Why Writers Should Never Work For Free

It saddens me to see how many writing gigs on Craigslist are always unpaid, or posted with the promise that it might lead to something down the line.  It shows how little respect people really have for writers and quality writing.  I feel that many of us jump into these gigs against our better judgment, just because we love to write and be creative, no matter what.  But there’s a major problem with unpaid writing gigs.

ProfessionsOf course there’s the standard argument all artists make when faced with unpaid word: that we need to eat and pay our bills, experience and a great portfolio won’t feed us, and no plumber ever fixed a toilet for free because he was told it would “look great on his resume.”  However, even in situations where we can afford to work for free, there’s still a bigger problem that I don’t often see addressed:

One of the most frustrating things in the world is to work hard on a project, only for it to then never see the light of day.  You invest a lot of time writing a manuscript for someone, and he ends up never producing it due to various issues.  Turns out the great connection he claimed he had to Alec Baldwin‘s agent wasn’t as strong as he thought, or he fights with his producing partner, or this great startup website he envisioned never becomes the big money-maker he thought.  The greatest script in the world is pointless if it just ends up gathering dust; your time was then wasted and you have no compensation to show for it.  It’s been my experience that 90% of unpaid writing projects end up this way.  Why?  Because it’s hard enough to get any project off the ground, even with a decent budget.  When the producer does not have enough funding to even pay a writer, it shows lack of serious planning for the long-run and the odds are against them.

“Oh, you don’t understand.  I’m DEFINITELY putting this project on,” some of you producers will say, “Even if I have no money at all, no matter what it takes, I will absolutely get this project made.”  Here’s the thing: I believe that you sincerely believe that.  But many aspiring producers lie to themselves, convincing themselves they can afford things that they can’t, that they will be successful against all odds, and as a result of them scamming themselves, they end up inadvertently scamming you.  I’ve worked on enough projects where I was told this.  I said “Sure, I believe in the project enough to work for free.”  And then, when the play or film ends up never getting made, I walk away thinking “If I was going to waste this much time, I might as well have gotten paid.”

Bottom-line: writers need to make it clear that their services are not for free, and this will weed out the producers who are just dreamers from the actual do-ers.


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