$hould you write for free?

“Self-respect is a matter of recognizing that anything worth having has a price.” – Joan Didion

Some of us are half-serious when we joke about loving our work so much that wed “do it for free” if we had to. Yet its all too easy to cheat ourselves if we dont respect our own talent and effort.

That said, putting a dollar value on freelance work is tougher than ever these days.

In my workshops, for instance, I often coach new writers whove been encouraged to provide material for free (or for ridiculously low rates) with the promise that gratis assignments will help build portfolios. This logic usually works because the freelance cycle is vicious: It is harder to get your stuff published if you haven’t been published before, or if you can’t boast a few impressive credits. Scores of editors will take full advantage of this fact — especially if their budgets are shrinking and their publications are struggling.

As nearly every professional writer will tell you, we’re all working three times as hard for half the money we earned when we started out in this crazy business years ago. The Internet that made it possible for everyone and his brother to get published is largely responsible for cutting or completely eliminating our paychecks. (Note: On this post, I’m not talking about posting entries on your own blog, or self-publishing. I am talking about writing for other publishers who don’t pay you for your work.)

Of course, there are times when writing for peanuts might be worth your effort. Perhaps you’d like to support a non-profit organization with a cause that speaks directly to your heart. Or maybe you want to help a friend launch a new magazine that offers literary prestige — and paying assignments in the future. Or maybe you’re writing a review in exchange for tickets to a concert or a play.

Would you ask an architect to design a dream house and seal the drawings for free?  Would you ask your dental hygienist to clean your teeth without charging you? Would you ask a plumber to repair your broken toilet as a favor?”

But here’s the deal: If you keep giving your work away, it will become much harder for you — and your colleagues — to get paid for good writing later on. In this business, word gets around in more ways than one. If an editor knows you’ve been writing or blogging without pay for other publications, what would motivate her to reward you with anything but “exposure”?

If youre just getting started in a writing career, it’s true that providing free content hones your skills and gives you a chance to learn how the publishing business works. And the “exposure” to a readership — which is the carrot most editors will dangle when they can’t pay you  — is a bonus if the publication is reputable. But no matter how exciting it is to snag a byline or recognition, you must reach a point where you value your experience and charge an appropriate fee for it.

Always remember: If a print or online publication sells advertising and/or subscriptions, it is earning money from the content provided by writers and photographers. Your work supports those publishers.

Think about it this way … Would you ask an architect to design a dream house and seal the drawings for free?  Would you ask your dental hygienist to clean your teeth without charging you? Would you ask a plumber to repair your broken toilet as a favor?

If you dont value your own time, talent, or expertise, who will? The difference between a professional and a hard-working volunteer, after all, is just a paycheck. Or, as Eleanor Roosevelt once said, nobody can take advantage of you without your permission. Whatever the work at hand, if you want to be treated like a professional, act like one. Expect to be paid what your work is worth. — Cindy La Ferle

UPDATE: This post prompted many insightful comments from freelancers in a variety of creative fields. Read their opinions by clicking on the “Comments” link a few lines below.