I Don’t Write for Free

Writing is a wonderful profession. You have the privilege of telling stories and of looking at the world from an unusual perspective. You are a craftsman, using words to give shape to ideas and concepts. You learn about a variety of topics and meet a fascinating cross-section of people. But anyone who writes will tell you they haven’t entered the profession to get rich.

Because of the vocational nature of writing and other creative professions, it can be easy for writers to fall into the trap of working for nothing, or for very little. Yet they are as well qualified and experienced as other professionals, such as doctors or accountants, who think nothing of charging full whack for their services. And because writing is so compettiive, many writers feel that working for nothing will get them in the door.

Unfortunately, this means that the people and organisations who need the services and writers are less likely to put value on the work that writers do. They’ll cut corners and get their cousin Freddie to do the writing for them, even though Freddie has not yet learned how to use the apostrophe. Or they think that writing is something they can easily do themselves, only to find that somehow the time isn’t available.

Media organisations are now also cutting corners when it comes to paying journalists. Some charge as little as 5c a word. The situation is not helped by the fact that in Ireland, the Competition Authority does not allow freelance writers to set their own rates, in case it creates a cartel situation. The trend for outsourcing writing services to India is also a scourge. Not only does it undercut writers in the West who need to make a living, but the low rates also exploit the Indian copywriters, who deserve a fair wage for their efforts.

This all means that the price writers charge for their work is constantly being undermined. And it also compromises the quality of writing. It doesn’t pay writers to invest time in producing fresh, original work. Because the organisations can get away with paying very little for writing, they place no value on it.

Writers need to recognise their own worth and be unafraid to state that worth to the people and organisations that employ them. I find dealing with money toe-curlingly embarrassing. But if I bury my head in the sand, I’ll be eroding my own worth.

Since I started my business, I’ve been doing a lot of digging around to find out what rates are considered acceptable. I’ve taken the plunge and consulted with my competitors. I’ve also used the British NUJ rates as a guide. From my research, I’ve found that calculating my rate by the hour rather than the word is a good yardstick and ensures I’ll get a fair rate for the labour I put in. I’ve also discovered the wisdom of quoting a slightly higher rate and bargaining down to the rate I initially envisages.

And over the past couple of years, I’ve quietly decided I won’t do any more freebies, unless the cause is dear to my heart or the article is for an organisation where nobody is paid. There is a lot of pressure on business people to give freebies and discounts during the recession, but a writer doesn’t need to do that to offer value for money. Many can charge a fair price anyway because they have few overheads.

Once a writer establishes their worth in their own eyes, the organisations they work with will recognise it too. They can weed out organisations which exploit them and only work with ones that recognise the value of what they do. Though this may mean a reduction of clients for a while, they’ll end up with a portfolio of clients who will offer them well-paid, regular work. This applies to other creative discipliens too. Writing brings rich rewards. It’s about time those rewards were financial as well as creative.


7 thoughts on “I Don’t Write for Free

  1. Great piece. You wrote a Press Release for me a while back and it was the best money ever spent. I don’t think enough people realise the benefits of having a piece written professionally and that its an ‘investment in your business’. One of the other services you offered was a list of media contacts which that alone was another great investment because it would have taken me so much time finding out the correct contacts and details. I cannot believe that freelancers are not allowed to set their own rates – I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous. You gave me a great press release, a list of contacts and the know how and confidence to approach editors – thank you :))


  2. Hi Derbhile,
    Completely agree with you; I can identify with graduates/young writers working for very little or for free to get their head in the door and to put something on their CV and I can’t blame them for that. However, given that writing is a craft, writers/journalists/copy-editors etc are paid too little sometimes. It’s a pity really, as a good writer should be paid accordingly:)


  3. Hi Derbhile- very well written. I always enjoy your blog and I think you have hit the nail on the head with this latest post.. Whether one crafts with clay, words or wood, a good crafter should be paid accordingly.


  4. Hi Derbhile,

    Excellent article! I wholeheartedly agree, we are in a similar position in that it can be hard to help clients see the value in what we do for them. It is a constant exercise in making what we do tangible. And that to me is at the heart of it, making the value clear.

    I actually disagree with your price high, haggle down approach as it sets a precedent that says you put cushion in your prices. I’m more of the price clearly and give less for less mentality but each to their own!

    Look forward to your next article πŸ™‚


  5. I totally agree! The vast majority of us freelancers out there are afraid to charge what we’re worth. I’m fairly new to the freelance game myself, and have experimented with rates. When clients were REALLY eager to pay me, I figured I was probably going a little too low.

    As an American, I had no idea Irish freelancers can’t set their own rates. And, picturing a cartel of freelance writers just made me chuckle πŸ™‚


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