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Paid Content: Not for Nothing

One writer explains why she's willing to write for free.

By Deirdre Day-MacLeod - December 2, 2004
[Editor's Note: This is another installment of our Paid Content series. A rebuttal will appear next week.]

I write for free but not for nothing.

When I speak to other freelancers about the fact that I will write for nothing, I am greeted by either stony silence or a flood of attacks that usually include the following: I am worse than cheap and I'll never amount to anything. I couldn't possibly be a decent writer if I give my work away. I am downgrading the profession as a whole and making it impossible for other writers to make ends meet. In the backbiting struggle for the decent gig, I'm undercutting people who expect, deserve, and need to get paid. When they don't get the dollar a word they deserve, it's all my fault. By writing without a paycheck, I encourage the exploitation of writers by any employer with a grain of business acumen. Why buy the writer when the words come free?

And in a professional sense, my detractors are quite right. All words being equal, why would anyone hire a writer when they can get me free? But the argument also hinges upon the assumption that I wouldn't write for free if I were any good, and so all words aren't equal (at least in the dollars and cents sense). I infuriate them by providing words without a price, freeing them to go out into the world untethered. It's scary and irresponsible. And I'm doing it right now.

Even worse, this isn't the first time. I've given stories to PopMatters, Jambands, Identity Theory, Pindeldyboz and a host of others (not to mention my own blog—which is, of course, free). I've undermined the profession as a whole, and even my own union (The National Writers' Union) which is desperately trying to enforce a dollar a word as a minimum wage. In short, I am a scab.

So why would I betray such foolish behavior and be so lacking in class-consciousness as to actually give away my work? Do I need a better therapist or a more forceful accountant? Is it a lack of self-esteem that causes me to act like a literary libertine, both promiscuous and penniless? Am I an idiot? I feel a bit like Jack trading the cow for a handful of beans—I not only incur the wrath of mothers, but also cause the price of cattle to plummet.

It's lucky for me that I can afford to give it away in this appalling fashion. I can write for free because I occupy the better (or worse?) part of my days spewing out applied writing—writing to the assignment and the audience. Then, with the remainder of my day—before the kids show up and the detritus of life takes its toll—I write for free. I'm like the whore who messes around on her days off.

And it's not like I just started this godawful practice. I've been doing it since I wrote poems in third grade with not a thought of any kind of renumeration. I'd send them to children's publications and get only the joy of my name on a printed page. But I was a kid then; what did I know?

As I admit to this poetic profligacy, I can only think of that guy in Union Square who will write you a haiku for a dollar. These days, maybe I pay him two dollars for the same seventeen syllables so I don't feel guilty for having undercut him long ago.

But I haven't always been so selfish and irresponsible. I did spend a few years engaged in a lucrative writing career after I realized that my prestigous undergraduate degree in writing poetry (Semiotics actually, but I don't feel like explaining it one more time) wasn't going to get me even enough to pay the rent on my Avenue D apartment (we're talking pre-Operation Pressure Point). So I went into advertising. Of course, in order to sell out I had to make a spec book full of ads for imaginary toothpaste and sundry real products with only the hope that they would lead to better things.

But after I'd succeeded as a copywriter and mingled with the likes of Bob Saget and the dog that was in E.T., spent hundreds on raspberries at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and was finally making enough money to live on, within striking distance of enough for the Hamptons share and the Fendi bags, I reverted to my nasty old habit of writing for free. I spent another dozen years writing fiction for nothing and then, if that wasn't stupid enough, a dissertation for less than nothing. (We're talking somewhere in the area of 200,000 words that got me only a few lines of type on my resume.) If the NWU had its way, I'd have been doing quite well. But at least all those pages are pretty benign, they don't really do much but share the shadows with the dust bunnies under my bed; it's not like I use them to keep other writers out of business.

Perhaps it's the idea of writing as business that I can't get used to. I have no desire to be the kind of sentence writer that Trollope and Dickens were, keeping an eye on the words piling up the way stock analysts note the rising prices of crude oil. My sentences are what they are, whether they get me a buck or two or twenty. Having been in advertising, I perhaps have an unhealthy delusion about writing purely for the sake of writing. Maybe I'm an idealist (or maybe just a bohemian slattern, lunatic, and fool).

I've written for websites where all I got was a CD or a concert pass, and I've worked for places which paid me dollar after dollar to write about universally appealing topics like Ten Ways to Make Your Patients Wait Patiently, Feng Shui Cuticles, and laundry on nuclear submarines (No More Icky Residue!). So there is a gap between what I am paid to write and what I write for free, but it's a gap that is shrinking. It dwindles more slowly than the polar ice caps, but by the time the last polar bear is gone, I will be getting paid for my "real" writing.

In the meantime, polar bears frolic and I have no intention of giving up writing for free. To do so would be to lose the pleasure of writing entirely, and then it would become just another job. Still there are caveats that I don't maintain in my moneymaking work. I won't write what I don't want to write. I write when I can—after yoga and coffee and kids. When the editors start to make me unhappy, I quit. One place didn't run my kick ass Dropkick Murphy's interview on St. Patrick's Day. Sayonara. Another editor started getting snippy about my deadlines while sitting on a pile of pieces he hadn't run. Auf wiedersehen. If you aren't going to pay me, you damn well better treat me nicely.

And because I've worked for free, I have a set of clips that are far more representative of what I want to write than the ones I've been paid for. Writing may be something that other people do as professionals and for them, not getting paid is an insult. For me, writing is how I am and if the cost of writing the way I want is simply monetary, I don't really mind that much. I've had fan letters, citations in Slate and the kind of attention that "Flossing: The Inside Scoop," and "Magnetism and Your Debit Card," just didn't attract. People have emailed me and said I wrote like Kafka, that I had a mastery of bellybutton scholarship and that my writing made them ashamed to be human (the writer thought that was a bad thing, but I was quite pleased). You can't buy that kind of reaction, and it seems (at least for me) you don't often get paid for it either.

It might not make me money, but I think if money were my top priority, there are far more direct routes to it than writing.

Deirdre Day-MacLeod has written everything from television commercials for dog biscuits to a dissertation on maternal infanticide. She can be reached at deirdredaymacleod AT comcast DOT net.

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