Avidly is running pieces about the experience and labor of writing. You can read the first, “Why I Write for Free,” here. We’d like to encourage people with different perspectives–academic, non-academic; professional, pleasurable– to send us essays on the questions writing raises for them. Just click on “Submissions” above. — Eds
But this is what I consider to be a very special circumstance: Not only does Avidly, the website for which this story is being written, not make any money  (and I mean whatsoever: not turning a profit is not the same thing), it’s also run by a close friend, who personally asked me to contribute this piece. Furthermore, I didn’t think that it would take me very long.
Of the above-mentioned factors, I’d say that the first is the only one that’s truly important in deciding whether or not to write something for free. Once, not too long ago, I was asked to pitch a few ideas to a website associated with a major magazine, and when the editor liked one of those ideas, she asked if I’d be willing to write it up for free. Actually, I believe she said “for fun.” I declined. I’ve been a professional writer for over a decade, and as much as I enjoy my job, I don’t find it quite enjoyable enough that I would be willing to do it for nothing. And, frankly, even if I did, I would still have had to refuse, on principle. Because this editor was not working for fun, except in the sense that cash is sometimes fun, and neither was the web designer, and the photographer whose picture would have accompanied my story would also have been paid at least a licensing fee.
My theory—and please bear in mind that I have never taken Econ, or any kind of business class whatsoever, and furthermore that I majored in English and then got an M.F.A. in Fiction, so clearly I’m not exactly Chomsky (and in fact, I was going to Google “Chomsky” to see if he’s even an appropriate reference, and then I figured, eh, Sarah will know) [Ed: Probably not?]—is that whenever a writer is the only person in a given situation who is not making any money, that writer is complicit in the market’s devaluation of her work, as well as the work of her colleagues. So my thought is that if nobody were willing to write for free (or for fun, or for clips, or for exposure, or even for less than minimum wage) then we’d all be getting paid, at least a little bit.
This is what I tell my students, when I have them. Sure, it’s probably easier to get an assignment if you already have some clips. That being said, nobody’s going to be all that impressed by a bunch of clips from some weird little website that they haven’t heard of, or even from a very big website that famously neither pays, nor edits, nor (as far as I know) turns all that many people down. They’ll be impressed by the quality of your writing, if it’s good, but not necessarily by the fact that you got Wherever.com to post it. So, if someone asks you to write something for free, think hard about what you are really going to get out of it. If the answer is, “a chance at a paying gig down the road,” it might be worth asking if there’s any good reason why you can’t have that chance right now.
However, I’m not a total hard-liner, and the truth is that Stephanie Lucianovic and I are probably not all that far apart on this issue, except that, given what appear to be very similar criteria for determining when it might be appropriate to write something for free, we’ve made different decisions. She appears to have done it somewhat frequently, even if you don’t count her blog (and I don’t ) whereas I’ve done it, as far as I can remember, exactly once. By which I mean now. This.
But that disparity might just as easily be chocked up to laziness (I can’t imagine feeling, as she wrote in her piece, that my thoughts on this topic “need to come out”), or to the fact that I don’t usually write personal essays, as to some underlying philosophical difference; I suppose that I, too, would be willing to write for The Rumpus, although I’m mercenary enough that I would probably try to place whatever theoretical piece I’d write for them at a paying outlet first.
And—hypocrisy alert—the big twist that I bet you never saw coming is that I do write for free, almost every day, but the thing that I’m writing for free is fiction. I do it for exactly the same reasons that Stephanie offered, in her essay, for giving away her non-fiction: I’d be writing it anyway, and I want to get it out there. Sometimes I fantasize about how fantastically rich I’d be if I could get my magazine rate for my short stories, but the truth is, it’s not overly likely to ever happen. But there it is, the real reason that I almost never, ever write for free: I’ve got other totally non-lucrative work to do! Writing is my day job, and I tend to treat it as such. I’d love to finish this piece with a hot little kicker, like: Maybe if fewer people were willing to give it away, it could be their day jobs too. But I’m not totally sure that’s right. And, honestly, I’m not being paid enough (or anything) to think about it any longer.