Writers: Stop undervaluing your work!

Last spring I turned down a writing job that would have paid $450. The piece would have been long but not particularly hard to do, as I’d covered the topic before. In fact, I did a pretty good outline in several back-and-forth e-mails with the editor.


(Note to self: Don’t do that again. Ask what the job pays before you do anything else – and especially before you spend half an hour of your day e-mailing back and forth.)

Some of you are probably thinking, “Is she nuts? She turned down an easy $450?!?”

But that’s not really what I turned down.

I turned down a guy who wanted me to produce the article right away, and for less than one-fourth my current rate. There would have been additional time spent dealing with edits and probably a fact-checker, too. At that time I was still writing for MSN Money and also working on a couple of women’s magazine pieces.

The old me would have jumped at the chance, and stayed up late to finish it, and chatted cheerfully with the checker. I would have waited the usual “payment 30 days after publication” time frame, which often means “at the end of the month that the article comes out they will start to process your payment.”

(Since this was a quarterly magazine, the payment would likely have been processed at the end of the quarter.)

I’m not willing to do that any longer, because I’m in a different place in my writing career. All you other writers out there shouldn’t be selling yourselves short either. Even if you’re just beginning you should be mighty, mighty careful about writing for little or, worse, for nothing.

Why buy a cow….

Back in 2011 Google’s “Panda” algorithm shut down a lot of “content farms,” i.e., companies that sometimes paid about a dollar an article. But plenty of places still pay $25 or $50 per post.

That is, if they pay at all. Several times a week I get queries from people who want to write for me for free. I know that those articles would probably be fairly slapdash and larded with affiliate links. But sometimes other personal finance bloggers – especially the beginners – offer to write something for nothing, for the “exposure.”

You know something? People die of exposure.

Sarah Gilbert of Get Rich Slowly wrote about why she sometimes works for free. What I inferred is that she’s in a slightly better place than a lot of writers and can afford to do work that jibes with her personal values. She’s also apparently making connections that could pay off in terms of networking for eventual paying gigs.

Those and her other reasons are good ones – in theory. The problem with theory is that it’s, well, theoretical. Suppose the connections don’t pay off? Suppose she (or you, or I) continues to burn the midnight oil for free?

Understand: If a nonprofit whose mission I truly admired asked me to write something for its website I might do it – but only after I checked to see what its head honchos were earning. Why should the higher-ups get decent salaries while volunteers do it for love?

And I can think of some reasons to write for free:

  • You truly believe it will lead to paying work.
  • You’re trading posts with other bloggers (both of you get fresh viewpoints that way).
  • You’re repaying favors. I owe a couple of free posts myself. (Will, J. Money: Be patient, guys. I haven’t forgotten.)
  • You’re really, really anxious to get your name/your site out there and you have a day job/enough work to keep the lights on.

But remember what our moms said about free milk and the cow? I think I speak for all of us here when I say, “Moo.”

Consenting to be underpaid

Big companies don’t get to be big companies by giving money away. I shudder to think how long I wrote for one site at the initial rate quoted. Plenty of people would have been happy to write for that company and at that pay grade. But one day I suddenly thought, “What am I doing, writing for so little?”

I wrote a carefully crafted letter explaining why I was worth more and could not do any more assignments at the current rate. The editor agreed with all my points, then made a counteroffer: an additional 4 cents per word. (See “big companies,” above.)

Ultimately we came to terms – less money than I usually get, but worth it because any time I publish there I get a nice spike in readership on my own website. Yet I’m still kicking my own ass that I wrote that long for that little, that indeed I felt I was “lucky” to get the assignments.

What I should have been thinking is that they were lucky to get me. For years I’ve been struggling with self-doubt and imposter syndrome. I believe a lot of women undervalue their abilities – and, hence, their work – in this way.

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