Writers, Stop Giving It Away

Guest post from Cohere member Heidi

First, I’m going to share a quote that sums up my thoughts on the issue of writers doing work for free. A week ago, Rick Reilly, sportswriter and ESPN star, was asked to deliver the final commencement address at his alma mater, the University of Colorado’s School of Journalism. He said the following:

“When you get out there, all I ask is that you: DON’T WRITE FOR FREE! Nobody asks strippers to strip for free, doctors to doctor for free or professors to profess for free. Have some pride! What you know how to do now is a skill that 99.9 percent of the people don’t have. If you do it for free, they won’t respect you in the morning. Or the next day. Or the day after that. You sink everybody’s boat in the harbor, not just yours. So just DON’T!” (Read more: Husted: Alum Rick Reilly puts CU J-school to bed – The Denver Post)

Here’s what I would like to add to Reilly’s eloquent statement.

Think about your future and don’t mess with my present

Young or new writers often give away their work. Perhaps it’s because they are building a portfolio or maybe they’re just overly eager to see their byline. Whatever the reason, writing for free is bad.

First, if you write for free, you are setting a precedent establishing that your work is not worth real money. When you decide to start charging for your time and work, you’ve already established that your price is free. Last, but far from least, as Reilly points out above, by writing for free you are hurting other writers. Working for free undercuts our industry, period.

Trade is not free, but tread carefully

A trade is only legitimate when both parties are truly getting equal value from the exchange. Some writers are happy to free write articles in exchange for hotel stays or other travel freebies. I know writers who write reviews for free products; this is popular with mommy bloggers. While this isn’t my preferred type of payment, this is a legitimate trade.

I would caution writers against doing frequent trade. I promise that the mortgage company will not take the organic oven cleaner you got as trade in lieu of a house payment, no matter how good it is.

Boost your portfolio without undercutting yourself or others

Look, I know it’s hard to break in to this industry, and believe me when I tell you that you’ll always feel as though you are “breaking in.” Making a living as a writer is tough, but I do have some tips on getting clips without undercutting your future or my present.

Find a nonprofit and DONATE your time – My first official writing gig was producing a quarterly newsletter for a small, nonprofit organization. I wrote all the articles, took the photographs and even did the design and layout work. And yes, I did this for free because I believed in the cause, but, above all, I needed clips. Happily, these clips helped me secure my first paying writing job at a local newspaper. If you must work for free, support a non-profit or charity that you care deeply about.

Blog, blog, blog – If you have a blog that is published and updated weekly with well-written work, then *presto* you have clips. Here’s a tip: build a professional looking blog by paying the small fee associated with removing the /wordpress or /blogspot from your url.

Guest blogging is another great way to get clips and to establish yourself as a sought after writer. Again, limit the number of guest posts you write; there are bloggers who will take advantage of free work as well.

Don’t do it alone – Networking with other writers is priceless. Join a writers group, join a writers association, or join an online industry organization such as Media Bistro and Avant Guild. Believe it or not, Twitter has an active group of writers, and is a good place to connect. Coworking at a facility where there are other writers is also a wise idea. Find out more about coworking here.

By surrounding yourself with people you want to emulate, good things will happen.

For the rest of you

It may sound like I’m picking on writers, so I will leave you with this:  PEOPLE, STOP ASKING WRITERS TO WRITE FOR FREE. You wouldn’t expect your dentist to fill a cavity for free or your accountant to do your taxes for a box of chocolates. The fact is that you can’t fill your own cavity and you aren’t good at doing your taxes. You are also a terrible writer – that’s why you’ve asked someone else to do it – so pay them!

-Heidi Kerr-Schlaefer is the Mayor of HeidiTown and a working writer. You may follow her on Twitter or join the HeidiTown block party on Facebook.

Image credit: photosteve1o1