Notes From a Hired Pen

There is no “free” in “freelance”

I started my “Down the Shore with Jen” blog in 2007. I was writing my first travel guide, and the blog was a place for me to write about the book writing process, and share news about the South Jersey Shore that didn’t fit into the book.

When the blog took off, I was surprised but pleased – obviously! I managed to find a group of readers who shared a very niche common interest.

Media outlets apparently saw the value in that audience, so they asked me if I’d want to write my blog for them. One offer was to transfer the blog to their site; another was a weekly newspaper column.

Each offered me a grand total of $0.

I thought about this today when I read a piece on CJR.com, the website for the Columbia Journalism Review, called “The Rules of the Freelance Game.” The  author, who admits that she’s in the “midst” of her own “freelance experiment,” suggested that freelancers either write on your own site or “on sites that don’t pay you.”

Well.

I rarely comment on blogs, but I did on this one. I am that adamant about changing this idea that writers should give away their work in exchange for exposure. Why? What good does exposure do? It doesn’t pay my mortgage or my electric bill. And how much exposure do you really from need another media outlet when social media outlets make it so much easier to reach an audience who will be interested in our work?

Sure, clips are nice, but they don’t always make assignments. When I started freelancing, I wrote long pitches that showed an editor that I knew how to write. I was given assignments at national publications in my first month. When I wanted to show an editor that I knew the Jersey Shore area well, I sent blog posts. No one blinked an eye.

There is also this idea out there that freelancers must work for free because we have to “pay our dues.” So my experiences leading up to that point, which including editing my college newspaper, interning at a Washington, DC news service, writing for a college wire service and editing a regional magazine isn’t paying dues? I shouldn’t be paid for work produced based on the skills I acquired from those jobs? And, by the way, I was paid for all of those things – yes, internships included (and, for the record, I turned down unpaid internships, too).

Which brings me back to my shore blog. For five years, I continued to turn down offers to publish the blog elsewhere for $0. I made very little money off the actual site (a few Amazon.com and Google ads), but maintaining the blog lead to indirect income, whether it was exploring ideas for the blog that became paying assignments, or editors finding me through the site. In January, WHYY, the local NPR affiliate, asked me if I would like to write my blog for them – and for a handsome fee. I said yes. It’s been a beautiful – and profitable – partnership ever since.

People always want something for free. The easiest way to change that expectation – and not get caught in that trap – is to say no.

Now, I don’t think I’m an exception as a freelancer. I know a lot of self employed folks – writers, coders, designers, photographers – who make a very good living in their field. We talk to each other about the difficulties of the business, but we make it work.

I never hear them saying that they must work for low or no cost. Because they don’t. Do some freelancers? Yes, but they’re rarely in the business by choice, nor here long. I’m not faulting them for wanting to get out of freelancing. This business it not for everyone. But they shouldn’t be giving freelancers advice. You shouldn’t be listening, either, if you want to become that successful, veteran freelancer telling the younger generation to never write for free.

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One Response to “There is no “free” in “freelance””

  1. Angus says:

    Bravo, Jen. Superb stuff. More power to you.

    It’s perhaps worth pointing out that even when exposure may be considerable, working for free is still a terrible idea. Among the most pernicious of all these outfits is the Huffington Post, which doesn’t pay its bloggers and has managed to – in my view – con a great many people who should (and probably do) know better into working for free because they get a lot of page views and reader comments. The money being earned from their work may be being recycled in the journalism economy – HP have hired a lot of staff, who one presumes are being paid in the normal way rather than in kudos – but the HP blogger who lands a book deal or syndicates a column as a result of being published there is the rare exception, not the general rule. Yet they’re helping reinforce the illusory notion that writing for free is a necessary rite of passage and an acceptable step on the career ladder – instead, people working for free are cutting the bottom rungs off that ladder and setting fire to them, by making a generation of readers (and publishers) believe that good journalism costs nothing to produce, and therefore setting its future price at zero.

    The minute I can go to the supermarket and walk out with my week’s groceries and instead of giving them cash or credit, they accept a selection of “like”s or trackbacks or RTs from unpaid work, then and only then will I consider offers of unpaid work seriously. In the mean time, if you want me to work for you, pay me in legal tender. I’ll work for cheap, if the client hasn’t got much money, the job is interesting, and I have the time to spare – but for nothing?

    “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”

    Cheers,

    AB

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