Writing Without Payment

Will work for magic beans.

Inspired by a post about musicians being expected to work for free (see acknowledgement at end of this blog post), I got to thinking about how people often expect writing to be donated out of good will. This comes in many guises including blogging, stories, novel excerpts, reviews and articles. There are lots of writers desperate to be discovered – but should this mean that they should be expected to provide content without any monetary return?

Many websites and communities that claim adding your content can improve your profile – but in truth, how many of these sites will actually get you noticed? It’s like a David Attenbrough documentary out there: new writers, wannabe writers, newly discovered writers, published authors – they’re all battling it out to be seen, heard, read.

In many cases, you are submitting your work without any editorial structure: this means anything and everything goes. Will this increase your profile? Or is it potentially damaging? After all; don’t you want only your best work to get noticed? Publishing work too early, stuff that isn’t ready or simply isn’t good enough, places you at the bottom of the pecking order, making you the writerly version of plankton or crill. At worst, you’ll be known for writing badly. At best, your free content will get swallowed up in the tumult while helping the website’s google rankings.

It comes down to personal choice, but the way I see it; there are two types of payment: monetary and reward.

If you’re offering a professional service to a person or company then you should be paid. Writing articles, blog posts, reviews, stories, poems (yes; they’re a professional service if used as content), all take time, effort and skill. The days of blogging for free tickets should, in my opinion, be abolished – after all, how many of those reviews are little more than a quick gush in the hope of another free ticket? I’m not saying that everyone should be paid for every little piece they write; but quality and professionalism should be rewarded. Simple.

So is it ever ok to write for free?

There is always going to be some requirement for unpaid writing; especially when we live in an age where everyone has a voice that can be heard via the internet. For instance, you may read a book that you can’t help reviewing, have a burning issue you want to report on, or believe in a certain charity that you’d like to support further by contributing your skills. But as far as I can see, the free stuff should be what you want to write which will in some way benefit you or someone you think deserves it. Reward could be in terms of satisfaction gained, lessons learned, the joy of sharing something important or exciting, or simply supporting someone/a company that you think is worth supporting.

But what about writing creatively? Some writers will only publish their work if it is paid (fair play), but does this mean that its a waste of time if you don’t have a commission or book deal behind you?

I don’t think so. Every creative writing exercise helps you to learn, improve, adapt. In other words, get closer to your goal of being the best writer than you can possibly be. If you put in the hours, dedication and develop your talent, then hopefully publication will follow; somebody somewhere might read it and be inspired or moved. That’s often payment enough.

Discussing this issue with a friend recently, they raised a valid question: what about writing competitions? After all, they have entry fees attached. Is this even worse than writing for free?

Again, not in my opinion; writing competitions are creative outlets which enable discovery of quality work while championing recognition and reward for both established and new writers. Entering a competition may be a long shot, but they’re judged anonymously; if your work is good enough, you could see impressive results.

I think the best approach is to know what you want to achieve and how; then stay focused. Dedicate time to the assignments/submissions that matter to you. It can often be difficult for us, as humans, to say no. The opportunity to seemingly further our writing profiles can be tempting and it can be awkward to set a price on our talents and capabilities. But, like with your creative writing, you don’t write in every genre. You’re selective, you find your voice. If you don’t know your own worth, how do you expect anyone else to?

Huge thanks to Elisabeth Hobbs for her inspiring post which got me thinking.

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8 thoughts on “Writing Without Payment

  1. Lesley Cookman says:

    I was recently conned into writing a piece for an online magazine which I took to be a commission. However, they’ve compensated by running a competition for my books with my publishers. Which will earn me about tuppence.

  2. Derek Flynn says:

    Great post, Elizabeth. Re: writing comps, I’m wary of entering anything with a large entry fee. 5 euro? Fine. 15-20 euro? Forget it! And in these recessionary times, I think those that organise writing comps need to realise this. No struggling writer should be expected to pay 20 euro for the opportunity to enter a comp that they may never win anyway!

    • ERMurray says:

      I completely agree – I didn’t make that distinction but it’s an important point. I stick to below the 10 euro mark too – especially when the competitions are so competitive.

  3. Susan says:

    Thanks for adding this in, Elizabeth! I do feel very strongly about the practise of exacting guidelines in Calibri, double spaced, brief bio, word limit, no photo and in THIS particular style – as spotted on the submit guidelines of one recent publication – and not one effing tweety-bird about MONEY. They haven’t even got the decency to admit up front that it’s a for-the-love enterprise.

    Apart from any other consideration, when someone pays me for something I write, I know that there is an external value to what I have written. This keeps me aware of my market worth and improves me confidence. Writing for free takes that all away.

  4. Annette says:

    As an adjunct to this, how little do we think of ourselves when we offer our self-pubbed books, some of which are of an equal standard to those of legacy publishers, for 99c? I plan to publish a short story collection and I will not be charging so little for it. If we do not value ourselves, how can we expect others to value what we produce?

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