Unless they're independently wealthy, I don't believe anyone should work for free. However, I will admit that I have written for free. And I continue to do so somewhat compulsively.
You see, there's this huge rush that comes with finishing a piece that thrills you to the pit of your writer's core.
Fair Warning: None of what I say here should be used by sites or publications who should pay as an excuse to not pay. If you get millions of pageviews and sell ads and are owned by a corporation, you should pay your writers, and shame on you if you don't. All I'm trying to do here is be honest about the reasons why I don't always get paid for what I write.
First off, I don't write for free perpetually. I happily took money for my book, which I would not have written for free, and I continue to write for various paper and online publications for pay. Secondly, I will never write an assigned piece for free.
Starting with basics and the obvious, with a few exceptions, everything I write on my own site is something I've written for free, or am republishing from those paying venues — Bay Area Bites, BlogHer — for which I write. I don't have ads at Grub Report — mostly because I find the entire process with brokers and income tax issues to be choked with red tape and confusion — and I don't take paid endorsements. (I'm not being precious about paid endorsements, I've simply never been offered them so I can't say whether I'd do them or not.)
The other main sticking point in my personal writing-for-free debate is that I don't always consider writing "work."
Sometimes writing just happens.
Sometimes writing is snippets of sentences and specters of ideas that bounce around in my head for several days until there's enough of them I like well enough to start laying down in a .txt file.
Sometimes writing is a personal act of me just needing to express the hell out of myself.
This is when writing for free is not work, it’s about me staying sharp and improving my writing. I'll have an idea, I'll puzzle it out — as I did for this piece — I'll refine it, polish it, and perfect it as much as I can before I pitch it.
Every piece I write has the potential to be a paid piece. I want every piece to be a paid piece, but the messed-up reality is that it just doesn't always work out that way.
When I have an idea for a piece, I write about 75 percent of it before I pitch it. That means I'm already doing 75 percent of the work for free, but my personal process has more to do with my pathological horror of deadlines than anything else. If a piece is accepted on a two or three-sentence pitch, I will be in a dread-panic about getting the piece done until that piece is done, so I'd rather go into the pitch with most of my work already behind me. (Other times, if I can't work enough blood into it to satisfy me, I'll drop it the endeavor completely.)
The pitch process is painful and exhausting. Propelled by the heady rush of finishing a piece you love, you frantically launch yourself into an interminable round-robin game of pitching various editors.
And then you wait. Panting with damp armpits and a fever-bright brain, you wait.
As soon as you write something you truly, fully, madly, love, you want to place it in a happy home. You want it immediately realized in a publication. Or site! Or blog! Or Tumblr! Just some place other than your own hard drive. Some place big. Some place where others will read it and maybe become infected by your fever. Agree with the points you made and make their own points. Have your story spark stories within them. Incite resonance. However, each day that passes with an inbox maintaining a cone of silence on a pitched piece, your happy fever ebbs away and allows doubt to replace it.
Doubt is always lurking within a writer, but it's temporarily beaten back into the darkest recesses of the ego cave when a writer pushes something they love into the warm light of a job well done. When you hear nothing back about that piece that made it joyfully into the light, doubt reaches out. Doubt unwraps pinching, gelid fingers to snatch the piece back and bury it deep within the ego cave, smothering duct tape over all its ideas and thoughts and stories.
When that happens, sometimes the only option to escape the cave with its grasping fingers and silencing duct tape is to write for free. Sometimes after pitch upon pitch has gone unanswered or been politely rejected, I'm left with two options: put it up for free on Grub Report, which has a relatively narrow audience, or get it on another site (also for free) that might have a larger audience.
It's usually a place that I respect, like Avidly, where friends are there to share ideas and write what we want just to spark discussion. Or it's Hairpin for whom I've written in order to promote my book. I've also pitched pieces to The Rumpus and McSweeney's with the full understanding that I won't get paid money if they're accepted. Again and again, the reason for pitching them is because I just want to be read.
And, since I'm being honest here, it's occasionally been a place I don't entirely respect, but free-pitched anyway because of book promotion and because I had a misguided idea of pageviews, eyeballs, and promotion that never came to fruition in the end. (I don't intend to make that mistake more than twice.)
What it really comes down to is that in the course of trying to scratch out a full-paid living as a writer, there are still going to be certain things I write (like this) because I can’t stop them from coming out. And when they come out, I am going to want to share them. Because I, like all writers, have a need to be heard. I want people to read my words.
I'd take money for the pieces — HAPPILY — but coming up empty on that score doesn't change the fact that I still want people to read these pieces instead of me watching them languish on my desktop, getting dusty with irrelevance.
The truly sad truth is that every free piece written is The One the writer hopes and prays will catapult them from anonymous penury into the firmament of paid bylines.
Stephanie Lucianovic is a freelance writer and editor in the Bay Area. This piece was originally published on Avidly (for free) before appearing here (for pay).
Photo by Thomas Heylen via Flickr.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.