When people find out you’re a writer they will inevitably ask you how you “got into it”. It’s a funny funny question because we so rarely hear other professionals asked it. Ever hear someone ask, “How did you get into being an accountant?” or “How did you get into being an electrician?” at a party?
It’s like somehow writing is something you stumble across in the dark of night when you’re wandering and lost.
In reality, I got into journalism because I was bad at math and good at writing. I had a knack for words, I’m naturally inquisitive and I don’t suffer fools lightly so I found a career where those are assets.
Unfortunately, the conversation turns quickly from your abilities and skill to how horrible it must be to watch newspapers collapse all around you, see colleagues and friends get laid off or relegated to endless short-term unstable contracts. Then come the suggestions about what I should do instead: “Give it up, do something sensible” and stable,” they say. “You should get into PR because that’s where the ‘real’ money is.”
For one thing it’s rude, insulting, insensitive and patronizing to say that to someone. For another, it comes most often from the people who’ll ask if you can do a little work for them. For free. As in, get paid zero dollars for your expertise and skill.
There are, of course, some times where writing for free is just fine. But for the most part it is unconscionable for multi-national corporations, government agencies, private businesses and friends (yes, even them) to ask you to work for $0.
Would they ask their dentist to perform a root-canal for free? Would they ask their lawyer to draw up their will for zip? Would they tell their plumber she’ll have to fix their leaky faucet for zilch? Would they ask their mechanic to fix their car for nada? The answer: “Never, what kind of penny-pinching tightwad do you think I am?!”
So why are professional writers constantly getting asked to work for free?
In his New York Times editorial Slaves of the Internet, Unite! Tim Kreider comes to this conclusion:
I suppose people who aren’t artists assume that being one must be fun since, after all, we do choose to do it despite the fact that no one pays us. They figure we must be flattered to have someone ask us to do our little thing we already do.
Earlier this year two friends of mine, both poets, got talking about what it would be like to only submit to outlets that pay. So began the Poetry Has Value project. This year Jessica Piazza is only submitting her work to journals and other markets that pay, thanks in part to that chat with Dena Rash-Guzman.
In journalism, like in poetry, there are plenty of places to publish your work. But that number drops significantly when you look for outlets that pay even a modest sum or honourarium for a piece of work. And, unfortunately, a dollar amount is still the most direct way to show the value of your time, effort and work. As Kreider says:
[M]oney is…how our culture defines value, and being told that what you do is of no ($0.00) value to the society you live in is, frankly, demoralizing. Even sort of insulting. And of course when you live in a culture that treats your work as frivolous you can’t help but internalize some of that devaluation and think of yourself as something less than a bona fide grown-up.
Certainly, not everyone can hold out and wait to publish in a paying publication. But that doesn’t mean we should all be willing participants for outlets that are exploiting writers for their own gains. It’s bull-pucky when companies and corporations say they “don’t have the budget” to pay writers. That’s because you didn’t make the budget to pay them. If you want the best talent writing their best work, pay up.
But the challenge comes, as J-Source writes, in the negotiation of rates for work.
Most freelance journalists must represent themselves in negotiations with editors. This is not an easy task for individuals for whom securing future work depends on a good reputation and good relationships with editors.
So what’s a freelancer to do? If you’re able, only submit to paying outlets. If you’re not quite there yet, be very choosy with where you submit unpaid work. Set up boundaries for yourself and stick to them. I can’t tell you what your rules should be, but they should reflect your values and why you got into writing in the first place.
The onus to get paid for our work is partially on us, the writers, to say enough is enough. It’s on us to that what we do has value and by submitting primarily (or entirely) to outlets that pay we can push back against the idea that writers should just be grateful for the chance to publish.
Writing isn’t a hobby or a side-project for me. It’s not something I work on when the mood strikes. I went to school and studied it and it’s how I make my living. And when my landlord starts accepting “exposure” as currency, that’s when I’ll write for it.
More about getting paid for your writing:
Who Pays Writers – An anonymous, crowdsourced list of which publications pay freelance writers, and how much.
Poetry Journals that Pay – A public document listing journals that pay for poetry. Fully viewable and editable by the public.
How Much do Freelance Journalists Make? – from J-Source
What to Pay a Writer – Thinking of hiring someone to do some writing? This hand list from the Professional Writers Association of Canada will tell you what you should expect to pay.
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