Blockheads Writing for Free
“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” Samuel Johnson is alleged to have told his biographer, James Boswell.
Welcome to a world of tweeting, blogging, iReporting, opining blockheads.
The print media is struggling to survive. One survival tactic, in the guise of “reinvention,” is to fill some space with free stuff. Snippets from bloggers or expanded reader responses take their place alongside boxes indicating “most e-mailed articles” or “most read articles,” the latter two being two additional free space fillers of questionable value in any print edition. (Who really cares how many times a piece has been e-mailed or read beside the writer who wrote it or the editors who want to know what people are reading?)
For fledging or established writers, the temptations are great. You get your words out there – perhaps as an opinion column in an alternative weekly. Or you start a blog and pray that you’ll be the next Julie Powell whose blog project turns into a book and ultimately into a major motion picture starring Meryl Streep. (I haven’t done the math, but the odds of any blogger making a livable wage off of a blog, let alone strike it rich, are likely as slim as going from a star shooter on the neighborhood court to the NBA.)
My beef with agreeing to write for free is mostly that it can breed bad habits. Those who do it start making justifications about why they don’t need to put as much effort into the free stuff as they do for the paid stuff.
Of course, the assignments that actually pay the bills should go to the top of any freelance writer’s pile. But that doesn’t mean that the assignments done for no pay should be phoned in.
The risk of taking on too many free assignments – or seeing your no-income blog as a way to showcase your work – is that once that stuff is out there, people might actually read it. If it’s sloppy, rushed, or careless, then that can define potential editors’ (those who might actually pay for your stuff) view of your work. Try as you might to select which pieces you send as examples of your work, editors interested in you will Google to see what other stuff you might have produced about which you’re not as forthcoming.
There’s a larger argument against writing for free, of course. It goes like this: Your work has value. If you start giving it away for free, then it diminishes that value and makes it harder for others to charge for their work as well.
Forget all the talk about “new revenue models.” You either get paid or you don’t for your work. If you decide to or agree to write for free, you go into that relationship knowing precisely that “free” is the “new revenue model” to which you agreed.
I buy Dr. Johnson’s premise. Writers should get paid for their work…in anyone’s revenue model.
But if you’re going to agree to join the long list of us other blockheads who occasionally agree to write something for free, then make sure that whoever reads it can’t tell the difference between it and the stuff for which you got paid.