work student who asked him was pretty, I super checked out. No one ever went over “losing your audience” with him, I guess.).

This is definitely the better, more interesting article. Read this one.
This is definitely the better, more interesting article. Read this one.

A more measured assessment followed in The Atlantic, an article that was also revealingly titled: “Writing for Free. It’s complicated.” It is, because look at what I’m doing right now. Writing for free. I’m a full-time, very busy writer, and yet I generate free content every day here and on social media. Yes, I have an ulterior motive (you will find me so delightful you’ll buy my book, of course!), but how is that different from writing for “exposure,” which is so scoffed at in the NYT piece? It’s a little different, but not much.

I’m burying my real response to this crisis below the paragraphs above because I’m pretty sure it will make me sound like a jerkface. I know that it’s a desperate world out there for people who are trying to break into freelance writing, and you do need to write things that may pay very little in order to get a foothold, but I actually feel that among professional writers who have earned their way in, this supposedly ethical question about writing for free is…well…[bracing myself for the thing I want to say]…irrelevant.

This great quandary of writing for free doesn’t enter my thinkspace because I don’t have to (there it is. That’s the jerkface part.). I won’t write for free – not for anyone beside myself or chosen benefactors, that is. I’ve spent years honing my craft. I worked other jobs as I developed my portfolio and contacts (I was still paid for every piece, however, even if it wasn’t much), and now I spend every day I’m not overwhelmed with assignments hunting up more. That’s why people pay me. Sorry!

There is a perception that the internet is deluged with so much writing that it drives down the value of paid gigs. Yeah, but have you – ahem – read some of that writing? Read your Facebook newsfeed. Pick any online news article, skim it, and then read the comments. They use unsupported facts, nonsensical punctuation and insane grammar. They LOLZ in the middle of sentences. Yes, most people have been writing for their entire lives, which is why some get sensitive about it, but that doesn’t mean they are experts. Professional writing is a craft, and fortunately, most publishers are aware of that.

An abundance of free gigs and the absence of paying gigs are two different things. I’m not sure why the futon guy doesn’t think, if he’s actually getting both kinds of offers, he can just choose the paying ones and ignore the others. Or don’t! Do both! I don’t care. But if you’re not getting enough paid work, that’s not the free work’s fault, man.

Personally, I’m fine with people giving away their writing, because I’ve benefitted from being able to generate better content than the average LOLZer or guest blogger. And I shouldn’t apologize for that, [even though I want to; I think it’s my ovaries] because I would never try to give someone legal advice or wax their eyebrows. I could. I would be bad at those things, and it would be obvious, and that’s why those people would go see someone else next time. When it comes to publishers who want really good content, I – along with the other professional writers who really exist – am the someone else they’ll go see next time.

One thought on “The non-controversy of writing for free

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