What TO Do Wednesday: The Rant About Writing For Free

ImageGenerally, I’m a live and let live kind of writer, grasshopper. What works for me may not necessarily work for you, and vice versa. So do what works for you and we’ll all join hands and sing “Kumbaya.”

But once in a while, I feel the need to take a stand on a specific writing topic (and drag you along with me). And today, that topic is “writing for free.”

I am NOT talking about providing a piece of writing for a fundraising project. This kind of free writing comes from the heart, and how can you go wrong when a kindness is given in the name of charity?

I’m also not talking about writing that’s connected to marketing. Say, a post for a blog wherein you hope to sell books or drive a little traffic to your blog. You can’t expect people to pay you for your own promotion, grasshopper.

But whenever I see magazines or anthologies or ezines or newsletters–publications that will make money from your writing–with this statement: “We do not pay for submissions, but the writer will own all rights to his work”…OH MY WORD.

This is the point where I yell, “What difference will it make if I own all rights??? Once it’s published, it’s almost impossible to sell!”

Occasionally, very occasionally, I will run across a publication that will accept reprints. But most publications demand unpublished stories, poems, essays, or articles.

I understand their specifications. Editors want something fresh, something sparkly for their readers. Who wants to pay for something that’s been around the block a few times (so to speak)?

Okay, then. That’s about it. Let’s get back to working and singing.

Except…maybe this one time. This one time I’ll ask you. Do what works for us all. Walk on by those non-payment publications, and the (writing) world will be a better (paying) place.

29 thoughts on “What TO Do Wednesday: The Rant About Writing For Free

  1. Hear, hear! This fries me–this practice of not paying writers. We don’t expect people to donate shoes to us. And how much more important ideas and knowledge are than shoes.

    • And it’s getting worse, not better, Sally! Makes me think of that line in PETER PAN when Peter says that every time someone says they don’t believe, another fairy dies. Except MY line goes like this: “Every time a writer writes for free, I lose another ten bucks!”

  2. This is a marvelous post, Cathy. Magazines that expect writers to give away their talent for free makes me so mad, I could shake a stick at them. That doesn’t sound very threatening, does it? Perhaps if I shook Cathy-on-a-Stick at them, they would bend to our will…

  3. Bravo! I couldn’t agree more! The comment that really vexes me, which I’ve heard from one non-paying market editor was, “Writing is easy. Anyone can do it. Why should we pay for it when anyone here could write a few hundred words on the subject.” I congratulated her and advised her to do just that. Then, I removed that “market” from my files.

    • Good for you, Gail! I got caught once by an editor who’d listed her magazine as a paying market, then changed the game AFTER publishing my piece (and others’ work, too). And then she was STILL able to get folks to write for her–for free–and that’s what makes me crazy!

  4. Preach on, sister! Very well put. I laughed out loud, both because you really hit the nail on the head and because clearly I’m not the only one who gets frustrated by this. So feel free to drag me along on future rants! 🙂

    • Ha! I knew what you meant, Linda! And anyone who can get out ten subs a month and STILL have time to visit blogs–wow. You’re excused for a spelling error! 🙂

  5. Well, stick an “S” on my forehead and call me a sucker.

    After weeks of research and rewrites, I just finished writing a script for free, but it was for a production to be performed by my parish in honor of its 190th anniversary, so I guess that’s OK because it’s a non-profit.

    Oh, and I contribute to local anthologies of writing organizations because I want to support them, but they give a contributor copy. So, I guess that’s OK too.

    Somebody, please stop me.

    • Hahaha! I had to laugh at your response, Donna! Giving back (and a play? Wow.) is more than okay! So I’m not going to stop you. We gotta earn those stars in our crowns somehow, right? 🙂

  6. In the beginning, there were no credits. And my publishing options were a barren void. And an editor said, “Let there be write!” And there was, but it was free . . . ‘cuz I needed the clip for credibility before I could move on to bigger and better (paying) gigs.

    It’s a big merry-go-round, isn’t it? If all writers refused to work for free, then every writer would get paid. Time and effort is something anyone can offer if they choose, but writing—good writing (like for instance, yours, Master Yoda)—is a honed skill which should be compensated. (Commercial writing is another animal because although it, too, is at its core “creative” writing, it is viewed more as a marketing skill by those who need it and, as such, not expected to be offered for free.)

    • Yep, I wrote my share of free columns back in the beginning humor-writing days, Lisa. The best thing I can say about those gigs were that markets that don’t pay often don’t last long. So my early mistakes are awfully hard (if not impossible) to find. And that’s fine by me! 🙂

  7. YES! I agree. The only time I offer writing services for free is for small, nonprofit organizations.

    And let me tell you something that really irked me. While attending a writing conference, I overheard an agent tell a room full of unpublished writers that there was never any excuse for sending her a query letter without some writing/publication experience noted. The hopeful writers in the room looked shell-shocked. One brave soul asked, “Are you saying you aren’t interested in representing ANY debut authors?” To which Miss Agent (who had the personality of a wet toilet seat) replied, “There’s plenty of places that will publish writers for free. Stop expecting payment.” Argh. I left before something rude slipped out of my mouth.

    Note: Miss Agent’s opinion & personality should not be mistaken as representative of the profession.

    • OH MY WORD–unbelievable, Trisha. Not that there are plenty of places that will publish writers for free. That’s a fact. But to tell a roomful of writers to stop expecting payment? I think this may be a first–I literally don’t know what to say.

      (And of course, now I’m dying to know Miss Agent’s name–maybe you could act out the letters of the first name??? 🙂 )

  8. You have such a great with words, Cathy, and they are worth a lot. I’ve noticed that stupid line about no payment for submissions too and just think, “Then why on earth would I send them anything”? Of course the writer will own all rights — she hasn’t sold it if there was no payment. Get that Cathy on a Stick swinging!!

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  10. Cathy: Great post. 🙂 And we should boycott those sites! 🙂 Donna: I think writing a play for your parish is a really nice thing to do–not worthy of an S on your forehead. 🙂

      • For freelancing (articles), I might agree that a free sample could lead to bigger and better. But even Carol Tice made the point that it’s a short term strategy that will pay in the long term. I don’t know too many writers who didn’t start off with free writing (with me, it was my humor columns, which did lead to a regular paying gig for four or five years). The problem is that too many writers write for free on sites that won’t lead them to anything bigger or better. Or they write for free for far too long. And when (or if) they quit, there are always eager writers willing to step in and take their place. There’s no incentive for the sites to pay.

        I’m fine with the concept of interning writers. But sites that enjoy free writers should also have their paid writers. That’s a business model that works for pretty much every other business out there. It could work in our field, too, if we quit giving it away.

        Like my momma always said, “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?”

        Um…she wasn’t talking about writing, but I think it works for my point. 🙂

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