No, In Fact, You Should Not Write For Free

The blog Lifehacker just posted a piece entitled “Why You Should Write For Free,” in which writer Nick Douglas (on staff, note) explains when he believes writing for free is appropriate — and when it is not. The headline alone is enough to fluff me up with righteous fury, as my own, consistent refusal to write for free is a matter of public record. But I’m also aware that headlines are meant to elicit a response (hopefully, to read the article) and are sometimes not entirely representative of the article.

So I read the article. It’s still wrong, but I can see where Douglas has gone wrong, and some of it boils down to a matter of definition of what constitutes “free” writing and what does not.

So what does constitute “writing for free”? Douglas’ definition is pretty simple, and wide: Writing for which one is not paid. This would include personal blog posts, tweets, Facebook posts and comments on all of the above (basically, all social media for most people), school papers, diary entries, emails and letters to friends and family, graffiti, resumes and job applications as well as material written for editorial entities, for which one’s work is not compensated — newspapers, weekly papers, non-personal/commercial blogs, magazines and so on.

My definition, probably because I am a professional writer, is rather more narrow and is focused on intent. My definition of “writing for free” is “writing work that is aimed at the stream of commerce but for which one is not compensated for its production.” More simply, work where someone is trying to make money off it, but none of that money gets to me. By that definition, no personal blog post, tweet, Facebook posting, email, etc constitutes “free” writing, since none of it was ever intended in itself to make money. But things I write for others are almost always in the stream of commerce — and somewhere along the way, someone is getting paid because of it, or at least trying to.

And that’s where Yog’s Law applies: Money flows toward the writer. If my work is being used to extract monetary value from someone, somewhere, then I need to be paid. I don’t work for free, especially when someone else is attempting to gain a financial benefit from it.

(“Yeah but Twitter and Facebook serve ads so technically they’re making money and you’re not” — correct but I am being offered use of the platform without having to pay for it because it’s supported by ads, and that would be the case even if I never posted, i.e., social media’s financial model is not contingent on my content, but rather on my use. Eyeballs, not words. That’s a different thing, believe it or not.)

Let me put it another way. I play guitar (poorly). When I play my guitar at home, am I playing “for free”? In the sense that no one’s paying me for it, sure. But I’m also not intending to make money from playing it, and that matters. I’m a literal amateur. I’m doing it because I enjoy playing, and the benefit of it to me is not financially-oriented. On the other hand, if (highly improbably) someone heard me playing and said “Wow, that’s awesome, can I record you and release your music to the world?” then my immediate response would be “I think you’re probably high” followed by “Also, how much are you paying me?” Because what’s being said here is “your product has a value I would like to exploit” and my response in those cases, for all media, is “then I need to participate in that value exploitation.”

Douglas’ definition of “free” is more expansive than mine, and for people who are not primarily or professionally writers (or who want to be) it’s probably fine. For people who do want to be professionally or primarily writers, it’s muddy, and can be used as a way for people who won’t want to pay you for your work, for whatever reason, to smudge lines which should not be smudged. Intent matters.

So, let’s apply my definition of “free” to Douglas’ advice. Should you write on a blog or on social media for your own personal interest and benefit? Sure! It’s fun, it passes the time, and occasionally you might able to leverage that writing into economic benefit. I certainly have done that — I’ve published four books (so far!) of essay writing that originated here on this blog, and two novels which I originally published here have been published conventionally and are still in print. Go me. Work here has also served as a calling card for paid work elsewhere; I’ve gotten a number of gigs because people have read something here and said, essentially, “Hey, can you do that, but for me, and for money?” To which I answered, “Oh, probably.”

Should you write for others without being paid? Oh, I don’t think so. I don’t care how tiny or noble the site/magazine/whatever is, if they want to use what you write to help them make money, then go ahead and make it your policy to get paid. If they don’t have the money to pay your asking price, then, oh, well. “Exposure” means shit (and “exposure” in the sort of venue that can’t/won’t pay means even less than shit). What matters in these cases is that you make money from the people who want to make money from you. So, you know. Don’t write for “free.” Get paid.

Let’s also recognize a third category here, which is writing you do for yourself, that you intend to exploit financially by yourself — basically, by operating a small business specializing in the distribution of your writing (and/or other creative product). This is a thing that is much easier to do now than in times past, and certainly writers do it through things like Patreon, Kickstarter, self-publishing, placing advertising on their own blogs and so on. Here in 2018, you don’t need someone else to pay you to get paid, although if you do want to get paid by running your own little writing business, you have to do what any small business does and work your ass off on it. Which is why I personally like publishing through other entities — it’s ever so slightly less work.

(And obviously, you don’t have to pick just one of these avenues. You can do them all! Wheeee!)

So, Nick Douglas is right that you should write some things that without intending to be paid for them, for the fun of it and to try different sorts of writing and to grow your skills. He’s incorrect that much of that writing — the stuff you do by yourself, for yourself — should be considered as being done for “free.” And when he suggests that you write for others for “free,” I think he’s incorrect there as well. If your work has value to anyone, then it should have value for you, and you should be at the front of the line to receive that value, because you’re doing the work.

That’s how you become a professional writer: By expecting to be treated as a professional.