When Writing Doesn’t Pay (But Should)

Recently, a friend requested I write some ad copy for her small business. “Just write something up really quick,” she said, “and make it sound good.” Nothing about length, medium, or details for the copy. Nothing. But what bothered me most was not the lack information, but the lack of compensation.

For you see, the average person seems to believe writers do it for the love of writing, and that’s all the compensation we need.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no problem giving free guidance or advice. Quite frequently, someone wants to pick my brain about getting into magazine writing, or I’m asked to give an important e-mail a once over. I think anything like this falls under the umbrella of being a good friend. It’s like asking a CPA a tax question, or getting your doctor friend to take a peek at a strange growth. But you wouldn’t ask the CPA to do your taxes for free, or the doctor to remove the growth without pay. So why are writers not given the same respect for their time and abilities? I think the problem starts with a few misconceptions:

  • Writing is a hobby. It always comes easily. It’s also extremely enjoyable. Just because I enjoy writing, doesn’t mean I don’t put a good amount of blood, sweat, and tears into it. And even if you’re good at something, that doesn’t mean it comes easy. Often times I’ve suspected others think they’re doing me a favor by asking me to look over their resume. So for the uninitiated – all writing is not the same. Sorry, but that cover letter I spent three hours rewriting was not as enjoyable as chapter fourteen of my novel. I’d much rather clean your bathrooms than edit your business letter (and I’d probably get paid better, too). Which brings me to:
  • They don’t understand how long it takes. I think this misconception is very common, considering the number of times I’ve been asked to write something “real quick.” Even my husband, during a discussion on this very topic, made the mistake of saying, “Maybe they don’t know what they’re asking of you. They might think editing a resume takes you five minutes, when it really takes you forty-five.” Uhhh – whaaaah? Forty-five minutes to reformat and rewrite a 3-5 page resume? In my peacefully slumbering dreams! The truth is, I have no idea how long it will take me to write something until I’m done. I’ve had one-page articles take two hours to slog through, and that was just the editing. Imagine how much time it takes to research and write copy from scratch.Often we equate being good at something with being fast and efficient, too. We also imagine that the better we get at an activity, the more quickly we are able to complete it. Painting a room comes to mind. My husband and I hire a painter for most projects around our house, because the same room that takes the painter four hours would take us twelve – and his work is of a better quality. Writing is not one of those types of activity. If anything, it’s the opposite. For instance, when I first started writing magazine articles, I’d often spend less than two hours on a 500 word article, and that included research and editing. As I grew as a writer, and honed my craft, I became acutely aware of deficiencies in those earlier articles. Now a 500 word article might take me five or six hours, because I spend more time researching, outlining and editing. It takes longer, but the end product is so much better.
  • That’s why I’m troubled when someone asks me to write “something quick,” but also specifies “make it good.” Sorry, but I can only give you one or the other. So the next time you need the services of a writer, take your estimate of the time commitment, and multiply that by four. That should get you close. If you just want it fast, take the quality you expect, and bring it down several notches. And if you want something that is both fast and free, I guarantee I’ll do it as fast as I’m possibly able.
  • Writers get paid in peanuts (or they don’t know what compensation is appropriate.) I do think that, on occasion, it does occur  to my friends that I should get paid for my help. They just don’t know how much. Most people have a general idea that a painter gets paid by the room or per hour, and a CPA gets a flat fee for a tax return. But how much do you pay someone who wrote your cover letter? Honestly, I don’t know most of the time either. This is when gifts are good. Gifts are very good. Anything you would bring as a hostess gift, is also acceptable as a thank you for a writing service between friends. A friend in college would bring me something to decorate my dorm room every time I edited one of her term papers. Lunch, dinner or coffee is great, too. I’ve even offered copy editing and writing for a friend’s web page in exchange for free product. No money ever exchanged hands, and no resentment did either.I have a wonderful beta reader who has given me invaluable advice on my current WIP, and spent many hours editing it for free. We don’t know each other in real life, but I’ve used my stealth ninja skills (OK – stalker skills) to find her home address, and plan on sending her a package of goodies as a thank you. Like many interactions between friends, it would seem odd to offer money, but perfectly acceptable if the compensation is in gift form. Bottom line: if someone does something for you that you can’t, or don’t want to do yourself, a small token of your appreciation is always appropriate.

In the last 10+ years of writing, I’ve been offered monetary compensation just once by a friend, and this same friend was a graphic designer who knew all to well what it was liked to have her skills considered “a hobby.” The job in question was a cover letter, which I wrote in such a way that she could make minor changes and use it over and over again. She paid me $10.

So what about other writers out there? Are you asked to write for free? If so, how do you handle it?

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