It’s 1am and I should have been in bed hours ago, but hey! That’s what coffee is for. The curse of being a writer is that words form, and you must get them out of your head before you can sleep. So I figure it’s better to write this down at a computer now, rather than mashing it into an iPhone with bloodshot eyes at 2.30am.
Let me tell you a story. I wrote a weekly column for Split Screen called ‘Reality Check’. It became pretty popular: we went from 200 hits a piece to around 30k for the best ones. Feeling confident from the success of Reality Check, I thought “this is a good thing, as good as articles on commercial sites, and I should be getting paid for it!” So I contacted Keza MacDonald at IGN – I’m not about to slag off IGN by the way, I think their UK branch does an excellent job – and she said that, although she really liked the column, she didn’t have a budget for it. That was fine. Totally understandable response.
But what if I’d then gone on to say “alright then, you can have the column for free!” My work might have been published on IGN. It would have been great exposure for me as a writer: undoubtedly, I would have got more readers from IGN than Split Screen. And if I’d then said after a few columns that I’d like to get paid for this work, would IGN’s freelancing budget have expanded? Of course not. In fact, it probably would have decreased, since they were able to run the site for less money because my free writing filled a content gap.
So I got some exposure for my work. Yet here’s the thing: editors commission work on the strength of your pitch and your writing, not where that writing has been circulated. Case in point: I got commissioned for the New Statesman because of a piece I wrote on my personal blog, with a readership of around twenty people. What’s the value of exposure? You can’t feed yourself or pay the bills with exposure. The implied value of exposure is that you’ll ultimately be paid for your writing. But if you’re already writing for free, when exactly do you think you’ll be paid? For an editor under budget pressures – that’s all of them, in case you weren’t sure – your free writing is just what they need, but it does nothing for you.
If you’re working for free, and someone is profiting from your work, you’re diminishing the value of your work and your contemporaries. You make it more difficult for everyone to get work. You’re hurting the industry in which you want to get a career. It’s a short sighted, foolish and selfish thing to do.
Should you write for free on your own blog? Absolutely. That’s how you build a portfolio.
If you want to be a writer or journalist, will you need to hold down another job while you build such a portfolio? Probably.
Is it OK to write for free for a hobbyist site, or a non-profit organisation? I don’t see why not.
Writing for the love of it is a beautiful thing. I write for Five out of Ten because I enjoy it, not for the financial compensation – I just need to write. Whether it’s good or bad, this stuff needs to be written down (just not necessarily published!) But if I don’t get paid for a New Statesman piece, that sends a message to its other staff writers and freelancers: “your writing is not worth money, anyone can do it for free”. That’s not only untrue, but it means they can’t get paid – and if they don’t get paid, they can’t afford to write, and if they don’t write, we don’t get to read the lovely things they produce. Professional work deserves financial compensation, whether you need it or not. That’s the only model that is truly fair to writers.
We’re in the middle of a war, where great writing is measured in terms of hits and advertising revenue; where we expect journalism to be available for free, as if it is spontaneously generated rather than the product of considerable thought and experience. I don’t think that model is sustainable. It leads to a lot of big fish in a rapidly evaporating pond. If you agree with me, it’s time to start fighting.
Right, I’m off to bed.
P.S. The new Five out of Ten is on sale now. We’re not writing for free – we’re donating our commissions to charity!