If You’ve Never Written Before, Don’t Charge for It

An easy-to-overlook principle of good business

Photo by Boston Public Library on Unsplash

Three weeks into studying abroad in the U.S., I started missing German bread. I love American food, but when it comes to “Brotzeit,” those pale, floppy slices of toast just don’t cut it.

I wanted a loaf. I wanted rye. I wanted the sour, moist-yet-crunchy freshness only German bread can provide. Unfortunately, it was impossible to find.

Necessity is the mother of invention, they say, and so eventually, I became desperate enough to decide to bake my own. Since my baking skills are on par with a nine-year-old, this was a much larger-scale effort than it might seem.

I scoured the aisles for flours of the right kind and the web for a recipe that didn’t look like the script for the next Mission Impossible. I looked for fresh yeast everywhere (no luck). I watched tons of YouTube videos.

At some point, I got impatient despite making no progress on the yeast-front, and so one fine afternoon, I just got to work. I mixed and stirred and kneaded. I waited and added and waited some more. Finally, the lump was ready, and I threw it in the oven.

What I pulled out a few hours later was less than impressive. It looked, felt, and even tasted sort of like bread, but life’s not about “sort of,” is it? That day, I learned an important lesson: when baking bread, yeast really matters.

Without the yeast, the bread can’t breathe. No air will make its way in. It’ll be alright for a few days, but it won’t taste very fresh. Soon enough, it will not just resemble a brick but hurt just as much when you throw it at someone, which is exactly what you would have done if I had tried to sell you my poor lump of hardened flour for $5 — and what brings me to my actual point:

If you’re writing in public for the first time in your life, you have no business charging for it.

This is a very basic principle of good business: if you have no idea what you’re doing, don’t take people’s money to be clueless on their behalf. They can do that very well on their own. They don’t have to pay you for it.

This principle is more obvious in some lines of work than others. If I get a call offering me $100,000 to fix an oil leak on a rig somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico, I’ll kindly decline with little hesitation. That’s not a bullet I want on my resume if it goes wrong — and it will go wrong, given my lack of a degree in oil rig engineering (is that a thing yet?).

Writing, however, is easy. You can write, right? I can write. Even the nine-year-old who beats me at baking can write. Everyone can write — and that’s why many people now think they’re entitled to getting $10,000 checks in the mail for it.

In reality, writing is no different from baking or oil rig engineering: if you don’t know what you’re doing, it will blow up in your face. You’ll offend people, ramble incoherently, and waste your reader’s time. All of this is normal. It’s part of the progression from amateur to professional, and it takes time.

What’s not normal is showing up on the internet with your first, deeply flawed article, putting it behind a paywall, and yelling: “Special edition, come get it while it’s hot!” That’s not good business. That is deception.

You forgot the yeast, for Pete’s sake! This lump is barely edible. Why the hell should we pay you? And yet, people do this every day — and then they complain if their article doesn’t perform well. Welcome to delusion land.

My first loaf of bread was good enough for me and for my roommate to steal the remaining half (true story), but most of all, it was a learning experience. It was practice. Never in a million years would that bread have lasted in the open market — and it wasn’t meant to.

Writing, designing, programming, these skills are easy to get started with but just as hard as any other to become good at. It’s okay to waste some of our time as you practice in public (accountability matters), but don’t take our dollars for something you know everyone will rightfully want to get a refund for.

Take your time instead. Give us something that’s ready. Give us proper bread, yeast and all, and we’ll be happy to shower you with dough.

Written by

I write for You. That’s my promise — and the name of my daily email full of inspiration, smart ideas, and emotional support: https://youletter.substack.com/

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