Why I Stopped Writing for Free

The ongo­ing debate about writ­ing for free on var­i­ous web­sites has been fas­ci­nat­ing. I have a per­sonal stake in the mat­ter: I have writ­ten for free for a num­ber of var­i­ous high-profile web­sites (CNN, Salon, the Atlantic, For­eign Pol­icy, Reuters, The Hill, The New York Times), and I’ve been paid to write for oth­ers (I am paid for my weekly col­umn for PBS, for example).

At a basic level, I think the debate has focused far too much on one pub­li­ca­tion, The Atlantic. I have had a warm, con­struc­tive rela­tion­ship with the edi­tors there. Each one I’ve worked with has applied a sober eye for news­wor­thi­ness, and when they’ve cut up and offered sub­stan­tive changes to my writ­ing it’s been for the bet­ter. They are very good at what they do.

They also didn’t pay me. I accepted this arrange­ment will­ingly: when I worked for the Amer­i­can Secu­rity Project, part of my job was get­ting out our analy­sis, and our insti­tu­tional per­spec­tive. ASP paid my salary, and ASP approved of my using my work­ing hours to con­tribute to these web­sites. They bragged of it, in fact. So while these web­sites (and it’s impor­tant to keep that plural — The Atlantic is hardly the worst offender here) did not directly pay me, I was still com­pen­sated for my time by my salary at my think tank.

Not every­one has that lux­ury. And as I’ve moved on from ASP, I’ve also moved on from being will­ing to write for free. If you have paid close atten­tion recently, then you’ve noticed the pace of my pub­lished writ­ing has decreased sig­nif­i­cantly. That is what only writ­ing for free does. It lim­its the avail­able work. That’s life.

I am not defend­ing the prac­tice of offer­ing peo­ple the chance to write for free. And in fact, my expe­ri­ence since choos­ing only to write for money has been instruc­tive: I now believe you should never write for free*. The only place I write for free is on my own blog, which I con­sider to be pro­mo­tional mate­r­ial for paid writ­ing work any­ways (and a place to muse in an unstruc­tured way that isn’t pub­lish­able any­way). But it’s on my terms. I do my own expo­sure, and for what I need, it mostly works.

Here’s the thing: if you value your­self, you should not write for free either. In hind­sight, I was still get­ting a raw deal at The Atlantic. I wrote my weekly col­umn for PBS dur­ing my time at ASP as well… and PBS paid me. Even though it was part of my job, PBS val­ued my writ­ing and so they paid me for it. And I’ve hon­ored them by writ­ing for them first when I have an idea. Through years of this fruit­ful col­lab­o­ra­tion, they’ve earned first dibs on any writ­ing idea I have, and it’s ben­e­fit­ted them greatly as well.

The Atlantic did not pay me, and as a result I did not write for them very often as I could have. It was their loss. When I did — con­trary to their pub­lic insis­tence that free­lancers don’t drive traf­fic — my pieces received hun­dreds of shares on Face­book and gen­er­ated hun­dreds of com­ments. I’m not exag­ger­at­ing, either: piece after piece gen­er­ated sub­stan­tial amounts of shar­ing activ­ity the edi­tors of any web­site would be thrilled to see.

I don’t har­bor any anger toward the Atlantic for not pay­ing me. I wrote for them know­ing I wouldn’t get paid and if I’m hon­est: I have ben­e­fit­ted from the expo­sure they pro­vided to me.

But that doesn’t make it right, or fair. In hind­sight, I should have been paid for those pieces. I worked hard on them, they were sub­stan­tive and more struc­tured than a quick one-off blog post, and they gen­er­ated a lot of dis­cus­sion: they were every­thing a mag­a­zine should want on its website.

I’ve cho­sen to take this as a learn­ing expe­ri­ence. Peo­ple my age and younger are told, at length, that we must work for free for increas­ingly long peri­ods of our 20s on the off chance that we might get paid later in life. This is a vicious lie.

The sim­ple truth is: good writ­ing is worth pay­ing for. Bad writ­ing is not. If no one will pay you for your writ­ing, find some­one who will. It may not be who you want. But it will have value.

I will not write for some­one else for free ever again. I value my time and myself, and no one is enti­tled to either with­out pay­ing me fairly for it. And I hope I can write for the Atlantic again soon… if they’re will­ing to pay me for it.

Let me end with this piece of advice: writ­ers, if you do not like writ­ing for free, then don’t. “Expo­sure,” though not with­out value, is not suf­fi­cient pay­ment. You’ll get expo­sure whether you’re paid or not. So choose to get paid. Spend your time wisely, and for some­one who will respect it by pay­ing you for it.

*There are, of course, mit­i­gat­ing cir­cum­stances. Writ­ing a quick blog­post for the New York Times, for exam­ple, was worth the expo­sure and addi­tion to my CV, even though they didn’t pay me for that. They have, how­ever, paid me for every op-ed I’ve pub­lished with them.