Don’t Write for Free: Your Talent Deserves Pay

More and more often, I’m seeing writing jobs that pay so little it would take three assignments and two months to buy a pack of gum.

Part of the reason that those ads work is that there are desperate people who want to be writers. They buy into the idea that not getting paid is an “industry standard for beginners,” and give up their work for nothing.

I’ve never met a plumber, grocery store or car lot that does that. If I asked for a car for free to “prove their worth” they’d laugh at me. They can go bankrupt in different, more inventive ways.

Yet writers agree to write for free for experience and exposure every day. Stop doing this. The more writers offer to write for next to nothing, the harder it makes it for the rest of us. Many people don’t know good writing from bad, so it comes down to a matter of money. Anyone who can click a keyboard and is willing to get paid per view is offered a job. I know about supply and demand, but I also know that the internet is still largely words, and if you want to stand out, you have to know how to write well.

The same companies that tell advertisers that they get millions of views and that the Internet was the next big market for their products, calmly turned around and tell writers that there isn’t any proof that writing works, and the person to take the hit for doubt had to be writers.

I’ve answered several internet ads for writers, but have yet to find one that pays decently, let alone well. One wanted me to produce a series of restaurant reviews, 8 per week (who eats out that much?) and write a 200-word review, with picture. The pay? I get to be published. I can publish myself and not pay myself, neatly cutting out the middleman.

Now my articles are getting picked up all the time, to fill the blogs of other writers, who are desperate to meet their goals. One such place offered to pay $0.12 per day, but they own the copyright. That was based on click-throughs per article, so I’d have to write a huge amount to make minimum wage.

As a writer, who has made a living from writing for most of my adult life, I’d like to pass on encouragement and a warning. Get paid for your work. Do not work for free. When you give it away, no one will respect you in the morning.

And the warning: Writing well is hard. You have to know grammar. You have to be able to think analytically. You have to be able to reason logically. Just because you can keyboard your thoughts doesn’t make you a good writer. Get paid what you are worth. Walk away from scams, underpayment and empty promises. You’ll respect yourself in the morning.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer and creativity coach. See her work at (c) 2007-9 All rights reserved.

14 thoughts on “Don’t Write for Free: Your Talent Deserves Pay

  1. Hey, at least I’m not as bad as this guy: he analyzed his email outbox time stamps to see what part of the day he sent the most email.

    Speaking of word count, by the way, Michael Crichton kept track of his daily word count throughout his fiction-writing career. He used it as a way to decide when to go on vacation — when he got less productive, he took a break. His favorite vacation spot.

    Also, a handy characteristic in a novelist, he was nearly 7 feet tall.

    • ALL software applications are peripatetic underneath. They are also, with only a few exceptions, basically as sophisticated as a crowbar. Complicated, but dumb.

  2. I think it’s reasonable to write for exposure rather than cash when you’re clear about what you’re doing, and the exposure is — or reasonably seems to be — valuable. For example, professional journals don’t typically pay, but publishing in them can sometimes help a career.

    Also there are other ways than “work for hire” to get paid for writing. Some really interesting ideas can be found in Free: the Future of a Radical Price by Chris Anderson.

    • Writing for professional journals when you have a paycheck coming in from another company is a completely different story. I’m talking about people who make their money writing for a living, who are being offered less and less and are therefor forced to write more and more to keep their heads above water. Like the economy, that kind of marketplace takes away the middle class–you have a sliver of fabulously wealthy fiction writers, almost no middle-income freelancers, and a lot of working poor who are afraid to speak up for their cause or be brave enough to demand what they are worth. What’s the word I’m looking for? Oh yeah, exploitation.

      • My point, I guess, is to be clear about what you’re getting in exchange and not just hope.

        If I were going to set out to earn money from creating written documents (by the way, that’s a good description of exactly what I do) I would first conclude that calling myself a “writer” is about as descriptive as calling myself a “breather”. Writing should be specific, so the first thing to improve on is “writer” as a term.

        I probably write 2,000 words every day but I’m not a “writer”. I create detailed engineering specifications and requirements documents. Who would even think about hiring a “writer” to do that? “Locally-focused journalists”, “feature story authors”, “marketing strategists”, “copy creators”, “dramatists”, and “short juvenile fiction authors” are specific, and specific is good.

          • I suspect you could probably do all six! I’m not really talking about the process of creating these things; I’m talking about getting paid for the output.

            And as a result of this, now I’ve gotten curious about how many words I really do write every day. Curses, embroiled again!

          • I have a feeling you’ll tell us. Tell me, Pete, do you know your Myers-Briggs scores? They don’t have letters for “charmingly peripatetic” but if they did, you’d be it.

          • I try not to carry out all the things I get curious about! They tend to make the natives of this planet nervous… (any illusions one might harbor about my apparent intelligence would be quickly dispelled if I revealed how long it took me to learn this — but I’m very lucky I grew up in a less cowardly era)

            I think I took the myers briggs once, and came out as a G-E-E-K. 😉

          • Turned out to be an irresistible problem. Rough average seems to be about 2350 words/day over the past 60 days. Precision is lowered because my filter for “what I added to email threads” is very crude, because what I do in PowerPoint and Visio is locked inside proprietary file formats, and because it’s sometimes very difficult to measure output in “words”. For example, I have no idea how many “words” something like this would be: DOCTYPE HTML PUBLIC “-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.01 Transitional//EN” “” so I didn’t even try to assess it.

            Anyway I’d say it’s within 15% either way — which makes it a ridiculously imprecise measurement!

  3. This is so true! How can we expect others to value us and our skills if we don’t value them ourselves! I had two articles published and paid this month. One article took me a week of work to put together, the other took me half an hour. I got paid the same for both pieces. Guess which publication I will choose to write for in future?

Join the conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.