THE EDITOR’S DESK: The Part About Writing For Free

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I followed some links this morning that brought me to this, Why I Write For Free, which is kind of an indictment of this, by Benjamin Kunkel, which is kind of an indictment of reading and writing for free online. And there’s this, from Gawker, equating writing for free with slave labor, and this approving tumblr post about turning down a no-pay writing gig and then getting paid to write an article about The Mets.

At the same time, the tumblr blogger says she, “doesn’t write for free,” but of course she does. She has a blog.

Emily Magazine goes on to say that by their own logic, without unpaid contributions nplusonemag.com, This Recording, and The Awl, would not exist. And the author tries to think of a meaningful way that “writing for free for these sites, w/r/t whether it devalues all online writing, is distinct from writing for free for the Huffington Post, and I sort of can’t.” But later she says, “I write for free because there seems to me to be no meaningful relationship between whether a publication pays me and whether it’s worthwhile for me to write for them.”

I think it’s worth pointing out that people have always written for free for literary publications, or close enough to free that there’s not really a difference. If you spend months on a short story, say six months on three short stories, and one of them gets picked up by McSweeney’s and they give you $500, you’re basically writing for free anyway. And if you’re publishing in The Alaska Quarterly, or Zyzzyva, you’re getting $50, or nothing.

So that’s the thing about writing for free. And the difference in writing for free for a good online publication and writing for free for The Huffington Post is that The Huffngton Post is a lower quality version of People Magazine. And nobody would write for People Magazine for free.

I went through a period of publishing for free, and then a period of being insulted that people wanted my work for free, and then back into a period of writing for free. And then I started The Rumpus. But that middle part, where you think people owe you something for your art, is very uncomfortable. And the woman that wrote about The Mets, I think, is missing something. You’re supposed to get paid for writing what other people want you to write, for being able to plug in and push out content, for widgeting. To only write what you want is a luxury.

There is also something else, that Richard Nash talks about a lot, the free economy, where people give each other art and performance to be part of something cool.

This goes back to earlier arguments I’ve made, that creative writers are confusing themselves with journalists and getting involved in arguments about making money that have nothing to do with them, when in reality the key to making a living as a creative writer is doing something else.


Stephen Elliott is the author of seven books, including the memoir The Adderall Diaries and the novel Happy Baby. He is the founding editor of The Rumpus. His feature film debut, About Cherry, was distributed by IFC. His second movie, based on his novel Happy Baby, is forthcoming. More from this author →