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Yes, You Can Write For “Free” (But Only For Yourself)

Last updated on March 4, 2019

Over the past few days, I’ve seen the debate about writing for “free” crop up a number of times in my social feed, usually with a variation of the phrase, “f**k no.”

I believe (this time, at least), it comes back to a tweet from Erik Larsen, the creator of Savage Dragon, one of the longest running independently created comics in history (among other bits on his storied resume):

Professionals will tell you “don’t work for free” but “free” is the one advantage a newcomer has. And “free” will get you places you couldn’t go otherwise.

Naturally, most folks are retweeting his first tweet and flipping out, without reading the rest of the thread where he goes on to explain that you need to check the outlet/people you’re working with, that not all free labor is equal, and he’s just suggesting it’s a way of opening doors.

I do think in a certain sense Larsen isn’t wrong, but he also isn’t right. At least not for the internet and the creative world the way it’s set out now.

[Grain of salt time: Erik Larsen is one of the founders of Image Comics; I got a bunch of people to tweet their epitaphs at me, so your mileage may vary here.]

I’m actually a strong believer in doing “free” work, but with the caveat that it has to be for yourself, and on your own terms. Once other people enter into the creation, or you aren’t the lead artist (meaning writer, actual artist, editor, whatever – the driving force behind the project), then money has to enter into the equation or GTFO.

Here’s a few situations that I’d venture aren’t just acceptable, but a good use of your free time:

#1: You’re Between Jobs/Looking To Change Careers

I actually suggest this one all the time, to students and to folks who call me for advice (which is weirdly a thing that’s happened quite a bit, don’t you know that I’m a terrible doofus???).

Back when I started in entertainment journalism, an outlet I worked for unfortunately decided to fire all their editors. I was actually kept on as a writer, which was nice, but confusing because, you know, who was going to edit me?

Since one of the major things I did for them was TV recapping, and they didn’t seem to have a place for that anymore, I kept doing it… Just on my personal blog (why, this very blog you find yourself on right now, friend!) The reasoning was that, first and foremost, I liked recapping. Loved it, in fact. It’s still the single best way I’ve found of processing an hour of television: just start writing about it and see what I can suss out. The second reason was that it helped keep me fresh. Instead of swearing off TV and/or writing about TV, then trying to get a job, when I did hopefully get another job (and I did, luckily enough) I wouldn’t have to start from zero… I was using my recapping muscles constantly and was able to hit the ground running.

The last one is that I would have a body of work that continued, because there’s nothing harder to explain on a resume than a gap. This way, instead of saying this one site ended, and then XXX numbers of months later I wanted to pick up with recaps, I could point to some recent work. I’ll be frank, based on the fact that I’ve been in a hiring position multiple times: nobody really cares about the work you’ve done for ILoveTVMyNameIsAlex dot com; but at the same time, I know that you’ve kept up with current shows, and are eager to write about TV (in this specific case).

The same thing could be applied to any discipline… If you want to write film reviews, start reviewing films; you’re not going to get hired just because you’ve seen Ferdinand a bunch of times in theaters. Everyone has to start somewhere, and using your own, personal site to generate material and figure out how to write about things is a way to start. The same applies to writing short stories, or investigative journalism, or nonfiction, or whatever. You’ve just gotta start writing.

That said, don’t start writing for an outlet for free unless A) it’s a friend of yours and you’re all doing it for fun, or B) it’s some sort of good cause, like everyone is chipping in for cancer research for kids. Even if they promise you a rev-share (and particularly then), you’re better off doing your own thing. If someone has gotten big enough to bring on other writers, and you don’t know them personally, they should pay you (legally, I hope).

#2: You Want To Try Something New

This is what I’m doing right now… I’m not necessarily interested in changing careers, but I am interested in challenging myself to explore different types of writing than what I’ve been doing professionally for the past few years, and then bringing those skills back to my full-time job.

I still don’t think you should do it for someone else, but posting things that you wouldn’t normally post for work as an exercise is great! I think. I hope. There’s no cost to you there, you’re not trying to get anything out of what you’re doing, you’re just exercising. Stretching. Maybe you hit on something new and exciting, but ultimately I’ve found the best way of understanding something is by doing it. For example, I performed/studied improv comedy for years, long enough to know that I didn’t love it – but was able to take skills I learned and apply them to everything from sketch comedy, to my daily interactions.

As a side note, something I’ve been wrestling with is where you post these things. I’m putting this on my personal site because I’ve decided that things first person or about the process of writing belong there. I put more fiction/humor based articles and essays on my Medium site, but I feel conflicted about it, because ultimately I’m serving Medium’s bottom line, not my own. But also because I’m just doing this to stretch myself and not to make sweet, sweet cash, I think it’s okay.

If there came a time where I said, “You know what, I’m a short story writer now,” or whatever, I’d pull that stuff off Medium or any third party site and figure out a way to post it all that didn’t serve anyone but me (SO SELFISH).

#3: It’s A Warm-Up

This is something I see a lot of artists (particularly comic book artists) do, and I loved it so much I’ve applied it to writing: the warm-up sketch. In the morning, or afternoon, or whenever they wake up, they do a quick, fun sketch with no money or expectations involved, as a way of getting their brain and hands going.

I’ve found the same thing works for me with writing… When it comes to entertainment journalism, I’ll often tackle something dry and easy that takes just a little bit (or no) brain power first thing in the morning, then delve into the heavier, longer articles. I’m much more prepared to spin my beautiful words that way, rather than jumping into the big piece.

And that’s the same thing I’ve been doing here, and on Medium… Dashing off something quick or fun so my brain starts rolling before I try to tackle something professional. I enjoy the pieces I’m writing, and I don’t want to put out anything actively bad. But at the same time, they’re more about getting me going than getting me work.

#4: Charity

I mentioned this one earlier, but it’s important to reiterate: I have often donated my time or energy if it’s for a good cause. Hopefully then nobody except the needy are making money off of this, but this is a totally acceptable use of your skillz.

So there you go. I imagine there are other ways of creating for free, but personally I will draw the line at “professional publisher giving you a ‘chance’ to get published in anthology for free” which I’ve seen dropped a lot. Yes, the exposure is great… But your time and energy are worth something, and you should be paid for that. If the publisher is making money off that anthology, they should give you money.

And ultimately, careers are fleeting. In the specific example of comics, you’re donating your time for an anthology one day, getting a one-shot paid, and then nobody knows your name the next week. Versus finding collaborators you want to work with and self-publishing, something that is totally viable in the age of Kickstarter and Patreon, and getting your name and work out there in a way you can truly control.

There’s no right way to “break in…” But don’t go broke while you’re doing it.

Published inAdviceWriting

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