Don’t Write for Free. Do Write for Free.

Man, it’s a confusing time to be a writer.

Book marketing experts say: “Give away content for free! Blog, tweet, pin, comment, contribute, give away your whole ebook, draft white papers. Do this to get attention, create relationships, join communities, build platforms, gain credibility…”

Gatekeepers say free content is destroying the world. Free content is unedited and unscreened. Writers can’t earn a living if they’re competing against others offering similar work for free. Untrustworthy and/or poor writing pervading the internet contributes to a culture with lower standards, little understanding and far less of the critical thinking  necessary to a civilized society.

I feel very strongly about this issue. I believe: both views are right.

Bottom Line Up Top: Be Good

There’s not a whole lot any individual writer can do to stem the avalanche of online content. And none of us can avoid giving content away for free, not if we want to keep our names out there–even Margaret Atwood tweets.  But we can strive to keep the bar high, whether we’re paid or not.

And that means taking the time to research. To re-read, and to edit. To write responsibly, not hastily.

Buy Good Writing, and Price Your Writing Well

Support those publications that pay their authors well–buy traditionally published books and subscribe to magazines and newspapers. And, as soon and as often as you can, charge appropriately for your work.

But of course, it’s not that simple. It’s not simple at all.

The Complexities

Scott Meslow’s article inThe Week, “Entertainment Weekly wants you to write for free. Don’t do it” prompted my writing this blog. In response to the news that Entertainment Weekly has created a platform to publish aspiring journalists’ articles for free, Mr. Meslow wrote “The precedent being set here is deeply troubling, and anyone who cares about the future of journalism should be disturbed by it.”

Mr. Meslow is the entertainment editor for TheWeek.comI endorse many of the sentiments he expressed wholeheartedly and encourage you to read his essay.

And yet…The Week itself reprints, without payment (other than to newsfeeds), synopses of top stories reported elsewhere. I don’t condemn this. The Week also includes original reporting and essays, and supports a small paid staff. I’m glad to see a relatively new magazine finding a formula that works.

That formula, though, rests on not paying for the original reporting of the soundbites TheWeek reprints.

(Small newspapers, years ago, relied on newswires like AP for stories; that’s nothing new. I’m just pointing out the ironies.)

I’m on Scott’s Side, but the Slope is So Darn Slippery

One could say that the free material on The Week–the quick news takes compiled from other sources–is what grabs readers, who might then pay for the subscription that enables The Week  to pay its editors and contributors.

Much as today’s writers need to establish themselves somehow, to grab attention in some way–which usually means producing content for free.

I didn’t pay to read Scott’s article. I learned of it through someone’s tweet–I didn’t pay the tweeter, either. I didn’t pay to read the Salon article I jumped to after that, or the original Digiday report; I did pay to read the New York Times article about The Week. 

I faced a WordPress issue while writing. I jumped to a WordPress blog.

Paid content, unpaid content; paid writers, unpaid writers. I want to read quality material without paying for it. I’m part of the problem.

The Yin and the Yang

Scott’s  article didn’t mention Huffington Post, which  made millions on the backs of free blogs when it sold to AOL. I found the whole  Huffpo thing outrageous.  At the same time I know a few people whose businesses have grown markedly through their Huffpo fame.

Is it Better to Write for Free for EW than to Blog in Obscurity?

Before places like Huffpo and the new EW Community young writers would be trying to make their names through blogging and unpaid internships (which exploded in popularity around the same time as free content expectations…wonder what that’s about?).

(Pre-internet, young writers could find (low-paying) jobs at newspapers and magazines. Then again, years before that, artists of all kinds needed patrons to live, so I guess this is an ever-evolving tale.)

Back to You

I love giving advice to writers.  But this topic requires a conversation, not a soapbox. While I worry daily about the impact of devalued writing on society as a whole, individual writers have to break through the noise somehow.

So what do you think?


  1. This is a test comment! Sorry, comments were disabled.

  2. It seems the financial models in all sectors of creative works is shifting. The writer, photographer, designer, painter are all being given the largest opportunities to communicate in history, for the least amount of commerce in history. I remember watching the television series Star Trek and thinking “oh, cmon, they don’t use money anymore?” how could that be?

  3. Michael Larsen says

    If, as Don Maass says, it takes five books to build an audience for
    your work, how many articles does it take? It’s about building a platform and a
    community of fans who will buy whoaever you sell, an investment that has a
    lifetime value. It takes as long as it takes, so writers have to have clear
    publishing goals and take the long view in developnig their craft and

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