Writing for Free

I recently corresponded with a friend who is an authority in the rock, gem and mineral trade. He laments that he has never been paid for his writing, even for a newspaper that he contributes to. His writing mainly sits at a nonprofit website, and his dozens of articles receive tens of thousands of hits. He doesn’t expect the website to pay, it’s an all volunteer organization, but he’s still troubled by that newspaper experience and a magazine that publishes his work without compensating him.

When I lived in the Sacramento Delta I wrote five or six free gardening articles for a weekly newspaper in the Sacramento Delta in the late 1990’s. I wanted to be a part of that paper because I liked the editor. He had graduated Cambridge, spent five years living with the Bedouins, and had even met the Beatles. Really. (Another story). No money, nothing financial came out of it. But I made a friend and got my art out.

You see, there were things I had learned as a green trade professional that I wanted to express. As a writer, you feel a compulsion to explain or describe things. Like  a painter who sees an image in his head and can’t relax until he brings it to life on canvas. When I am seized with an idea I sometimes go half-mad until I get it down in words. And then, like this article, I will come back over the coming weeks to edit and revise it and get it closer  to what I wanted it to say in the first place.

I tell people wanting to write for publication to spend their time seeking paid work, rather than writing free articles. Get paid something, no matter how little. “People pay me for my writing” is a tremendous confidence booster. It gets you to thinking of yourself as a professional writer. You don’t have to make your living from writing to be a professional. It’s more about attitude and discipline.

Writing on assignment or for publication is a different outlook and demand than writing for yourself or for free. Get an assignment, work with an editor, meet word count, beat deadline. That’s what being a professional is really about, not the amount of money. Beat deadline. Every damned time. I don’t want to hear that you are in a hospital or that the wife ran off or the kids have been taken by the police. Beat deadline. Every damned time.

Free articles, though, once a number of them have been written, can be thought of as resume building. That’s not a bad thing. My five articles for Rock&Gem, although they paid little, most assuredly helped me get my book contract. Those articles took a great deal of time and research and money to produce, all of which contributed to what I know now. They made me a better writer, as have all of my magazine articles.

Although I am a professional writer and get paid for all of my assignments and continuing work, I do not make a living from it. Not even close. I have always had to have other work, regular day jobs, to keep my desire to write alive.

The book project I just completed is a good example. I knew little money would come from it because I ran the numbers well ahead of time. At most, over a period of two to three years, perhaps $3,000 to $5,000 would come back. Well, my last magazine article for Outdoor California paid over $2,000. And that article only took two months to write and just two trips to the desert. I would have been better off those 14 months writing articles but I wanted to write a book. That seemed like the ultimate goal for a writer and I wanted to dedicate the book to my parents. That’s the one thing I miss about cancelling my contract. But my Mother wrote freelance articles from time to time and she would have understood walking away from an unprofessional publisher.

Because I was obsessed with completing the book on time and under word count I spent a tremendous amount of money to get it done. Like buying my $1,2000 microscope, my rock collection, my camera gear, and all of the travel expenses of the road. At least five grand. Maybe seven. My money is long gone. I  think of it now as a bad business deal like the kind everyone has in life. What’s more regrettable is that I had to give up some of my decent paying work from my Vancouver employer to get the book done. Fortunately, they have put me back on regular hours.

Let’s get back to Rock&Gem if you are in the mineral trade or hobby. They are a good starting point. They pay little but they do pay. They accept articles on spec (internal link) so there is no guarantee of publication. Best approach is to query them first with a one paragraph proposal. See if they have covered your topic before or if they are interested. If they are not, you could respond by asking, “What would you like written about?”  You never know what an editor needs at the time.

My articles for Rock&Gem were from a desire to write and to document trips that I was taking anyway. Nowadays, I feel empty if I don’t describe and share my rockhounding or road trips. When you write for publication you also have to do tremendous research on your subject and from that you will learn a great deal. I learn something on every trip to the desert or mountains. I’m learning so much about what I found on my last collecting trp that it will take two weeks to get the text and video together to describe it all.

Money. When I ran as an educational website, no ads, I think I got two donations in five years. It had over 400 pages and two million hits one year in the early 2000’s. The Library of Congress sent people to me. The History Channel sought me out and put me on TV for an episode. No money, though. My self-published telephone magazine attracted much more attention, a few hundred subscribers paying about $27 a year. People were far more willing to pay for something in hardcopy than they were to pick up that information online. Go figure.

To wrap up, I’d suggest that anytime spent penning articles for free should instead be put into getting paying work. It may not be for publication but find something paying. For the last five years I’ve been editing and producing content for law firms through my Vancouver  employer. I love the outdoors and rocks and minerals but editing a lengthy article on elder home abuse is actually what provides some income. Most of us are just like aspiring actors working in a Hollywood coffee shop, waiting for that big break.

I hope that break comes your way but if you _have_ to write then you’ll find a path that satisfies. It is the art first and then the money. A bird has to sing. You may have a website with few hits, no donations, but you can present your work the way you want. You’re a writer. Write!