If you’re a writer or an aspiring writer, it’s likely you heard a little bit about the scuttlebutt between The Atlantic and freelancer Nate Thayer. Thayer wrote a piece about Dennis Rodman going to North Korea to meet with Kim Jong Un. Someone from The Atlantic emailed him to ask if he’d be willing to adapt the piece, turning in 1,200 words by the end of the week. In return, The Atlantic offered no compensation, rather, they touted their audience of 13 million readers to which Mr. Thayer’s work would be exposed.
Thayer didn’t quite explode, but as a professional freelance writer, he didn’t find the deal very equitable. Earning a living as a writer, Thayer relies on writing gigs to “pay my bills and feed my children.” You can read Thayer’s take here and a few other opinions here and here. He didn’t quite find the exchange insulting, but more indicative of the state of publications and freelance writing in general.
I know you’ve been dying for my take on this. Lucky you.
I’m a very specific example of a freelance writer. I have a good-paying full-time job and I freelance more for fun than for the money. Yes, I’m compensated for the majority of the work I produce these days, but that wasn’t always the case. In a perfect world, I could survive on writing. Freelance, books, leaflets, whatever. But such is not the case right now, so I rut with a lot of editorial freedom and those publications pay me a fair wage (based on what The Atlantic is reporting) to deliver entertaining, readable copy on time and with as few or many poop references as the piece warrants.
My first piece of my writing to appear in print was a movie review for my college newspaper, The McGill Tribune. I reviewed Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead. I paid for the ticket myself and I wasn’t compensated for my 200-word review which opened, “This movie is like a bad handjob…” My opening sentence was cut, but the editors, probably pressed for content, ran it anyway. This is how I started out.
I was unpaid through many more Tribune articles, then two years running a college humor magazine called The Red Herring. I graduated and stopped writing, until I switched careers, moved to Ann Arbor and met a girl named Jordan Miller. Jordan was the new lead blogger for AnnArbor.com and was recruiting community contributors who could offer free content on their new online platform. I hadn’t been published outside of work since college, so I jumped at the chance. My editors were lenient on the subjects I pitched, so I got to write about pretty much whatever I wanted whenever I wanted to. It was incredible experience and writing for an actual publication is great because you get immediate feedback. All for free.
I never asked to be paid, but my columns proved popular enough to lead my editors to request that I write more regularly in exchange for money. I took it. I wrote bi-weekly and a check arrived every month or so. It wasn’t much, but it was proof that I was an honest to goodness writer. I imagine stand-up comedians get a similar feeling when they actually get paid for telling jokes, or musicians actually getting paid to play music.
The AnnArbor.com exposure led to freelancing work with Concentrate Media and a few other smaller publications. They all started paying. Some wrote me personal checks for $8 features, some offered a lot more. I have trouble saying no in general, so when a new avenue offered to publish me and allowed me editorial freedom, I took it.
Until it all became too much. I started extending myself too much. Deadline after deadline loomed and I was working on multiple projects at once and this wasn’t even my real job. Plus, I was completely neglecting my own writing—fiction and non. So I stopped writing everywhere but Concentrate and AnnArbor.com and I stopped pursuing new publications.
Back to the point of this debate. Money vs. free. I’d gladly write for free in a publication I feel would elevate me to a new level. That means pretty much any magazine I respect, a Detroit newspaper and maybe even a popular blog or two (I wrote for Awesome Mitten this year for free, just because I felt like it). Platforms and publications are at an advantage with me because I need to write. I can’t help it. It might not seem that way with the infrequent additions I make to my blog, but it’s a compulsion. If I go a few days without writing, I feel out of sorts. It’s an odd feeling.
It offends my sensibilities when people who’ve never been published feel that they deserve to be paid for their work. That seems backasswards. Someone needs to prove themselves before they get compensated. Usually if you haven’t been published somewhere, it’s because you aren’t that good or you’re not trying hard enough. I don’t mean to overplay this, but it’s not that hard to get published somewhere if you’re a half-decent, reliable writer and you know how to use the Internet.
Those who’ve been paid for work, even once or twice, it’s more of a judgment call. It’s up to them if they feel the exposure or audience is worth the free labor. I took a 92% pay cut to write for iSPY Magazine because they’re a nice group of people and I’d never written for them before. I wrote for Sidetrack’s email newsletter a few times in exchange for gift cards (I only used one) because they asked nicely. Despite the pay gulf, I spent as much time on those pieces as I did my highest paying gigs. For me, it’s about product and process, and I find it fun to challenge myself for new audiences and try out new voices.
Mr. Thayer is beyond writing for gift cards. I get that. If I had to eat on the money I make writing, I would look so, so hot and skinny. Instead, the money I make from writing shows me that my editors appreciate my work and keeps me churning out (hopefully good) content despite working many hours at my real job.
And I hope it’s paying off. I hope all the writing I’ve done the last four years of freelancing has helped me work out some kinks and improve, both as a writer and a story generator. I’ve heard feedback from people close to me, a few of whom have independently mentioned that they noticed my writing getting significantly better sometime in the last year. I’ll take it. I don’t see the change, but I have textual dysmorphia.
What’s the point of this long winded post? Write for free until you get good, then start asking for money. Prove you’re worth something before you start holding out your hand. And if you’re good enough, someone will recognize it. I’m an optimist. And I’m happy to talk writing whenever you want to buy me a drink. Because talking is one thing I don’t do for free.