On why a professional writer should consider writing for free.

It was a hotly debated topic back when I started writing professionally and frequented BBS message bases (the precursors to Internet mailing lists). Some people argued that a professional writer should never write for free. In fact, one person even bragged about how much free work he turned down regularly. (Of course, he never bragged about the paid work he got, either.) Other people — including me — argued that to break into a writing career, you have to write for free, at least in the beginning. How else would you get the clips you need to establish yourself as a writer?

Clips are the beginning writer’s Holy Grail. A clip is an article or a story you have written for a magazine or other published document that has been “clipped” out to show other publishers or editors you want to write for. It’s proof that you have been published. The more clips you have, the more experience you can prove. You can then use those clips to impress the people who can get you better assignments.

Of course, the quality of a clip is just as important as the overall quantity of clips. A clip from, for example, Vogue, is worth about 50 clips from small press beauty newsletters that no one has ever heard of. So the argument that you should be paid for all of your writing does have some merit, since Vogue is far more likely to pay for your work than the sporadically published Betty’s Beauty News (if such a thing exists).

Back when I started, I was breaking into a new career that I had absolutely no formal training for. Heck, I was a financial analyst and former auditor with a degree in accounting! What did I know about journalism? I knew enough, it seems.

I knew back then that I needed clips to get started. I knew that no one would pay an unknown to write for them. So I knew I had to write a few freebies. And I did.

My first published article was for The Audit Advisor, a 12-page monthly newsletter for auditors, back in 1987. It was an article about auditing construction project budgets. I received two copies for my efforts. No money. But I had my first clip.

I wrote a few other articles for publications I can’t remember. Junky little publications. One was a writers’ newsletter. When I received my sample copy, I was appalled that my work had appeared in such a rag. It had obviously been “printed” on a photocopier. One that needed maintenance.

I got my next big break in 1989, when the Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA) offered me $10K to write a 4-1/2 day course about using computers for auditing. I had taught a few times for them — also for free, with permission and salary from the company I worked for at the time — and knew what they were looking for. I was also quite informed about personal computers, which were very new at the time, and how they could be used to simplify work while performing a financial audit. I asked for leave of absence from work, but they wouldn’t give it to me. So I resigned my $45K/year job (a huge amount of money in those days) and took the biggest gamble in my life: to start a new career as a writer.

I finished the course in the alloted amount of time and even taught it a few times for the IIA. They paid me to write spinoff products for it. I can’t remember what they were, but I have copies in my office somewhere. But I was not really a writer yet. I hadn’t paid enough dues, I didn’t have enough clips for what I wanted to write about: computers.

So I got to work and found some more small publications to start writing for. For free. One of them was one I cooked up: Macintosh Tips & Tricks. It was a monthly newsletter that lasted a few years in a number of formats. People paid to get it mailed to them, so I guess you can say I was being paid for my writing. But not enough.

So I supplemented my income with a job as a per diem computer trainer. I worked for two different companies. One paid pretty well; the other paid very well. It kept the mortgage paid and food on the table.

Oddly enough, my next big break was as a ghostwriter for a John Dvorak book. Dvorak was very big in the computer world back in the early nineties and his name sold books. So the publisher, Osborne/McGraw-Hill, had hired him and Bernard J. David to write a book called Dvorak’s Inside Track to the Mac. Of course, they didn’t actually write the books. They hired ghostwriters to do it. They split the chapters and farmed them out to a handful of people who were probably a lot like me: struggling to get started as writers. I got the Fonts chapter and finished it quickly. Bernard liked it so much, he gave me three more chapters. I made a whopping $500 per chapter. My name doesn’t appear on the cover, but it is in the second paragraph of the acknowledgments. A very big deal in those days.

I neglected to mention how I managed to make this connection. This is an odd story, too. I’d written a book proposal about using Macs for Telecommunications. I was rejected by the four or five publishers I sent it to. (Ted Nace at Peachpit Press wrote a kind letter saying that there wasn’t a big enough market for the book. The truth is, I was ahead of the time back in those days. A year later, telecommunications really took off.) But one of those publishers sent my proposal to an agent. The agent wanted to represent me, but I was unproven. (Not enough clips.) So he referred me to Bernard who wasn’t terribly pleased (at first) about having to give me a chapter of the book. The really odd part about it is that the agent never contacted me again. To this day, I’ve never been represented by an agent.

After that book, Bernard wanted to work with me again. We wrote The Mac Shareware Emporium for Brady Books. It didn’t do very well, primarily because another book on the same topic was published two months sooner (for reasons I won’t get into here) and it was heavily promoted on AOL. (AOL was just starting to gain momentum at the time and shareware was hot.) But I did have the ultimate clip: my name on the cover of a book.

Fast forward to today. Since leaving my full-time job, I’ve written or co-authored about 60 books. (Many of those are revisions to existing, long-lived titles.) I’ve also written hundreds of articles for magazines, newsletters, and Web sites. My published books collection (including translations) fills three shelves on a bookshelf and my clips, which I don’t even bother collecting anymore, fill a file storage box. You can see a list of everything I’ve bothered to list on my Web site’s Books and Articles pages.

So you might assume that I no longer write for free. Not so. I’m obviously writing this for free. (No one is going to pay to read the things that go on in my head and in my life.) And until recently, I wrote how-to pieces for publication on the Web.

Why? Well, the way I see it, there are two goals to writing. One goal is to make money. That’s why I expect to be paid for writing books and most articles. I have to earn a living. But the other goal is to establish yourself as an authority and spread your name around so people will look for the other things you’ve written.

For example, suppose I write an article about Faxing with Mac OS X Panther. The article gets read by a bunch of people. Some of them may have read other articles I’ve written. They like my writing style, they feel I know what I’m talking about, they think they could benefit from reading some of my other work. Like my books. So they go to the bookstore or log into and buy a book. And I just earned a little bit more money on book royalties. While it doesn’t really pay to have one person do this, it would be nice to have a thousand people do this. And with Web publishing, this is possible.

If you were reading carefully, you may have noticed that I used the phrase “until recently” when mentioning that I wrote how-to pieces for publication on the Web. I still do write these how-to pieces, but I’ve found Web sites that are willing to pay for them. So instead of writing them for free, hoping that readers will buy books to compensate me for this work, I can now be paid for the article. And one of these Web publishers is kind enough to put links for buying my books where the article appears. So a reader can succumb to impulse buying and order the book right then and there.

Will I still write how-to pieces for free? Yes. But only when I can’t write the same pieces for paying markets. After all, I do have to make a living. And the clips box is full.

What do you think?