Doing it for Free

A famous writer friend is always a bit bemused by my blog writing. “You don’t get paid?” he wonders. I squirm when he says this because I do very much like getting paid for my writing. More than the cash, it gives me the good feeling that I am valued, that what I say and how I say it matters enough to pay me for it. But I also like writing this blog and, so far, no one has wanted me to move it somewhere and pay me to do it. So, yeah, I do a lot of writing for free.

A recent kerfuffle involving the musician Amanda Palmer who invited musicians to play for free at some of her concerts has sparked my navel gazing on this topic.  This musician questioned that and here is Amanda’s response.  It is complicated and I don’t see a clear right or wrong to all of it.  Both make points that make sense to me.  I like blogging here because I feel I have things to say that others are interested in, things on a wide variety of topics. I can write here about a book, about teaching, about a visit to an eccentric museum in Oxford, about writing for free, about anything I want that I hope will interest those who read this blog. I have the hubris to think that I can sometimes help — get a book a bit more attention or get readers to think about something they might not have before.

I also like blogging at the Huffington Post. When they merged with AOL some boycotted the Huffington Post, arguing that all who blogged for them should get paid for their content. Makes sense to me and as I said at the top, I’d love to get paid for my blogging. But I also like to write for an audience and feel that the HuffPo one is different from this one and I do want to get the word out about stuff to them.  And so I continue to write for free.

I’ve thought about this a lot over the years as I’ve always done art be it visual or writing.  After majoring in art at college I went off to Sierra Leone as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  While there I did art on my own and art for my work.  The latter involved mostly my creating 4-5 illustrations a day for a course in road repair for the Ministry of Works.  I learned that I did not want to do art that way and so when I came back to the States I taught and continued to do my own art on my own.  I did hope to get paid for it — to get a contract as an illustrator. That didn’t happen and after a few years I lost interest in drawing and moved on to other things.  One of those after many years was writing.  Opportunities presented themselves, some paid and some not.  I discovered that I loved to write, needed to write, and would do so whether or not I got paid to do so.

This is rambly, but it is something I’ve thought a lot about. For a long time I couldn’t write at all and once I did start again and discovered that I could do it well I enjoyed it very much.  Hearing from others that they appreciated what I had to say and how I said it meant a lot to me.  It continues to do so.  I did a few books for teachers and now am writing some for kids.  (My first for kids comes out next year.)  I got paid for all of them.  And that was important, a validation that others felt my work was worthy.  That said, here I am writing for free.

It is a messy business indeed.  For what is writing anyway and who is it for in the end?  A business? A situation of self-reflection?  In need of an audience?  There is no one answer for me.


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16 responses to “Doing it for Free

  1. Monica, it is tricky– I started blogging for free. I’ve written for free and gotten paid. The same question comes up for doing presentations, webinars, etc. I liked this post — — because it also framed it in, when is it being done for “me”? And when is there an exchange? With the view that part of the issue with AP is that the exchange is one-sided.


  2. I also often get the, “You’re nuts!” look or comment from people who find out I spend so much time on my blog when I don’t get paid for it. It doesn’t bother me, because I do it for me. I started it as an outlet for my own thoughts and to help me keep track of what I was reading. I never really expected that many other people to read it. Or care. Then I tweaked it so I could use it as a resource to send the parents of my students. It is still mostly for my own enjoyment though.

    I like that post Liz linked to above (thanks Liz!). The thoughts on exchange were interesting. I think that what is an adequate “exchange” for services is really up to the person offering the service.

    For example: I also teach three literature classes a week at our homeschool co-op practically for free. While I do get to charge a fee for those classes it isn’t much and pretty much pays the fees for my kids’ classes. It doesn’t really cover the amount of time and work that goes into preparing and grading. (But when does teaching ever pay for that?) We try to keep the cost of our co-op down so families with multiple kids and small budgets have a place to go in our town. Again, from people who don’t understand I get a lot of strange looks and comments. Yet there is very much an exchange of services going on in that environment. One that is well worth it to me. Parents get a qualified teacher to teach their children literature and writing. I get to teach what I love in the manner I want, and my two kids get people more qualified than me to teach them science, art, dance, karate, etc. Still I find myself defending my choice to teach there to people all the time. People who seem to think I’m being cheated and that I could be making real money elsewhere if I wasn’t being so “nice”. (Like I wasn’t aware of that and am somehow being hoodwinked.) I have never been one to care much what other people think of me though so mostly these people amuse me. Particularly the ones who get real worked up about it.

    Sorry for the super long comment in which I use your comments section to sort out my thinking on the subject. :)


  3. “I discovered that I loved to write, needed to write, and would do so whether or not I got paid to do so.”

    This says it all for me, too, Monica. I love what I do, even when I do it for free.


    • Loving what you do is key for me. I didn’t love doing those road repair illustrations and it taught me that I probably couldn’t make a living illustration, there’d be too many jobs I’d detest. So I taught which I mostly loved and love and did my art for me, hoping others would want it too. Different from those who do make a living doing it, clearly.


  4. It’s a tough issue, no doubt. My sister and I talk about it a lot. I’m a professional writer and, these days, it’s amazing how many people ask you to join their projects, contribute labor/value for free, without offering a slice of the pie or a skill trade—so I feel for those musicians. I’d protest, too.

    Louise is a salaried teacher—6th grade reading—who, like you, wants to get the word out about great books for tweens. She was writing a parent newsletter, which I helped her turn into a blog that appears on my author site. For now, that seems to be a good middle ground, though finding time to blog during the school year has been a challenge for Louise.

    The flipside is that I’ve tutored adults in English for free for more than a decade—via a non-profit. For me, it’s a chance to meet people from around the world and interact socially, after a long solo day of writing/editing and I genuinely enjoy it. At three TESOL conferences I attended (I was developing some ESL games and hoped to publish them), I’ve encountered teachers who were angered by free tutoring services. I empathize. I do. I point out that I don’t teach—I tutor—and it’s a supplement to the many formal English classes in our area, mostly for conversation practice.

    But the question remains: Do free services (writing or teaching) devalue these professions? Perhaps. I’d be curious to hear more thoughts on this.


    • The tutoring thing…wow. I guess it ends up all being about the notion of respect. We teachers don’t get a whole lotta that and so blogging for free is a way to hopefully get a bit. But even better would be our being paid for it!


  5. I have also recently started writing for free at my blog. My thoughts are that the internet is a wonderful, relatively new thing that is almost completely made of words, and those of us who deal in words have a responsibility to fill it with useful content. I love getting comments on posts and emails from readers about what they’d like to see. There is an interactive quality to writing for the internet that I don’t get through traditional publishing. You have such wonderful things to say, and you are so very generous with your words! All writers should aspire, above all, to be generous: to share their thoughts and talents, to curate information. It’s a whole new world. Thank you for writing for free! (Though you should know I would also pay for your content as well…)


    • Sorry, I wrote that we have a “responsibility” to add value to the internet, but that’s coming at it a little strong. I really meant that we do a good thing adding thoughts and questions to this flourishing and new means of technology.


      • This is a great perspective, one I agree with. I am currently working on a post for someone else’s blog about a topic I think that blog’s audience may attend to. I could write the post here, but I am mostly interested in getting the word out to that audience which, while it overlaps with this blog’s audience, is also different.


  6. kakumadepew

    I think this applies to cookbooks, too. So many recipes are online, and lot’s of publishers are publishing books based on blogs. But how much content do you keep “free” online, and how much do you save for the book? I think the problem with AP involves the presence of a paying audience. If she was just making music for herself and her friends in their own homes, no one would mind inviting other musicians to come for beer and hugs. But if she’s selling tickets to an event, everyone involved in that event needs to get paid. Would you contribute something free to an anthology that other’s were getting paid to write for?


    • I’ve been asked to contribute to edited publications where the editors were probably getting some sort of royalties. My decision not to contribute had to do more with not being sufficiently interest in the topic to do the writing more than the issue of compensation. To be honest, I didn’t even think about getting paid. I mean, in academia this sort of thing is pretty typical. You do it to get stuff on your vita, to get known, etc.

      I have to admit I’ve been part of conferences where there were different degrees of compensation. I can think of one where I was compensated by having the conference fee waived and my room and board covered for my work. Speakers were additionally compensated with an honorarium and I suspect that the more famous they were the larger that amount. I have to say I had no problem with this as I was simply delighted to be part of the thing (as I suspect may be the case with those volunteer musicians with AP). I knew that they had to pay more to get the bigger names, so it goes. However, the conference was not a profit-making entity whereas Amanda Palmer is. There’s the rub.


  7. Pingback: Update on Doing It for Free | educating alice

  8. I have no issue with anyone blogging for personal fulfillment. But HuffPo…well, HuffPo IS Amanda Palmer on an even grander scale. It’s an entire business model founded on not paying writers. Those of us who used to make a decent living writing for magazines and newspapers can only shake our heads at the new business model. Web sites say they have no money for writers. I get that. Yet they somehow manage to pay their IT staff, the web hosting company and the guy who empties the trash. Arianna in particular has the means and opportunity to pay people and has elected not to, and has the chutzpah to lecture about how she’s created a new business model and journalism isn’t dead. Well, it will indeed be dead, as long as sites keep lifting and linking from other sites and only the NYT can afford to do original writing or reporting. Does not paying for content matter for non-reported pieces? Obviously writing about fashion or books or sports isn’t the same thing as reporting on abuses in Chechnya. But I’d still argue that in most cases, you get what you pay for. I DO think there is a connection between people who (not you, Monica) don’t really understand the concept of full disclosure, not being beholden to publicists, not writing from press releases, not plagiarizing from other writers or Wikipedia and the brave new world of people paying for positive reviews.

    Teachers are indeed professionals who are not sufficiently respected (both my parents were teachers, and I thank God for my children’s teachers every day), but I’m a professional too. And like teaching, my job — and it IS a job, and I pay my mortgage with it — is something most everyone thinks he or she can do. So for you to say “we teachers don’t get a lot of respect” and then say “but I’ll write for HuffPo for free!” kinda burns my biscuit. To ALL bloggers I say: Rock on with your personal blog. Run ads, even! Write for your friends’ blogs! But do not support a business built on exploitation. Everything Amanda Palmer’s commenters had to say about her not paying musicians can be said for Arianna Huffington. We must all hang together (against a cynical business model) or we shall all hang separately, dude.

    On a lighter note: I love love love this video, btw, about how writing for women’s magazines has changed, which is PARTLY due to the new deal of not paying writers because hey, people will write for cheap/free:


    • Marjorie, I feel like we are in different worlds here. As I wrote above, I discovered when very young that I could not do art for anyone but myself. (The stint doing educational illustration in the Peace Corps taught me that.) And so I became a teacher and continued doing art (first illustrating and later writing) firstly for myself. I chose to take on a different career to support myself so that I didn’t have to do art in any way I didn’t want to.

      My social circle was one of artists and I tended to feel guilty that I wasn’t leading the sort of lives most of my friends were — taking on one freelance job after another in order to make the rent. But I knew it wasn’t comfortable living that way. I needed a steady salary. No doubt my parents affected me too. Much as they admired my art then also were proud of my work as a teacher. At any rate, it was the path I took, one I wanted to feel free to do art the way I wanted to.

      Writing was a painful thing for me for several decades because of a traumatic teacher in high school. I stayed clear of it until a fellowship opportunity, something I wanted badly, pushed me out of my stagnated spot. It was through various online opportunities that I found my voice again. The first of these was Scholastic’s first online presence, pre-Web it was through AOL. They gave me a modem and an account, that is all.Later I did more for them for small amounts of money and eventually found it not what I wanted to do so stopped. I was by then writing enthusiastically on child_lit and was invited to speak, write (some for pay some for academic journals), and so forth.

      Over the years what has come to matter most to me is audience. I sort of feel I can help people sometimes understand things they don’t. Right now I’m working on a post for free for another blog about the Newbery because that blog is read by teachers who don’t understand it and I like to think maybe I can help them in that. I know what frustrates them, what they don’t understand, and I want to help them with that. So that is a particular audience I’m interested in writing to.

      Another is those who read HuffPo. When that came up I thought they were going to pay me (knowing pretty much nothing about them). I decided to do it anyway because I felt it was a different audience, a different platform, one I wanted to reach. Similar perhaps to the audience for a summer reading show on NPR I did a couple of years ago (also for free). I enjoyed that so much that I did a couple of videos with Betsy Bird hoping we could convince NPR to have us do something regularly (but so far no luck).

      I have turned down paid opportunities that don’t feel right for me. After starting to review at the NYTBR I was interested in doing more of that sort of reviewing and contacted a couple of other newspapers. One once asked me to do a review for them, but the book looked lame, the timing was tight, the money not worth it so I said no. I’m occasionally asked to do teacher guides for books and I usually say no to those too, unless the book is one I can imagine teaching myself. I’ve done a few teacher books and have been asked to do more, again I only want to write about firsthand teaching experience. I’m not interested in creating lessons for pay that I haven’t or wouldn’t do myself.

      This past summer I was in a bit of a crisis as I had to decided whether to dash off a Chaplin book in time to meet the 2014 anniversary of the Little Tramp’s birth or just work at my pace to make it the book I want it to be. With some good input from friends in publishing, I decided to take the deadline off my shoulders and simply work on the book at my pace. It may be mistake (as it may be harder to sell the book without that marketing piece), but it has relieved me enormously so that I can now take the time I need to make the book something that I’m truly happy with. I do want to sell this book, I have no plans to do it for free. But, not depending on income from it made it possible for me to take this chance, something I’m sure I couldn’t have otherwise.

      We come to this in such different places. I hear you, but chose to go differently with something like HuffPo (and probably would with NPR if they asked me to do something again). As you wrote on Facebook, we will have to agree to disagree about this. And otherwise enjoy each others ideas still, I hope!!


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