A Must-Read on the Value of Writing and Writers


I unexpectedly had a little alone time at home yesterday (thanks, husband!) and while I was online I saw a post from a Facebook friend with a link and the comment “a must read.”

So I did.

And it is.

The article, titled “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!” is from the New York Times, the paper of record owned by the same company that used to own my main employer (About.com), both victims and perpetrators of the culture of free (or at least cheap).

The author, Tim Kreider, is an essayist and cartoonist who begins by lamenting being asked to do what he does for a living — in this case writing or speaking — for free three times in the span of a week.

His argument is a common one: that writers (and creatives and other artists, no doubt) all too often get asked to work for free, or for what publications call “exposure,” as if we could pay our bills with Facebook likes.

love work
Love work by Flickr user Sean MacEntee.

No one would ask a doctor to perform surgery for free. You don’t expect to get a free haircut, or for the plumber to be happy that your neighbors got to see the logo on his truck while he was at your house, which might bring him some more business someday.

Yet so many writers get their start working for free. I did a lot of writing for free when I started out. I had a day job (really a night job at that time) and it gave me something to do. It got me things to put on my resume, but it didn’t give me any damn exposure. I’m not proud of a bit of that writing and I hope the sands of Internet time have obliterated it.

Also, I spent way too long writing for free, which was a confidence problem. And I think that’s at least part of the problem for a lot of people who write for free. We don’t value our work — ourselves — enough to ask for money.

(I guess you could call this blog writing for free, though it is slightly subsidized by sponsored posts. I also guest post for people I like from time to time without getting paid. But that’s fun, and a choice I’m willing to make.)

And it’s not just working for free that’s a problem — although that is a big problem — but those publications that do pay offer a lot less than they used to, or than other publications did in the past.

Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge. I now contribute to some of the most prestigious online publications in the English-speaking world, for which I am paid the same amount as, if not less than, I was paid by my local alternative weekly when I sold my first piece of writing for print in 1989.

When I started freelancing full-time, I made at least as much as I did in my day job. Today, admittedly I probably work less, but I tell people I get paid to do what I love, but it’s not a living wage.

I can only do it because my husband lets me, which is a horrible thing to say in this enlightened age, but he makes most of the family’s money — and would anyway even if I had a day job. If I were on my own, I might be able to work more or have some kind of a part-time job to make it possible for me to live. If I were a single parent, there’s no way I could manage. That’s the reality of the path I’ve chosen, and I feel really lucky that I have the circumstances I do so that I can do it.

But it does suck to do something that’s not really valued in any way.

Practicalities aside, money is also 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.

Preach. It feels like playing, like a hobby on the best of days. Like a waste of time on the worst.

And it’s so easy to fall into thinking “if this is all the world thinks I’m worth, maybe I am less important than someone with a real job.”

I like to think I’m not. I’m still working on owning my awesome, and on good days I can remember that what I do has value. Craft needs to be passed on, our stories need to be shared.

But, as Kreider says, that “work for free” thing keeps working because people will write for free. It’s up to writers to change that.

I think long and hard before I’m willing to write words for someone else without compensation, and I hope if you’re a writer you do the same. Remind people who ask that writing does take time and skill and deserves to be fairly compensated.

You are worth more than that. And so am I.

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2 Comments

  1. Great post! This is so thoughtful and well written. You, Kerri and the NYT writer have made a powerful impact on my thinking about the free work I’ve done. I’m learning to ask for compensation commensurate with my value. Thank you for being so articulate on this topic.

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