Twenty-one years. That’s how long I’ve been writing professionally. But “writing professionally” might be a misnomer if you subscribe to the strict definitions regarding professional versus amateur.
In the Olympics, the lines have sadly blurred. Where we once only awarded accolades and … err … awards for those who excelled in various exhibitions of speed, strength and stamina, we now turn a blind eye to monetary compensation.
The guy who used to swim for the glory now swims to collect branding money from Subway and other sponsors. And the folks who used to shoot baskets in a quest for a medal are now dribbling for endorsement deals and better professional contracts.
Where the line gets drawn is partially up to an equation of public opinion, national pride and personal ethics. Are we as journalists any less drawn to money? I’d like to think we’re driven by more than the almighty dollar, but without those dollars, we can’t even drive to work, much less subsist in today’s economy.
Which brings me back to “writing professionally.” When you’re penning a column, a blog post, an article or a script, are you ever doing it for something more than a paycheck? And if it’s for more than a paycheck (or less), how do you measure your work’s value?
Time to break out the soapbox and pull back the curtain. I have written for little or no money in the past. I think this is the worst thing that anyone can do for themselves and for the entire profession of professional writing. I also think it’s a necessary evil at times.
How can I swing both ways on this issue? Easily. There was a time when I was making $30 for seven hours of work covering school committee meetings for a weekly paper. I’m not great at math, but that comes out to about $4 an hour. Isn’t that writing for nothing?
What about the spec writing I’ve done for multiple outlets that didn’t offer me kill fees for articles? Or the writing I did for contests, websites, now-defunct news outlets and online publications, none of which paid me a physical dime? Any writer knows that living and dying by the pen or keyboard isn’t easy. The path to sustainability is a long one, too.
Therein lies the ethical struggle. If I want to be considered a professional, I can’t write for free. If I want to prove that I can write, build my clip file, get some sweet bylines (anyone heard of Mashable or Huffington Post?) and build an audience for my work beyond the 14,000 parents who read about class sizes in my school committee meeting recounts, I must do something.
We all must. But that is where your confidence, your training, your stamina and your goals come into play. Therefore, I won’t judge you if you decide you need to write for free to get your name onto the right tongues. I won’t judge you if you write for nothing just to break into a specialty area. And I won’t judge you when you write for free to explore a new channel.
Just make some smart decisions about your future and the way you price your skills, because those decisions affect the other professional writers in your community. To that end, here are three tips that might help some of you stay the course when you start to waver about taking enough money for your craft.
1) Price yourself high enough that you’re almost embarrassed to ask for that much money. You’ll find that clients (not necessarily the weekly papers, but definitely others) will often not blink at your pricing if you have the skills and experience they’re looking for. You’ll know that it’s time to raise your pricing again when folks don’t even pause before saying yes to your financial requests.
2) Spend some time honing your craft on projects that are solely for you. If you have so much energy that you can give away your writing, don’t give it to just anyone — give it to the world. Post your “free” writing on your blog and the publications you control. Work on your novel. Write some investigative pieces. Do interviews that might never see the light of day. But do these things for you. You’ll be a better writer when one of these projects or jobs surfaces, and you won’t have handcuffed yourself by doing this writing for free for someone already.
3) Network with other writers. Get to know them and their families. Find out what drives them. Then discuss pricing with them. Everyone is uncomfortable discussing rates, but what we have is a skill that deserves remuneration. If you were a surgeon, you wouldn’t be bashful about collecting money from insurance companies. Think of what we do as surgical communication.
We have a gift that might seemingly come easy at times. But our craft is a skill we shouldn’t take for granted or undervalue. Go out there and write great things. Write the things people want to read. Create content that makes people feel emotions. And make sure you’re paid handsomely for that effort. Every. Single. Time.
Jeff Cutler is a freelance journalist, social media trainer and content specialist who speaks regularly on content marketing, the use of social tools for journalists and businesses, and the best ways to brand your product, service or self. The most comprehensive way to see Jeff’s world is by going to jeffcutler.com; you can connect to Jeff via social media channels using the links at the top of his website.