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Yes, Young Writers Should Give Their Work Away for Free

It's sad but true: There's no other way to make it

Itsra Sanprasert/Shutterstock

Writing in The New York Times this weekend, author and cartoonist Tim Kreider, like every other member of the working media, surveyed the contemporary marketplace, and realized he does not like what he sees. Writing and other creative endeavors, he rightly points out, are largely undervalued by the people who publish the work, and too often people are asked to donate their time and effort for little, or more likely, no compensation.

This isn't just an economic issue, he suggests, it's an existential one: “[B]eing told that what you do is of no ($0.00) value to the society you live in is, frankly, demoralizing. Even sort of insulting. And of course when you live in a culture that treats your work as frivolous you can’t help but internalize some of that devaluation and think of yourself as something less than a bona fide grown-up.” Coming on the heels of the news that Conde Nast is ending its internship program after a series of lawsuits over unpaid labor, it's never been a more confounding time to be an entry-level media professional.

Kreider is right that it is insulting to be told what you do is worthless, but sadly it's also often an accurate estimation, and one many young would-be writers need to hear. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” as a young person who knew a thing or two about existential crises and confusing job prospects once proclaimed, but that sort of thinking also applies to the idea of your creative labor. A piece of work is neither inherently good nor bad unless it is assigned value. Unfortunately for the contemporary writer, this is an externally defined judgment, not an internal one. Of course you think what you've written is great: You wrote it. But if your work was worth money someone would probably be paying you for it. That's not to say the work itself is aesthetically empty—it may well be literary greatness—but, as Kreider writes, money is how our culture defines value. This is something young writers are acutely aware of—money is never so important as when it doesn't exist—and he's right that it's a system worth questioning from the top down. But his conclusion that we all band together to enact a sort of writerly strike, while coming from a good place, is misguided and impractical advice. Working for free, for better or worse, is a necessary evil, and young writers entering the marketplace for the first time would be doing themselves a disservice to take a hard line against it. If you're going to think about your writing career as something worthy of being paid for, then you have to approach it as a business. Many unknown product launches come with a period of free trials and samples to get off the ground. Don't think of yourself as working for free then; think of the early pieces you write as a beta trial. Most businesses go through a lengthy stretch of unprofitability before they've earned customers' trust and return business. If, after a certain amount of time, say a year or two, you still aren't making any money at all, then perhaps it's time to close up shop.

That's not to say that one should work entirely, or even mostly, for free, during the early years, but there are hard questions one has to confront about exactly what it is they're doing that they expect to be paid for. Writers and other creative types, who are typically so attuned to the workings of the world around them, are often terrible arbiters of their own efforts. Pouring words out onto the computer is not in and of itself an act of labor, and this is an important distinction that Kreider and those before him who have bemoaned the devaluing of writing often gloss over. Reporting, interviewing, researching, editing, pounding the pavement, or sharing your hard-earned expertise in a given field are all things which we should justly consider worthy of compensation. Emotional thought-dumps, more often than not, are not, as much as we might want them to be.

We often hear of how the millennials are an entitled generation who feel the world owes them a living as well as creative fulfillment, but creativity is in abundant supply in the world. The demand simply isn't there for everyone who really, really “wants to be a writer” to attain their dream. The problem is, as in music, or film, or fashion, or any other seemingly glamorous profession, there are simply too many people trying to do the same thing and in the same exact way. How much value do we really think the 500th reaction to Miley Cyrus' latest exploits in a blog post is worth? A personal essay about your confusing and exciting new life in the big city? Another repackaged listicle or whatever else it is that passes for “writing” online now? No one cares. Overabundance has deflated the price of those types of things to about $0 a dozen. You should know, if you're being honest with yourself, whether or not what you've done qualifies as work or as pursuing a hobby. This applies across all mediums, music, photography, and so on. If it does, if it seems original, then yes, you should consider it something of value worth selling into the marketplace, otherwise over-inflating your expectations is a dangerous act of romantic self-delusion. Granted, romantic acts of self-delusion may be exactly what you're after as a writer, but if we're talking about working as a professional it's important to be more realistic.

As much as I'd like to see a system that fairly compensates people for their writing, particularly from publications that can well afford it, nothing short of a complete revolution in the way media is consumed is going to change the fact that people simply don't want to pay for the things they read or listen to or watch anymore. So how should a young writer approach this dilemma more practically then? “One for them, one for me” is an adage you often hear from film actors, and it makes sense for the burgeoning writing professional as well. Taking a hard line on giving your work away for free will do you no favors at the onset of a career, so it's important to strike a balance. Don't give it all away, but recognize when you're not going to be able to get most of it placed any other way. No one is going to come asking for more of your work unless it's out there for them to stumble upon in the first place.

Luke O'Neil is a freelance journalist in Boston. His work appears in Esquire, the Boston Globe, Slate, the Wall Street Journal, Vice and others. Follow him on Twitter at @lukeoneil47.

Image via shutterstock.