Monday, September 18, 2006

Can You Spare Some Change?

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?


Sara Hantz said...

I think it depends on who you're writing for. I was asked to write an article for RWNZs mag on YA. Which I gladly did. RWNZ, like other romance orgs, is run by volunteers (including me, I'm Sec). If it was for a different type of publication then I'd think differently.

Allison Winn Scotch said...

Oh, sorry - I should have specified: I'm really talking about non-fic. I agree: fiction is different.

David Geer said...

No one should write for free. However, too many writers throw more time down the sink by debating people who want you to work for free. Those people will always exist and once they've wasted your time by asking you to write for free, why let them waste more of it by getting drawn into an argument about it? These folks aren't going to turn around and start offering you a handsome sum as a result.

Allison Winn Scotch said...

That's an excellent point: when you're doing promotion, then it might well be worth it.

Trish Ryan said...

I agree, Allison - for most of us, the desire to be "a writer" includes both publication AND payment. It's easy to fall into the romantic trap that the money doesn't matter, but that's just not true. We pay for things we value, and all of us want our writing to be valued.

MBT said...

I'm with Brette - writing is a business transaction and the pros and cons of writing for free should be analyzed just like you analyze whether a fee you have been offered is worth your time for the work involved.

I have been freelancing full time for about two years and started with no clips whatsoever. I wrote for some awful fees when I got started but I never wrote for free - I just didn't think that was the most efficient way to spend my time.

There seems to be a perception in some writing communities that you HAVE to write for free - that that is some sort of karmic dues-paying. So I just want to point out that writing for free is not the only way, or even the best way, to get your first clips. Don't do it unless there is a clear and measurable benefit to your career.

I will now get down from my soapbox!

Anonymous said...

It's hard, down here in the trenches, to get the clips you need to bag "assignments."

I have written an essay for "copies" and it was a personal essay that I was glad I wrote. I wouldn't do it again. It's out of my system, and I have a wondeful clip to show for it.

I just did an article on "spec" and she bought it. However, I have now pitched the same editor and specifically asked for a new assignment, based on a pitch that would fit her publication perfectly, and she still hasn't gotten back to me. So, to me, it's a toss up and can only be determined on a case-by-case basis. Does it work for you? Then do it. The worst that can happen is that you learn you never want to do it again!

Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell said...

I'm a big advocate of not writing for free - and by free, I mean you get nothing out of it besides the "respect of your peers," the "thrill of being pubished," or the editor's "undying gratitude." I do not consider writing to promote my books as a freebie, as there is some value to that in that I gain sales (hopefully)of my books. I also do not consider writing for non-profits on a pro-bono basis in the same category. I started in this business as a person with no professional journalism experience and still built my clips all with paying assignments, so it can be done. Writers just have to be willing to stand up for themselves and say that their talent and craft is worth something, just as is any professional service. People who write for free, devalue the profession for all of us and continues the myth that "freelance writers" are somehow worth less than other people.

Mike Vecchio said...

Brette -

Technically, you're not writing for free because there is a trade and in effect that trade has value to you.

Agree about spec vs. free because generating clips is important to build a platform.

Also agree that it is self-defeating to go into the writing process "thinking" there is any need to write for free. As I said about Brette's "trade" for services, if you feel there is a reason to support someone without monetary remuneration then that reason must be supported by what that is going to do for your career/business. So, even the "free" stuff is part of the plan of developing clips. From my perspective each opportunity needs to be looked at and evaluated from that perspective.

I basically like Allison's viewpoint as a going in position:
I'm a writer. I expect to get paid. You have to respect your ability as a writer otherwise perform another service where you do respect your ability.

Anonymous said...

I also think writing for free should be avoided.
However, I write personal essays and it's rare to get assignments for those. I've written them on spec and had them accepted(and paid for). I've also written on spec. and had an editor tell me it's just not right for their pub. In most, cases I've had luck placing the essay elsewhere.

Does anyone else have advice on essay writing and writing on spec?

Anonymous said...

Can I pose a somewhat different question for you experienced writers out there?

(I saw this thread mentioned at Freelance Success, and I thought I'd accept Allison's invitation to jump on over here ...)

For the first time this year, I've seen (and received) a lot of invitations to participate in what the ad firms call "shootouts."

It's a form of writing for free, in which a publisher or a potential corporate client says he/she has selected two or three or four writers as candidates for an assignment, and you're invited to submit a "writing test" or "sample article" to compete for the job.

Not clips, mind you .. but a newly created piece of writing.

Typically, the publisher/company promises not to use the samples or tests sent in by the writers who are not picked.

I'm asking because, prior to 2006, I've always followed the "don't write for free" rule. But, I will admit, I have participated in three shootouts this year, and I won two new clients as a result that together will make up about 20 percent of my revenues for 2006.

For me, the rules are (a) I only participate in a "shootout" if I know or respect the publisher/company/editor involved, (b) the money involved has to be both significant and ongoing, and (c) the writing sample or test has to fall within one of my specialties (travel service, small business, pharmacy care) so that it takes me little to no time to bang out the required "sample."

Are you seeing a similar upsurge in these "shootouts" ... and, what's your opinion on them? Thanks!

Larramie said...

(deep sigh) If only this wisdom and advice had been available to me years ago when I felt "flattered" to be asked to "write something up." No $$$, only praise and that's worth nothing!

Although no longer a "sucker," I'm still in need of making my name known...for profit.

Allison Winn Scotch said...


Re: essays and spec - I think this is a different situation because essays have to be written in full before submission anyway. (Most of the time, at least.) So really, you're just writing the essay, and if it sells, it really don't lose much.

But folks with more essay experience might want to chime in.

John - I've never heard of this! If you don't get good replies, I'll post your entire question to the main page of the blog, and those who don't check the comments section might be able to weigh in.

Anonymous said...

We writers teach people how to treat us. What does an editor or publisher learn when you write for nothing?

Equally important is the testimony we hear ourselves giving about ourselves. Am I going to turn up the volume on the inner voice that says I am smart, talented, capable? Or the one that says "you can't write your way out of a paper bag. No wonder he isn't offering you money."

That said, I do agree that writing done for a cause you love, or in trade for another service such as book promotion, isn't writing "for free." Neither is doing the shootout, as long as the material won't be used and you have a shot at getting work from it. (It seems to be along the lines of the editing tests given when editors apply at major mags.)

But even those things need to be carefully evaluated. Perhaps a decade ago, after I had written a profile story for a local "cause" publication, an elder, well-know writer told me "Shame on you! A professional writer should never take on a project that could be done by a loving amateur." Wisdom...
Salley Shannon

MaNiC MoMMy™ said...

Hey Allison, I have to respectfully disagree with what most are saying here, but it's just from my own personal experience. I had a piece that was already written (non-fiction on parenting/essay) and I contacted a publication and offered it to them, knowing they were a non-paying publication.

From that clip, I got experience, gained some confidence, and began contacting paying publications, and was published and paid for those publications, including national pubs like Parenting and Pregnancy.

I look at it this way, and remember, it's just my perspective on how things worked out for me, (and I'm no longer freelancing non-fiction as I'm working on my fiction) but don't you want to test-drive a car, or make sure a product works before you purchase it? I was selling myself, and I offered a 'free sample.'

Boy, am I slutty! LOL.

Dawn said...

After a hiatus from journalism, I wrote for free to get recent clips (mine were 6+ old). Yeah, I did get some great clips. In hindsight, though, I regret it. I just didn't try hard enough to find markets that would pay something, anything (even a paltry fee). I know I could have if I had only tried. In the end, the pubisher in question told me cash flow was good and she would start paying me $75 per story (still a rip off considering these were 2,000-word features). Instead she skipped town and I never saw my money. New writers, don't write for free. Ever*. And if you are reading this, publisher-who-skipped-town, you still owe me $150!!!
*I do think writing to promote your own book or doing pro-bono work for charity is a different situation entirely and that is not what I am talking about here.

xxxx said...

About John's thing: We've done that before where I work, but we've always paid the candidates a flat rate (say, $500) for their work.

And MM, yes, you are! :)

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