Why I Write for Free
Writing for free is an unfortunate, natural consequence in an industry in a profound state of transition.
About two months ago I began to wonder if all the things I’ve learned in the past year, my first year of freelancing, could be of use to other freelancers, or to writers with unrelated jobs who wish to make the leap to full-time creative work. I wanted to write about how I’d gone from “one or two reviews out in random places” to “review in the Times Literary Supplement” in under a year. That seemed like pretty speedy, pretty significant success to me.
I asked an online writer’s group about the various directions I was considering for the piece, which way they thought I should write it to be of the most use. To my surprise, the responses I got were mainly “you’re not actually successful” and “check your privilege.”
These replies, unpleasant as they were to hear, are worth unpacking. They’re part of the landscape of freelance writing in the late 2010s, what it looks like.
One element of the distance between me and the people who replied to me is the distance between the kind of writing I mostly do and the kind of writing that mostly pays. Creative nonfiction and short stories don’t pay, usually, while copywriting and feature articles usually do (or should). There’s no money in 99% of literary journals, and there never has been, but gossip rags do fine. Plenty of freelancers in that writer’s group only write for women’s magazines, or general interest websites, or science outlets. Factual or infotainment articles that pay good money.
This isn’t the kind of work I do. I only write about what interests me, in a style that interests me, instead of conforming what I write to the interests and style of an outlet that’s going to pay me.
Neither kind of writing is illegitimate. They’re just different.
While I consider myself a professional, not a hobbyist, there are plenty of writers out there who disagree. The main criterion for them is money. I make barely any, and therefore, to them, I am not a professional writer. I don’t use money to measure the success I have achieved as a writer, but I don’t think that makes me a hobbyist.