I’m an emerging writer, and this is the biggest issue facing my friends and me.
To write well is to expend energy on not just writing, but also, on writing-related tasks: researching stories, scheduling interviews, and reading our peers’ work with care and attention. But of course, few people are wealthy enough to be able to be able to write full time, and because writing is so competitive a field, most people will be unable to make a living solely through their writing. So knowing all of this, when should a writer write for free?
I think the answer is seldom. We live in a capitalist society that associates value with wealth, and because I value writing, I think it’s disgusting that a designer handbag costs so much while a paperback costs so comparably little. I’m closer to some books than I am to most people (what can I say? I’m socially awkward), and novels like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man or Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon have given my life a meaning (and pleasure!) that’s pretty hard to quantify.
That said, here are my suggestions for the three occasions when it’s actually a good idea to write for free:
When It Offers a New or Exciting Opportunity
Full disclosure: I may sound hypocritical because I write this very column for free. But when PenAshe offered the opportunity to write about just about any topic under the sun, as long as it loosely related to writing and publicity, I jumped at the opportunity. I’m currently having problems with updating my blog, and I find that I really miss writing about books and the literary community. So, in this case, I don’t mind writing for free because it gives the opportunity to write about a topic that is new and interesting to me.
When It’s for a Cause You Love
I’m filled with gratitude right now, and that gratitude is directed at several New York-based writers. I’m part of the Harlem WorksCollective, an organization that aims to support creative professionals in Harlem, and though our monthly reading series has not allowed us to pay writers (or our venue owners) as well as we’d like to, we are grateful to all the writers who have read with us and have generously devoted their time, talents, and books to Harlem’s literary community. Likewise, I am truly appreciative to the writers who have contributed to an anthology that I’m co-editing with the poet Jina Ortiz. The anthology-a celebration of women’s short fiction-is being supported by contributors who believe in its mission, and these contributors have been kind beyond words by sharing their stories, even though we don’t have much to offer right now in the way of honoraria.
When You Have Few-If Any-Clips.
When I first started freelancing for magazines and websites, the only clips I had were from my college newspaper. I knew that if I wanted to write for broader audiences, then I had to be willing to take whatever writing assignment I could get. And luckily, an unpaid writing assignment about the filmmaker Raoul Peck led to a paying writing assignment for a national magazine. And, more recently, I’ve taken a couple of unpaid writing assignments to break into new genres where I had few clips. (Hopefully, this will also lead to a paying writing assignment.)