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.

At this time in my life, I’m privileged enough not to have to chase money for what I do. I’m lucky, right now, because my spouse is my patron. It has not always been this way between us (as a paralegal, I supported him while he launched his own career), and it’s not likely to be this way forever. But I was able to leave my reasonably paid job in the spring of 2018 and write full-time because my husband could afford to support both of us.

I was told in the writer’s group that being honest about this patronage would be a slap in the face to freelancers who have worked like fiends to support their families. I recognize that there are plenty of writers who don’t have the privilege I do. But I’m being honest about this for a reason: because I believe that, unfair as it may be, writing for free is what writers in my area of focus must do in order to build a sustainable career.

I’m airing my privilege to bring attention to this problem (and it is a problem). The publishing industry won’t move toward a solution if we writers all hide our circumstances.

Across this first year, I’ve been paid for about a quarter of the work I do. The choice of whether I’ll take an unpaid assignment has to do with a range of factors (prestige, genre, stress level), and money is low on the list. Yes, that’s privilege. It’s also the strategy I’ve used to build a strong portfolio of critical work this year, an oeuvre that has consistency and creative freedom. It’s how I was able to spend something in the neighborhood of 25 hours on a single review, at a rate of about $4 per hour. That review garnered me credibility with a handful of worthy publishing entities, and wires connect that credibility to a dozen other reviews, at least.

For plenty of writers, sacrificing money to build that portfolio would not be possible, or desirable. But for me it was a fair trade.

When I left my office job, I didn’t expect to make good money at writing right away. I made tentative plans for other streams of income (teaching, transcription, manuscript editing), but my primary purpose in the first year was to build the portfolio. I accepted that I’d have to work for free for a long time in order to build a reputation good enough that I could begin to ask for money.

However, I knew full well that writers out there, in all the different areas and ways it’s possible to be a writer, strongly encourage other writers never to work for free. It’s the union principle: if some writers work for free, it devalues the work of all writers, and it pushes our average pay ever further down. (This is how journalist salaries, and journalism generally, were gutted over the past 25 years — between the rise of blogging and the death of print lies an eviscerated profession.)

But unions have scabs. You can always find someone to do it cheaper, whatever it is, and they will do almost as good a job as the worker who’s paid a livable wage. I saw this firsthand when I was copy-editing through a freelancing hub in the early 2010s. People with a tentative grasp of English would charge pennies on the dollar to write or edit copy. The copy was pretty bad, but it only had to be barely competent to fit the employer’s needs, since it was often just filler for a website no one would read anyway.

This process decreases not only the pay, but also the quality, of copywriting and editing in general, and it’s an insult in all possible ways to decent writers. It’s also irreversible, and inexorable, at present.

I’m reminded of Napster, and how it accustomed an entire generation to free music. Except that was bilking by the consumers; today, with written content, it’s the providers who are screwing artists. Readers expect free content because publications can get free content, and publications will avoid paying for content because readers don’t expect to pay for content. Round and round. For both sets of gatekeepers, the content only has to be good enough. In all its forms, the written word in the 2010s depends on an infrastructure of cheap-to-free labor.

Aside from this practical issue— this “the world has changed and there’s no changing back” issue — there’s a second, more insidious problem with the insistence that writers should never work for free:

it deprives younger writers of apprenticeship,

of the opportunity to do exploratory, reputation-building work. I suspect that the writers insisting the hardest and loudest that writers should never work for free are accustomed to a near-extinct content model. Most of the writer’s group members telling me that accepting unpaid work is disgraceful are not only working in a slightly different field than I, but they are also 10–20 years my senior. They have been writing professionally since before that all-important moment when the internet became the primary way to read shortform writing. They are in a position to demand pay for their work in a way that younger writers are not, because they have a kind of training and experience that younger writers are almost guaranteed never to have.

I am not saying it’s fair that my peers and I must expect to publish a wealth of unpaid work before we can ask for pay. It’s not. It’s unfair, and it starves out writers who don’t have the privileges of time or patronage — often writers who are infuriatingly marginalized anyway. But writing for free is not a consequence of our professionalism level, the quality of our work, or even the type of work we’re doing (although all of those may be factors). It’s a consequence of an industry that’s in a profound state of transition.

Content models are never going to be like they were before the internet, and they’re certainly not going to be this way forever.

It’s unsustainable to keep releasing such a glut of content that it drains meager freelance budgets and even causes intellectual instability. If shortform publishing has a future, that future requires a messy divorce from advertising as a main source of revenue — for a couple that hasn’t yet agreed to a trial separation. It requires innovative revenue models that may not even have been devised yet. (This very forum, Medium, has devised a pretty good one.)

In the meantime, young writers who want a foot in the door, who want to build a collection of bylines that will qualify them even to get responses from markets that pay — much less acceptances — are going to have to work for free. That is how a writing career gets started in 2018. There’s no question in my mind that it’s how I went from “one or two reviews out in random places” to “review in the Times Literary Supplement” in under a year. It might have taken me several years to get an acceptance from the TLS if I pitched only paying outlets, if I didn’t have a file of unpaid but decent clips to refer to in pitching.

This paradigm means that writers with less privilege than I have, less time and money to expend on written work that’s either on spec or just not that valuable in the marketplace, are going to have less of a chance to be heard, fewer opportunities to build name recognition and a network. That isn’t fair, and it’s a problem we must solve sooner rather than later if we want the written word to genuinely reflect the culture. But in 2018, it’s the truth.

One of the angles for this essay I originally floated to that online group was writing about the guilt I feel that my husband is supporting me. I worried that accepting his labor in order to write put me in the company of Vladimir Nabokov, bleeding his wife Vera dry, or Henry Miller, lollygagging in Paris while Anaïs Nin used her husband’s money to keep him in booze and typewriter ribbons. A long shadow history of patronage accompanies the history of art, whether that patronage was consensual or abusive, worthwhile or wasted. I’m not alone. I don’t feel good about it, but I’m hardly the first or worst offender.

The fact is, someone is always going to pay for a writer to work.

At this time, publications are not necessarily the ones responsible for that payment — not during the apprentice years, and maybe not even later on. Writers are. We pay, or our loved ones pay. Until, if we’re lucky, we don’t have to anymore.