Just Say No to Writing for Free

Don’t be part of the problem.

Yesterday, an editor of an aviation publication contacted me about writing for the organization’s blog. He’d found my blog through a link from another blog. He’s interested in increasing the amount of new content on his blog and wants to do that by signing up other writers. He already has a flight school operator signed up. One new post a month from each of four writers would get him the one post a week he wants for the blog. Makes sense.

From his email to me:

It’s quite difficult to find working helicopter pilots who can write, as I’m sure you can imagine. But you definitely seem to have the knowledge and interest. Would you consider doing some additional writing for [organization]?

At first, I was thrilled. I’ve been wanting to do some more aviation writing and the publication is well-respected. But then I began wondering whether this would be a paying gig or if I’d be expected to write for free. I worded my response carefully:

I definitely WOULD be interested in joining you folks. I’m an active helicopter pilot with a single pilot Part 135 operation now based in North Central Washington. And you probably already know that I also make a portion of my living as a writer.

Please do tell me more. If you’d like to chat, give me a call.

If you read what I wrote between the lines, the phrase “I also make a portion of my living as a writer” was meant to tell him that I’m usually paid to write.

His response came an hour later:

Thanks Maria. I should tell you up front that our budget for the blog is nil. So as much as it pains me to say it, I wouldn’t be able to pay you for the work. That said, there is always potential for additional opportunities.

I have to give him credit for not telling me that I’d be compensated with the “exposure” I’d get for writing for them. That really told me that he understood the situation — any editor that offers you “exposure” as compensation is either stupid or a manipulative bastard. You can’t pay the rent or buy groceries with exposure and the only thing it really exposes you to is additional editors looking for writers who will write for free.

As you might imagine, I put it out on Facebook to get feedback from friends, many of whom are freelancers. I was careful not to identify the organization. After all, does it really matter?

My post got lots of comments that are really worth reading. As my Facebook friend Carla said:

Comment from Carla

But this editor didn’t suggest such a thing. And I respect him for that.

The “additional opportunities” line, however, was obviously a lure — whether it was real or just a fabrication I’ll likely never know.

My response was frank:

We can still chat about the blog posts. I am willing to help out if it leads to other paying work. But if the additional opportunities never materialize, I probably won’t be motivated to continue writing without compensation.

Unlike the flight instructor you’re working with, I don’t have a flight school that might benefit with my name or company name getting out. My blog is already very well read by helicopter pilots — for good or for bad — and if I’m going to write for free, I’d rather write for my own blog.

I didn’t get a response.

The comments kept coming in on Facebook. All the publishing professionals and freelancers understood the situation perfectly. One of the commenters, a friend of Carla’s as a matter of fact, had this to say:

Comment from David

And that really hit home hard. The reason I couldn’t make a good living as a writer anymore was because too many people were writing for free. Publishers didn’t care much about quality when they could get free content. All they really want are hits and if something is interesting enough to attract the hits, they’re satisfied. Who cares about how it’s written? This is what’s killing the publishing industry — and giving those of us who actually enjoy reading well-written content a lot less to read.

I chewed on the comments overnight and when I woke up I knew I needed to send a new response. Here’s what I sent:

I’ve given this some more thought. I’ve decided that it would not be in my best interest, nor in the best interest of professional writers anywhere, to write for a commercial publication without compensation. Professional writers are paid for their work. Amateurs are not. I am not an amateur.

Maybe you don’t realize that I’ve written more than 80 books and hundreds of articles since 1990. Maybe you don’t realize that the money I earned as a writer enabled me to learn how to fly a helicopter and eventually buy my own. Maybe you don’t realize that my writing income kept my helicopter business afloat for its first eight years.

So not only did I earn a living as a writer, but I earned a very good living.

Sadly, those days are over. It’s now very difficult for freelance writers to find decent paying outlets for their work. I’m fortunate that my helicopter business became profitable when it did.

The way I see it, the reason [organization] is able to ask people to write for them without compensation is because too many people say yes. That’s the problem. That’s what’s bringing down publishing and the overall quality of what appears on the Web. Publishers settle for whatever they can get for free.

You say that it pains you to say that you can’t offer compensation. As a writing professional, I can understand that pain. But what I can’t understand is why someone in your position doesn’t push back and argue in favor of the writers. What’s a few hundred dollars a month to [organization]? You realize that’s all it would take. It’s the principle more than anything else.

I love to write; that’s why I have a blog. But I need to limit my uncompensated writing to my own blog — not one used to support an organization that generates revenue off the work of uncompensated writers.

I don’t want to be part of the problem.

Say No to No PayI emailed it this morning. I suspect the editor I sent it to will understand completely. But I don’t expect to be offered any money or any opportunities to write for them in the future.

Did I burn a bridge? Perhaps. But is it a bridge I really wanted to cross? I doubt it.

Are you a writer who can create quality content? If so, don’t sell yourself short. Demand compensation for your work. Don’t be part of the problem.

Postscript

Just moments after clicking the Publish button for this post, I got a response to my last email (quoted above). I was offered a reasonable amount of money for my work. I’m just hoping this blog post didn’t piss off the editor enough to make him retract his offer. (I really do respect the guy, especially now.) Yet I won’t delete this blog post because the message remains the same: professional writers should not write for free. If I lose this opportunity for making this statement and using my situation as an example, so be it.

It really is the principle of the matter more than anything else.

One more thing…

Another Facebook friend reminded me that I’d embedded a rant by Harlan Ellison in my blog years ago. Mr. Ellison says it a lot better than I could.

6 thoughts on “Just Say No to Writing for Free

  1. This kind of request is common in the photographic community as well, unfortunately. My wife and her fellow photographer friends have countless examples, most of which contain the “exposure” comment. Sad, indeed.

    How’d we get to this point? Is it because everyone who creates a blog thinks they’re a writer or any DSLR owner a photographer? Lowering the barriers of entry to these pursuits may have enhanced the opinion of their skills by the provider and cheapened the perception of these skills by the consumer. Fortunately (or unfortunately) there are too many examples of the opposite; lots of exposure but little talent on display.

    You’re an excellent writer and a good story teller (verbal or visual) will always find an appreciative audience.

    • Thanks, John. I really believe that if more professionals and those making the jump from amateur to professional just say no to unpaid gigs the situation would improve. I also believe that quality publications will do the right thing — and those are the ones we want to work with anyway, no?

  2. I believe you’ve got the right solution and the photographers in this area are doing just that. “Just say no” has taken on a whole new meaning. How well that works remains to be seen and there will always be enough who will fall for the gambit to perpetuate this practice.

    The dynamics of flattery and naivet√© on both ends spawns this behavior, you’re doing a good job educating your readers.

    • Educating readers is my goal — and is also why I didn’t remove this post when the offer of compensation came through. I want people to see that if your work is worth money, organizations will pay it. And organizations who don’t pay shouldn’t get quality work.

  3. I applaud you, Maria. Great post, and I’m even more thrilled about the response from the editor as well… tremendous respect for that person.

    You never mentioned a name, and you were professional throughout. IMO, no need to be concerned.

    Like so many others, I can’t even count how many times I’ve been asked to do work for free — writing, creating graphics, playing the piano and performing, and more. Ridiculous.

    Well done. :-)

    • They ask us to do things for free because so many people say yes.

      I should mention here that I DO occasionally do work for free if it’s for a very good cause. For example, this winter I’ll be flying Santa in for his photo appearances at a local venue. I’m doing it to support the venue, which I believe in, as well as to give kids something to remember. It’s community service, plain and simple.

What do you think?