Thursday, December 11, 2008

Do You Work for Free?

As a freelance editor and writer, I spend a lot of time on web sites like Craigslist, reading help-wanted ads, looking for clients and trying to get a sense of what is going on in the market.

And what is going on in the market is that nobody wants to actually pay you for your work anymore.

Memoir: I am working on my memoir, but I'm not a writer, and I need help. I don't have any money, but it's a fascinating story.......
Writer Wanted: I have all these great ideas for novels, but I'm not a writer. I can't pay. But they really are great ideas, and I'd be willing to share them with you, if you wanted to write them up. I'm sure it would be easy for you to write it....
GhostWriter: I have some notes for my DaVinciCode/The Secret/Anne Rice/JRTolkien kind of story. Everybody--my mom and my girlfriend--swear it will be the next big thing, but I really don't have the time to write it. And I can't pay. And I'm not such a good writer. But if you are a writer, then I'm sure you could knock it out in a couple of weeks and I would be willing to give you a percentage when it sells...

I'm frankly puzzled. These people apparently think that writers are some kind of cyborg/software amalgam: plug in an idea, sit us down in front of our computers, and we just go. (This might explain why they think we don't need money, since cyborgs shouldn't have bills, and don't need shelter, or food, or clothing to cover up their robot parts.) The irony is that if anyone should know how difficult writing is, then it's the people who posted these ads. Presumably, they've given it the old college try, and sat down at their computer and attempted to put their fabulous ideas into words and those words into sentences and those sentences into paragraphs. . . and they've figured out that this whole writing thing isn't as easy as it looks. In fact, it kind of sucks. It's work! Maybe what they don't know is that the difference between them and us "writers" is that we keep doing it anyway.

Now, I'm not a wealthy person, and I understand having limited funds. In the spring, for example, I requested a 'free' copy of a book from a writer in the UK, a book I couldn't get my hands on here in the States (despite Amazon and WorldCat). At that time--back in the good ole days--the dollar/pound exchange rate meant that I would have had to pay hundreds of dollars for the book, which I didn't have, and I really needed it for some research I was doing. But it didn't feel right to ask the guy to give his work away, so I offered to donate it to a library of his choosing when I was finished with it, or trade some research, editing, or writing hours in return. (I live in DC and thought he might need something from the Library of Congress or National Archives.) He didn't, and in the end, he turned me down. But he thanked me for my offer. Another example: I posted my own Craigslist ad, looking for a graphic designer to come up with a logo for my new web site, for "free." Well, sort of. Again, I offered editing or writing services in trade. I got 20-some nice responses. I struck a deal, got my logo, did the editing work in return, and made a new friend in the process.

I just don't understand the freebie mentality. I belong to a writer's group, and my fellow writers know I have an editing background, and they ask me for editing advice. I give it. Freely. And in return, I get their company, and their attention when I read my chapters, and their comments, and somebody to commiserate with over the writing process. When it's give and take, I'm more than happy to give my share.

Want some free advice? If you've got a great idea for a story and you aren't a writer, and could use some help, then how about offering something in return? My bedroom could use a coat of paint. Is anybody in your family a dentist? (I have a loose filling.) Or a vet? (My kitten is due for her next set of shots in a couple of weeks.) Or how about house cleaning services? My kitchen floor is sticky again, and I can't deal with it, I've got a deadline to meet for a (paying) job.