Why I Will NOT Write for Free

Posted by Claire Vath on Dec 3, 2013 in Musings, Success Guide, Writer Rants |

A year ago, I walked into a meeting and was introduced to a longtime editor. “I’m an admirer of your writing,” she said.

I turned to see who it was she was complimenting.

“Me?” I asked, flushing. There was no one else there.

“Yes, you,” she said, smiling. “I love your work.”

It’s something I’ve been doing professionally for a decade now—and something I’ve been doing informally my whole life—but when people ask what I do, I sort of laugh when I say, “Well, I guess I’m a writer. I write, at least.” Because, even to my ears, it doesn’t sound real.  So when someone gives anything close to recognition, it’s just … odd.

Apparently other people think it’s not quite a real thing either. In a meeting a few months back, a client leaned back in his chair and asked, as though he were joking: “So if you do a lot of work for us, do you give us a discount on your hourly rate?”

It ain’t manual labor, folks, but writing is hard work. (A point which Mollie Bryan made a few weeks back.)

You’d pay me if I sat at a desk all day inputting numbers into a database. Right? Or if I answered phones all day and made copies. Or wasted time playing Solitaire at an office desk. (Does anyone actually play Solitaire anymore??) Or if I cleaned your house or mowed your lawn or cooked your meals.

But yet … some people balk when you ask for money in exchange for words.

My job as a writer is to come up with smoothly flowing sentences and correctly spelled words so you come across as competent.

Nine-point-eight times out of 10, writing is far from inspired. I’m not exuberantly scratching out with my quill pen some existential work that will transform mankind with the gravitas of my words. Mostly, I’m drinking too much coffee and sleepily squinting as I slog through a story that doesn’t particularly interest me while trying to make it sound interesting to a reader. Or I’m crafting interview questions designed to draw out from an interviewee a really great quote that will neatly fit my ideal of what a story should be.

And then there’s the mental toll—mulling those sentences and leads over and over again while I can’t sleep at night, while I’m taking a shower or doing the laundry. It takes time, effort, careful culling and editing to craft a story, a press release, an e-mail.  I may not be doing manual labor, but for every physical hour I spend typing up a blog post or your newsletter or web copy, I’m spending at least twice that working it out in my head, editing and re-editing for you.

To ask me to discount that is frankly insulting.

So when that prospective client asked me about my “writer’s discount,” I gasped but recovered quickly.

If I’d had my wits about me, I’d have said: “So, do you take a pay cut if you work more than 40 hours a week?”  (Judging by his shiny Lexus that was parked just outside, I’d be willing to bet not.)

Or: “My job as your writer is to make you sound less like the idiot you apparently are.”

Instead, “Do you know how expensive diapers are?” in a saccharine-y sweet voice that showed I was also pretending to joke, was my response.  (Judging by my post-college compact car stuffed with diapers and car seats, I was not joking.)

I got the job.

And, a few weeks later, an e-mail. That same client sent me his self-written press release as background for an article I was supposed to write.

The press release copy was rife with misspellings that could have easily been caught … with spell check.

“Did you mail that out yet?” I wrote him back.

His reply: “Yeah, LOL. Did you see any boo boos? :-)”

… I’m worth much more than my hourly rate.



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