Why I write for free

An essay by Benjamin Kunkel titled ‘Lingering’ appeared  in the most recent issue of the N1BR.  Notionally a review of three semi-recent books about online discourse, the essay functions as an accounting of the ways the Internet has failed to enrich both the author’s life and literary culture.  But Kunkel is not (wholly) a technophobe or a scold.  He gives “digitally interconnected life” credit for its “novelty, variety [and] excitement.”  He even approves of the way that an agreeably “speech-like” writing style has been used by bloggers — although because the writing in question appeared online, that style choice must only ever have been deployed  “in a minor and disposable way.”

He will readily defend the amusing aspects of the Internet, he says, as long as he’s not forced to pretend these amusements are important.  He’ll admit that he likes to Gchat as long as we understand that he thinks that online communication is ultimately a distraction from the important business of reading “poetry, philosophy, and history,” which he says “hardly exist online.”  “What are the native species of internet prose?” he asks, then answers, “Op-eds, diary entries, aperçus, allusions, screeds, and scrawls of graffiti—worthy forms but marginal and perishable like little nodding flowers along a river”  — “fundamentally parasitic forms” that do not themselves constitute “[their] own culture.”

Kunkel’s experience of the Internet bears no resemblance to my experience of the Internet, but then, that’s the funny thing about the Internet, isn’t it? No one’s Internet looks the same as anyone else’s, and it’s that exact essential fungibility that makes definitive assessments like Kunkel’s infuriating.  The Internet isn’t a text we can all read and interpret differently.  It’s not even a text, at least not in most senses of that word.  The Internet is a chimera that magically manifests in whatever guise its viewer expects it to.  If you are looking at the Internet and expecting it to be a source of fleeting funniness, unchallenging writing, attention-span-killing video snippets, and porn, then that is exactly all it will ever be for you.

But even if you accept Kunkel’s valuation of the entire content of the Internet,  you might still part ideological ways with him when he comes to the direly portentous part of his essay, when he wonders where our consumption and production of online writing is leading us.   He pretends to accede that “no logical reason exists” why great, “challenging” art can’t exist alongside the weaker stuff that the Internet specializes in, but this turns out to be a ruse.  “Naturally everyone wants to believe that by spending time online we are not steadily depriving real art, thought, and journalism of the attention and—since so much online “content” is free of charge—the money these would need to survive.”    We may want to believe otherwise, he’s saying, but actually we are depriving real art of its lifeblood with every online word we type or read.

This worrying and provocative assertion is easy to take to heart if you can manage to ignore one detail: its provenance.  This thought comes near the end of a thoughtfully composed, long, obviously edited and copyedited essay.  It’s difficult to imagine any mainstream (ie, paying) periodical assigning this essay, given that all the books it “reviews” are long since published.  With a minimal, begrudging acknowledgment of his act’s inherent dissonance, Kunkel has written an indictment of the culture (or non-culture) of reading and writing for free online — the ” great ongoing suicide (by freeloading content) of the intellectual class” — for the N1BR, a monthly book-review supplement which appears exclusively online and does not pay its writers.

It’s okay, of course,  to admit to feeling conflicted about writing for free.   My friend Doree Shafrir just wrote on her Tumblr, in an approving response to a Gawker post that equated writing for free online with “slave labor,” that she recently told a representative from a professional journalists’ association that she wouldn’t be able to write a feature article for them unless they would, you know, pay her.  Doree reported that the would-be assigning editor seemed shocked that her offer to “feature [Doree] prominently in the list of  contributors, and … publish [her] website’s address” was not going to constitute adequate compensation.  “Well, it’s great that in this economy you have enough work to be able to turn stuff down!” the woman told Doree.  This is, of course, infuriating.

Also infuriating to me is Doree’s assertion that she “doesn’t write for free.”   But maybe this assertion is infuriating because it makes me feel guilty? Writing for free feels, to me, sometimes like a vice and sometimes like a privilege.   Sometimes I wonder whether,  if I organized my thoughts in a more palatable way, I mightn’t be able to knead and pat many of my blog posts into little women’s-magazine-personal-essay-shaped molds.  And per the logic that — yeah, I’m going to go ahead and conflate Doree’s and Ben Kunkel’s and Fek’s points of view, enjoy being strange fellows in that bed, guys — giving away the blog-milk for free devalues not just one’s own personal cow but also the cow of anyone who might ever have a cow to sell, I suppose that is what I ought to have done.   And also by that logic I shouldn’t ever write for nplusonemag.com, or This Recording, or The Awl.

But without unpaid contributions like mine, these websites and others like them would not be able to exist, and that would suck, because these are some of my favorite websites.  They are just a tiny component of my personal Internet-chimera, which contains plenty of lolcats and junk but also contains plenty that even the snobbiest reader might recognize as original culture.  These manifestations of culture are sometimes genuinely shallow, but sometimes they’re only deceptively shallow-seeming, like those places at the ocean’s edge where you’ll wade in a few feet and then lose your footing in suddenly cool, deep water.

I’m trying to think of a meaningful way that writing for free for these sites, w/r/t whether it devalues all online writing, is distinct from writing for free for the Huffington Post, and I sort of can’t.

Any reasonable adult can clearly see that the HuffPo is exemplary of the many terrible ways that, when writing and reading for free on the Internet, you get/give what you pay/are paid for.  “I was a tree with ripened fruit ready to be picked, and I accepted bravo’s [sic] offer to expedite the process and show the world exactly who I am. Bravo to Bravo and to reality television when used properly,” writes HuffPo blogger and Real Housewife Bethenny Frankel in a post about her decision to become a reality tv star.  The site is so catholic in its content that Frankel’s earnest, grade school essay-ish blog posts about her “journey” (“Being a part of the Bravo family and on Housewives has given me the opportunity to express myself as exactly who I am: me“)  coexist queasily alongside a post by one of the HuffPo’s scant handful of paid employees  about Frankel’s “wardrobe malfunction” (“NSFW PHOTOS“).

“The Oncoming Apocalypse Of Journalism – of which Huffington might be one of the Four Horsepeople – could just be a Noah’s Ark-esque flood, one in which the only thing holding you above water is a paycheck for quality. Or people could just stop giving a shit about quality, and that could go, too,”  concludes Foster Kamer’s  Gawker post on this topic. Couldn’t it, just.

Elsewhere in this post,  Kamer hazards another guess about The Future of Journalism:

“[I]f writers are writing for free to gain exposure, this could eventually become so circular – the job I’m writing from right now could be a job done ‘for exposure’ – that the foundation that journalism jobs are built on could become an (ironically) inverted pyramid, one where free content sits at the top, with only those who survive through an income-less period of life scoring paid gigs.”

Am I crazy if that this seems to me less a shocking peek into an occluded crystal ball and more a simple (if clumsily worded) analysis of How Shit Works,  How Shit Has Worked For A While Now Actually?

I write for free because there seems to me to be no meaningful relationship between whether a publication pays me and whether it’s worthwhile for me to write for them.  I’ve been skillfully edited and I’ve been allowed to babble on painfully unchecked by paying and non-paying publications alike.  I’ve garnered indirect material benefit from paying and non-paying publications alike.  I’m not suggesting that anyone follow my example or positing that I know what The Future of Journalism entails, but I do know, barring catastrophe, what my particular future is:  I am going to keep getting paid to write when I can and writing for free when I can’t.  If/when this situation becomes untenable for me as a way of actually making my living, I’ll start making more of my money with my non-writing endeavors.  People have been doing exactly that, and writing sad essays about the injustice of having to do exactly that, for much longer than the Internet has been around.

Watching ‘Manhattan’ the other night — I wrote a thing about it for This Recording’s upcoming Woody Allen week — I was struck by the scene where Mary Wilkie complains to Isaac that she “deserves” better than her relationship with his married friend.  She lists her credentials,  shrilly asserting that she is smart, young, and beautiful.  She says twice, I think, that she therefore “deserves” better than she’s getting.

Her character is tragic for a bunch of reasons, but mostly because she seems not to realize that nobody deserves anything.

UPDATE: I had comments disabled by accident, sorry!  I’m still getting used to the new blog.

43 comments to Why I write for free

  • [...] insular, dramatic affirmations just don’t cut it this [...]

  • Kelly-Jane

    Being a Libra i am looking at both sides of this free/not free angle.

    I don’t think journalism should be expected for free. However in the arts/culture sector there has always been this crazy weird sliding pay scale for basically the same work.

    Sometimes you get paid shitloads of money for certain jobs and then very little or zero for others that are just as interesting (often times more interesting!). And it can sometimes be surprising the venues that offer a big pay cheque vs. those that don’t. I am not saying it is right, but it seems to be true-ish.

    To be sure, publishing is at a crossroads (not being a writer myself but a maker of objects), so i am wishing all you writers the best in this mess. Stand tall, people!

  • Oh, man. I mean, I don’t know! It’s a lie to say that I never write for free. By which I mean: I lied when I said I never write for free. Because my blog is free, and the comments I’m leaving on this post are free, but also I wrote a bunch of free stuff when I was promoting my book (even for the evil evil HUFFINGTON POST), and I guess I kinda justified it by saying that I was doing it for the book–somehow separate from myself. Oh and also, I had a full-time paying job at the time.

    Maybe I’ve become more militant about this since I got laid off, but I think, for me, a general rule of thumb is try not to write for free for places that should be paying you. That’s vague and subject to all kinds of modifications, of course, but it allows one to write for, say, This Recording without feeling icky about it, because This Recording has a kind of grassroots thing going on. Though, they are running an American Apparel ad right now, so!

    But you would not have written your book for free, right?

    When a certain newspaper I used to work for cut its freelance budget, they told me I could still have my writers write for me–for free! That is a perfect example of a time when you should not write for free, and I did not ask.

    I guess what it comes down to is, if we want to make a living as writers, we need to be making these calculations, constantly. Hey, I just spent 15 minutes writing this comment–should I have been working on the (paid) article that’s due today instead? Maybe. But maybe not, because I’ve decided that my time and effort is also valuable in a contributing to discourse way, on your blog, that is not necessarily paid.

    Wow, how’s that for equivocation!

  • a

    As a horrible writer, you can afford to write for free.

  • Tim

    Consumer magazines are oftentimes so glutted with advertorials, candidate, nicotine and high fructose corn syrup endorsements and other such pabulum as to be almost entirely unreadable. I love the unfiltered style of your writing. Your words and sentences are tightly woven together into a beautiful quilt-like prose. It’s like reading a literary magazine, and the fact that all of us get to participate is the icing on the cake.

    (By the way, my Norton Anti-Virus software is telling me that Emily Magazine is infected with Trojan malware.)

  • Just so you know, half your quotation marks (including those within others) are fux0red, as the kids no longer say.

  • borges bunny

    This is smart and right, thankee.

  • emily


    I agree that no one should do, for free, work that they were once paid to do. I am not recommending that writers undercut other writers’ livelihoods by becoming, in effect, scab labor. I do think it’s preposterous that the profit-making HuffPo doesn’t pay (or apply any but the most cursory of editorial standards to the work of) its contributors — so preposterous that I wouldn’t write for them (not that I’ve been asked!) Will my tune change when I have something to sell? I don’t think so, and not because I’m so high-minded that I wouldn’t stoop so low, but because I don’t think “publicity” is as valuable a commodity as the people who want to pay us in it would have us believe that it is. The entire business of how to reconcile your desire to make a living and your desire to do good work that doesn’t compromise your principles is thorny for writers anytime, but especially now. So, we’re all figuring it out, and I’m grateful (this comes across as sarcasm, I think because it’s in a blog comment? It’s not!) that you spent 15 minutes of your valuable writing time trying to help figure it out.

  • fek

    Okay, late to the party, but here’s what I wrote in an email to Emily before the comments were open (and before I knew the capitalist thugs at This Recording were running American Apparel ads):

    you’re right. it is the way things have been and will be; i was thinking that maybe it’s applicable on a higher playing field, but that’s a selfish thought, only because i made it to a place where i can get paid seven days/week for doing that. sometimes, you work in a bubble, and forget that this is the exception and not the rule. bloggers in a bubble? who’d a thought. this shit’s been going on for a while and it’s only going to get worse. what happens when we have to beg to write a sunday styles piece for free? (note to self: never beg to write a sunday styles piece for free.) law school?

    but i wouldn’t talk about the awl, this recording, N+1, and even – especially – young manhattanite in the same breath as HuffPo. for one thing, none of those sites are making money, and huffington’s definitely getting paid from her site. the daily beast is paying $300/piece, and they’ll probably keep doing it until it runs out (by which point, they speculate, they’ll have created a magical ad-model to support an infrastructure and paying for this level of content).

    but: choire and alex aren’t exactly getting fat off of our contributions, i know This Recording and YM are a labor of love, and I’m pretty sure any money “made” by N+1 goes to supplement the wider reach of the operation (which hopefully excludes handing out any more of those goddamn “pamphlets” telling me how to live through my 20s). at the current rate, that stuff pays dollar-to-dollar via the pleasure of getting to do it and have your name up there. if choire and alex start raking it in, this might be a different story, but i trust they still wouldn’t ask us to support their lifestyles without some kind of reciprocation. for me, having alex edit me feels like something i should pay for. so there’s that. also, flavorpill: i supported them for two years with free content. i did get to go to concerts, theater, etc in exchange. but still, i’ve done it too, and i was going to disclose that, but it didn’t seem relevant to the “larger” picture. you putting into play the idea that i (totally farsighted-ly) missed makes that relevant. flavorpill and nylon helped give me my first gigs, and those are definitely for profit operations, but at least i was compensated for that work in some way besides a byline.

    either way, there should be a matrix for this kind of thing to tell us how to feel about each particular instance of “should i take this writing job.” one axis would be cache (popular/obscure) and the other would be compensation (“nothin’ but love”/”cold, hard cash”). i guess there should be one for quality, but i’m not good enough with graphs to figure that one out.

    anyway. wonderful post!

  • bennett

    i love the perfect irony of “it’s great that in this economy you have enough work to be able to turn stuff down!”

    well it’s not “work” if you’re not getting paid, is it? and “in this economy” don’t people need the $$ more than ever?

    writing done for free is writing done for fun.

    in fact, i would argue that with the internet, writing for sheer “exposure” is less necessary than ever. i’ll expose my own self, thanks!

  • I try not to writ for free. I’ve published 11 books and received an advance on every one. BUT the publishing landscape has changed and even though all my books have “earned out” their advances, the market for women’s midlist fiction is so bad I’m publishing SUGAR TIME, my new novel, in POD. Anyone interest in reviewing it on-line? I’ll send you a copy – just email me!

  • [...] this lovely piece, Gould talks about why she writes for free, largely in response to this n+1 piece on online [...]

  • I don’t think it’s all that tricky: Artists (not the entertaining post-Reagan ersatzers we’re acclimated to: *Artists*) have always been willing to produce the stuff with, or without, the chickenfeed… which is probably why the history of Art, in the “West”, is largely a genealogy of a mutant strain of the middle classes. The Internet, for the genuine Artist, means penury + free (wide) distribution: a great deal. One talent out of every seven thousand will run with this; I’m not much concerned with the others, who have their own reasons (eg, cat blogs).

    Kunkel is a smart guy who sometimes wears an ill-fitting smoking jacket; I might be irritated if I paid to read it.

  • Money adulterates everything. It’s like science. So only when we want what we write to masquerade as universal truth should we demand to be paid for it.

  • firstly, a kind of call and response; http://mollylambert.tumblr.com/post/128698073/real-talk

    secondly, I haven’t seen a dime off those Am Ap ads yet (as I understand it we’re in a “trial period,” unless my coworker is just pyramid scheming me out of the dime and half I might make off of ad clicks.

    I know I write on the internet for free because it’s fun (mostly), nobody edits me, and if no “real” publications are going to pay me for my freelance work I can still keep producing writing and publishing it instantly.

    This hasn’t proven to be the most financially viable or awesome plan, but all “artistic” professions are pretty shaky and often a matter of luck. The internet is a great equalizer.

    Maybe I can’t get published in the New Yorker, but their website doesn’t cost any more to read than mine. And who’s to say they have better content? I consider This Recording to be an incredibly long résumé

  • emily

    Meh, I don’t want to make a prize of being unedited. I love being edited and consider it a privilege. Editing is very distinct talent set from writing, and it’s also a weird and thankless job that takes skills most people don’t have or don’t have the patience to develop. Also a lot of the best editors I know have been laid off or have quit working in publishing.

  • “Without unpaid contributions like mine, these websites and others like them would not be able to exist, and that would suck, because these are some of my favorite websites.”

    The websites in question are, as others have pointed out, “labors of love” that don’t generate money. Unfortunately, history is littered with the corpses of literary labors of love–see television’s “Arrested Development”.

    (Digression: You won’t find actors working for less than the minimum pay set by the SAG. Writers–except for screenwriters–don’t have a union with that kind of muscle.)

    When you’re on the fringes of popular culture (literary websites and literary writing aren’t mainstream, unfortunately) you’ll find a lot of people working for free or low pay just to get their messages/writing out there.

  • As someone who paid writers (uh, until my magazine closed and now none of us are paid), I frequently told journalism students to offer to write for free if it was a matter of getting their foot in some door, but to never be a chump. It’s a marketable skill, your dentist wouldn’t clean your teeth for free (though if he does, please give me his number). It’s a tricky issue. Generally I think every case is different and individual writers should use their judgement. There are plenty of people getting paid to write that should not be — it’s up to editors to even that score.

    Also, I wholeheartedly agree with the statement that no one deserves anything. I find the idea that anyone does deserve something especially amusing in the context of America’s Next Top Model. (“Why should you be America’s Next Top Model?” “Well, I deserve it…” HEADDESK.)

  • The Ghost of Joseph Pulitzer

    Who cares if writers get paid?

    I don’t.

    Most readers don’t.

  • jh

    I write long things for a small audience. These are not things that anyone would pay for, since they’re not only not viral but seem in some sense to be anti-viral, in that even when a kind person chooses to link to them, they just sort of die in the water, however promising they might seem to me when I write them, and even after a fair amount of kind people have linked to them and written about them in various publications online and in print, I have an audience that’s basically the same size as the audience I had two years ago when I started, when my writing was much, much worse. The only times I’ve ever been paid for writing were a) writing a term paper about radio telescopes for drugs in college b) ghost-writing applications to New England prep schools for a rich student I tutored. In college workshops, I was encouraged to send stories to literary magazines, which is a way writers used to get paid for their writing, but after several tries at waiting three months to be rejected by poorly designed and stupidly named magazines I didn’t even want to read in the first place, I gave up on that and just blogged whatever I wrote. Earlier this year, in a moment of despair, I thought of applying for a Xanga.com (seriously) “blogging internship” since, even though I am ostensibly a “blogger,” I write long things for a small audience and have no experience in the kind of blogging that people actually get paid money to do, the kind of blogging that people think of when they think of “blogging,” but then in my moment of despair, I realized that the application volume for Xanga.com’s “pop culture blog” would probably be the highest of all their blogs, since, even though I consider myself a “pop culture writer,” most people who have blogs on the Internet also consider themselves “pop culture writers” and many of them could probably easily do “pop culture writing” with a degree of brevity and snark and SEO-savvy that I would find difficult and challenging and icky, that they would do a better job than I could, and so I would probably not even get the unpaid “e-internship” even if I sucked it up and applied for it, which was depressing to think about. Most guides about “how to blog” say that you should “form relationships” with other bloggers by leaving comments on their blogs, but I’m so obsessive and particular about my writing that I do for free that I can’t even leave a comment on a blog without making a goddamn production of it, I can’t just SAY things, and for example this comment is just taking me forever to write and this forever taking is why I don’t write comments often. I feel weird and uncomfortable sometimes about writing for free because I focus so much on my free writing that other important areas of my life and important people in my life are ignored or forgotten and I feel like if I was getting paid to write, I would at least have a more valid reason to ignore and forget those things and people, because this is America and a good work ethic is not something anyone can judge you for, except if your work ethic applies to things that you do for no money, in which case you just kind of feel like an obsessive freak sometimes and even if important people in your life would never call you that by name, it’s something sometimes implied in the subtext of things they say, which, as someone who writes so often, you pick up on pretty easily even if it’s subtle. After I work hard to write one of my long things for my small audience, sometimes I feel despair because I’ve worked so hard to write a long thing that I know only twenty five or thirty or maybe a hundred people will read and then it will be forgotten by everyone including me ten minutes later. Sometimes I feel like Henry Darger for doing this sort of obsessive and lonely creative act and that is not a good feeling, believe me, to feel like Henry Darger, but the only thing that makes me feel less like Henry Darger is the fact that at least some other people are reading the things that I wrote and that my writing is not just scrawled in a bunch of big, crazy, hand-bound books crammed into my closet, that it exists in the world where other people can experience it, and so that’s why I write for free, I think, to not feel like Henry Darger.

    (this is way too long for a comment, I know, but it’s too short for a blog post and too creepy for an e-mail, so I’m putting it here anyway)

  • emily

    @jh — Please never stop doing what you do. Every time I think about you I think “That guy is the future.”

    No pressure.

  • [...] Why I write for free – Emily Magazine "I write for free because there seems to me to be no meaningful relationship between whether a publication pays me and whether it’s worthwhile for me to write for them. I’ve been skillfully edited and I’ve been allowed to babble on painfully unchecked by paying and non-paying publications alike. I’ve garnered indirect material benefit from paying and non-paying publications alike. I’m not suggesting that anyone follow my example or positing that I know what The Future of Journalism entails, but I do know, barring catastrophe, what my particular future is: I am going to keep getting paid to write when I can and writing for free when I can’t. If/when this situation becomes untenable for me as a way of actually making my living, I’ll start making more of my money with my non-writing endeavors. People have been doing exactly that, and writing sad essays about the injustice of having to do exactly that, for much longer than the Internet has been around." (tags: worklife Internet-threat-or-menace publishing media blogging free journalism social-norms economics expectations Workantile) [...]

  • [...] The part about writing for free A theme of many conversations I’ve had this week, the value of writing. “I went through a period of publishing for free, and then a period of being insulted that people wanted my work for free, and then back into a period of writing for free.” See also: Why I write for free [...]

  • GG

    “If you’re good at something, never do it for free.”

  • If you’re a writer, you just write. Money, food, shelter, all are incidentals. Words will poor from your soul like sweat, grow out of you like hair, extend from your typing hands like unkempt nails. That is what you do. To commodify that process – to introduce money as a motivating factor – is a dangerous and potentially damaging thing.

    I understand the existential need to be paid – to gain a degree of economic comfort – but if and when that need becomes a part of (or in the worst cases the whole of) the “why” of your creative process your art is already tainted.

    I made a decision a long time ago that I didn’t want to write for money – I didn’t want to make the stress of getting paid a part of my creative process. If I was going to write poetry, or fiction, or anything creative at all I was going to keep it entirely separate from how I put food on my table and a roof over my head. My inspiration in making that choice were people like William Carlos Williams (a doctor), Wallace Stevens (insurance), and TS Eliot (a publisher).

    The result of that choice has been both positive and negative.

    On the positive side I have been able to develop a career outside writing in which I get paid nicely and still can exercise a modicum of creative thinking.

    On the negative side I have had to cut back a bit on how much I can indulge my true creative impulses – I don’t write anywhere near the amount of poetry I wrote twenty years ago.

    Yet when I do write it I feel it so much more. When I do write I write purely from the soul. When I do write it’s cathartic and uncontrollable and fed by an empowering feeling that buoys my spirits and enhances my life in ways it might not if I had to do it for money. When I do write poetry now – I feel love. I’m not so sure that would be the case if I wrote for money.

  • [...] new here, you might want to subscribe to the RSS feed for updates on this topic.I agree with Nav; this post by Emily Gould is terrific. Less for her strong rebuttal of an errant “the internet is vulgar” argument — [...]

  • Steven Blum

    I also really liked this post. Hi Foster! Hi Dorree! (Full disclosure: Foster is currently my editah at Blackbook).

    A few things I would add: when attempting to figure out whether or not you deserve more or less money from a certain publication, you’ve got to think about the kiinndd of exposure you’re getting from the publication. Could the gig lead, gracefully, to more, better paying gigs? For example, if you wrote a food column for cheap, built up your chops and met lots of folks in food, it would be easier to sell yourself to another magazine and say “hey, I know about food.” So that’s a low-paying gig that can lead to a better paying gig down the line.

    What I’d like to talk about is the fact that in most blogging gigs, you have depressingly little control over what to say. I mean, you’re a writer, so you have framing control. But it seems The Internet, and what’s being said over on Twitter, and what’s being posted to Facebook must be responded to, quickly!, even if this information is truly the definition of mindless chatterbox crapola; brainsludge that’s of no use to anyone except to the blogger who can say “covered it first!” I suppose Journalists have always had to respond quickly to sludge, except that the sludge just flows a bit faster these days (maybe it’s more like a nuclear-waste-river) and needs, like, writers to act as rudders to divert it into different little pools. I guess, depending on which outlet you worked for, your readers would allow you more or less of a critical distance from the sludge, but it’s still there, and you have to say something about it because the internet is a race! And be quick!

    To me, that kind of job seems deserved of the biggest paycheck because you have to disassociate from your work so quickly, which is painful and hard for me, and you have to talk about things that everyone else is talking about and yet still find something pithy to say. This seems so much harder than “traditional journalism”! Going out, interviewing people? Easy-peesy. Finding away to say something new about something everyone has already said in fifty million different ways? Terrifying!

    Writing that you have the shortest deadlines for, that you have to send in the quickest, where you’re responding to Internety calamities second-by-second, should be deserved of the biggest paycheck, but it seems these get the smallest. This seems weird to me.

    To JH: it’s true that people seem to respect writers who screen out the world for a dollar deadline, and what’s also weird is that sometimes writing in the language of capitalism is scarily easy, while writing in the voice of the critic is hard. It feels like pulling teeth when I write critical essays (especially when I try to be funny…ugh…never TRY to be funny) but it’s weird how easy it is for me to talk an imaginary consumer into buying another pair of jeans they’ll soon throw out.

  • Steven Blum

    Also, why is it that most things I read about the internet are written from such a flippant perspective? What I like about the way you write about this topic is that it’s clearly deeply felt. I think most writers are embarrassed to admit their relationship to the internet, and cheers to you, Kunkel, Dorree et all for not being so dismissive of its effects, or getting all intellectually high-minded about what YOU do on the internet vs. what the internet IS.

    I also wish more writers would let me in on their daily struggles with the media beast. Do you have any blog recommendations along these lines?

  • U.H Dematagoda

    It appears that the underlying drive behind this article is to assert the legitimacy of the Blogosphere as a valuable and marketable commodity, which deserves re-numeration equal to standard journalistic forms. This need for legitimacy goes beyond financial concerns, and seems, to me at least, to be concerned with asserting the integrity and cultural value of internet Journalism, by portraying it as the vanguard of some cultural revoulution. This is problematic, simply for the reason that internet journalism, though not completely without integrity, has always acted within market forces and does not seek to change them. By asking to be paid for what is essentially communication as the practice of Public relations, the notion of internet journalism as a revolutionary form is void ab initio. The dissemination of ideas is value enough, and there are plenty of other ways to achieve subsistence.

  • [...] of writers writing for free, except those who think that’s perfectly fine to do. Emily Gould writes for free to give back to the internet; Simon Dumenco at AdAge blames Arianna Huffington; I think someone at [...]

  • Even though I’m a Libra my response is proscriptive: Write for free if you can afford it, if you have a great opportunity to do something you’ve been wanting to do, if you’ll regret not having written whatever it is you’re doing for free.

    Do not write for free if you have any sense that you’re being taken advantage of, or if you think what you’re writing will just drop off into obscurity. I’d rather write on my blog than for the Huffington Post. At least my blog has a readership– whereas when I wrote for HuffPp it was like spitting into the ocean. So I hae some HuffPo clips– big deal. No one cares.

  • Rob

    Funny, this post is titled “Why I write for free.” And then nothing for a whole week. Perhaps you have to come to a conclusion of some sort.

  • Rob

    sorry – nothing for TWO whole weeks.

  • I write b/c I have to. It gives me great joy, and blogging is a way to do things I wouldn’t have dreamed of years ago. I don’t know if it’s writing for free. I don’t get paid for my little collection of short essays, and I’m out of work, so it would be nice. But I do think it’s a good thing to do, just writing and putting it out there, and perhaps even it might help me build something new, some portfolio of things unlike the academic stuff I’ve published and made my (last) career of. Whether or not people are getting paid for writing has never been the ultimate factor determining how much writing there will be in the world. Passion is that factor, and it will always be.

  • [...] some awful good writing* out there right now, trying to answer the question of, hey, is all this writing for free actually helping anyone? My work history includes gigs as a farmers’ market vendor, barista, [...]

  • Azfar A Khan

    Why should someone write for free? Nobody has got free time! Initially, it’s essential for promotion.

    By the way, could someone give a list of magazines that pay for articles pertaining to food factories?

    Many thanks!



  • clare

    it’s “titled” not “entitled”.

  • emily

    Right you are, Clare. How satisfying that must be for you.

  • This was an enjoyable post. I read through most of the comments as well, and I saw a lot of theorizing on the meaning of being a writer and getting paid or not, but for me it boils down to this: I have three children and a mortgage. When my kids are grown and I’ve paid off the bank, I’ll once again have the luxury to write as I wish to. For now, this is a job. I think the matter of payment hinges greatly upon the reality of one’s existence.

  • [...] same topic for free for a larger site.  It is somewhat of a reversal from my earlier stance re: Writing For Free so I thought I would post it [...]

  • Gary Michael Porter

    I haven’t read three words on here that I’d pay a dime for. Get some content and some verbs. And quit your bellyaching. Do some research. Report. Think.

    Exactly how much money do you think this sentence is worth:

    “Writing that you have the shortest deadlines for, that you have to send in the quickest, where you’re responding to Internety calamities second-by-second, should be deserved of the biggest paycheck, but it seems these get the smallest. This seems weird to me.”

    Oops. Two sentences. It’s a paragraph.

  • Gregor Poniewasz

    Hello Emily, getting accross this old post oif your’s about writing for free. You only seem to contrast writing for free with writing for a magazine that pays you. Now, I follow only very few writers/bloggers around the globe, but really I would be happy to pay them 1$ a piece if they, say, publish one piece weekly. That is somewhat less than what I pay for a monthly magazine but then I only get 4 pieces a month. But I believe 1 $ for a piece from each (!) reader should provide for a healthy income… Cheers, Gregor, Hamburg, Germany.

  • I think if it were possible to not write for free, most people who are writers would certainly jump on that band wagon. As it is, though, there are not so many opportunities that pay and so there are many displaced writers who can’t but help be what they are. Hence, they write for free, even though by doing so they aren’t helping their chances of getting paid.

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