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.