There was a fantastic Tim Kreider NYT article this weekend on writing for free, so I wasn’t going to make that this week’s topic, but then I read an opposition New Republic piece (which I’m not going to link to: I won’t encourage the idiot) declaring young writers should write for free. Instead of arguing with an article I’m not linking to, I’ll just state my opinion on the matter:
Never write for free.
Your words have value. You have value. Maybe you’re a world-class talent; maybe you’re not. Doesn’t matter: Never write for free.
In 2009 I started my Masters and wanted to do more writing. I didn’t have lots of experience, though, and assumed no one would hire me, so I started a book review site, formed 5×500 with Thom Dunn, made a schedule, set writing goals. It wasn’t much, but it was something. Soon after I saw an LA-area newspaper’s posting for a book reviewer position. I figured I wouldn’t get it, but I’d been writing those reviews, so what the hell. It was obvious I was young, inexperienced, but I had my own book review site and showed I could stick to a deadline, which impressed the features editor—I got the job. It didn’t pay much, but it paid. I was writing for money. I wrote there a couple years, and much of my later writing jobs came from having that on my resume.
“So Brian, you were writing for free, it got you exposure, and you turned that into paid work.” No. I was writing for myself, which is completely different. If my websites had gotten more traffic, I could have been making money that way. I was my own boss. I wasn’t in competition with anyone. I had complete creative freedom. That’s not the same as writing for free.
Writing for free means giving your time/words to someone else to use for their gain, their profit, their prestige, their readers. It’s an unpaid internship (don’t get me started) done at home from your desk without any possibility of later employment. It’s bullshit. Your words have value.
There are classist issues at play here, too. Not everyone has the luxury of working for free. Talent is great and hard work goes a long way, but realistically, someone who doesn’t have to work 40+ hours/week is going to have more time/ability to write for free, which isn’t fair to those who have to work for a living. “Well, life isn’t fair.” No shit life isn’t fair, but there are things we can do to make it more fair, like not accepting free writing jobs. Fuck exposure. Fuck experience. You can get just as much experience and exposure starting your own website with strict daily/weekly/monthly deadlines. Maybe your first writing job will only be $10, but that’s something. Breaking in as a writer is difficult; everyone would love to pay the bills solely with their words, but writing for free isn’t the way to get there. Never write for free.
That took A LOT of editing to get down to 500 words. I easily could have written 1,000+. Do you agree that writers shouldn’t write for free? Disagree? Let me know what you think in the comments, and per usual, feel free to suggest a topic for next week!