I've been offered the chance to write a story on spec, so I'd like to hear what you think about spec or writing for free. I feel like it's the only chance I have to write anything that might be published, so is it a totally bad thing to do?
Hmmm, this is a tricky question, and I'd certainly love for other writers to weigh in with their responses. Tricky because I have a pretty hard line about writing for free: namely, I don't do it. (Charity and non-profit work that I support is, of course, an exception.) Why don't I do it? For several reasons.
1) I think that writers have a hard enough time proving that they are professionals. Too many people perceive us to be broke, lazy couch-potatoes, and these are often the same people who figure that we should be grateful to them for offering us work, even if they can't toss a bit of compensation our way.
2) Along those same lines, there are very few other professions in which people work for free. You don't ask your doctor to comp your check-up, and you don't ask your plumber to unclog your drain for a smile. Writers provide a service, and if that service were so easy for others to duplicate, there wouldn't be a demand for us. But guess what? I'd bet dollars to donuts that just as my obgyn is an expert in her field, she can't write a magazine article for crap. That's because she's good at what she does, and I'm good at what I do. And just as she should be paid for my pap smear, I should be paid for my services too.
3) When you agree to work for free, you undercut your own value and self-worth. You're telling the editor (or whomever is asking) that your skills/services aren't worth even five bucks. And that will signal something not just to the editor ("Hey! what a great deal I have going here! No need to ever pay her in the future either!), but also to yourself. ("Sure, I got something published, but it's not as if I were paid for it, so maybe I'm not so good at this.")
Okay, before you go all bananas on me and say, "Well, then how the hell am I supposed to build my clips??," let me acknowledge that I know that I'm in a position to say all of these things because I don't have to work for free. I get it, I do. You need clips, so if you have to write a few things for free, then isn't the payoff worth the sacrifice? The hazy answer is that I really don't know, and that's something that only you can sort out for yourself. BUT. There are very few publications or organizations who can't afford to offer you something in return. I don't care if it's $20 or a gift certificate to a restaurant or even free membership to their website. The point is that the deal should be a business exchange: you're providing a service, and they're giving you something for that service. They don't have to know (or care) that this might be your first published clip - the only thing that should matter to them is that you are providing a service that they need. So don't even for one second think that they're the ones doing you the favor. They're not. There are no favors in a business exchange. They want something from you, and you want something from them. Period. Demand it. (See point #3 above as to why.)
I will say, however, that I'm more in support of writing for free than I am of writing on spec. (Which isn't saying much, I know.) With spec, you're likely to do a ton of work and still have the story quashed, whereas if you've been contracted for a story, even if you're not paid, at the very least, you'll get a clip.
So...other writers out there, how do you feel about writing for free? Agree? Disagree?