Why Should You Bother Paying for Experience?

desk 2

I really should stop keeping an eye on freelance writing job boards. I know that I get wound up about the things I read there — and while that means I come up with new angry blog posts to write, I tend to get irritated all over again when I’ve cooled down long enough to actually write the post. Just the same, I keep looking at these listings looking specifically for new writers who will write for paltry amounts of money or even exposure.

I’ve spent more than enough time up on my soapbox, explaining why a writer (or any type of creative, really) shouldn’t work for exposure, but I realized recently that most of the business owners soliciting this sort of work probably don’t understand why it’s such a bad deal for them. And it absolutely is: offering to pay $100 for a writer to put together a 20-page ebook is bad for the buyer (and not just because it gets experienced writers riled up).

You Always Get What You Pay For

When you hire an eager new writer for a tiny amount of money, you get what you pay for. No matter how grand your plans are, you’re probably going to wind up with a piece of writing that isn’t exactly high quality. You may not even be able to use it: some ‘new’ writers have a couple of years of writing English essays under their belt, while others woke up this morning and thought freelance writing sounded like an easy way to make money. By focusing on recruiting writers who may not even consider themselves writers — This is a perfect gig for students or stay-at-home-moms! — you’re going to have a harder time judging their portfolios, if they have them in the first place.

I can already hear the voices chiming in now: “But somebody has to give these new writers a first chance.” That is true: every freelancer has to land her first client eventually. But those newbie writers don’t need to be paid in exposure — they need to be paid in experience. There are publications and projects that I consider to be good starting points and many of them pay very little (although not the insulting level of less than half a cent per word that I see on a very regular basis on some of these job boards). But they pay enough that a new writer wouldn’t be better off spending her time at a minimum-wage job.

That level of payment tells me that an editor may not have a big budget, but she’s at least looking for professional work that she can stand behind. The incredibly low offers that I’ve seen elsewhere clearly indicate that the person in charge of hiring not only doesn’t know how much time a writing project will take, but can’t mentor a writer in the profession — in short, it’s a signal that the project manager doesn’t know anything about writing. What could possibly go wrong with both an inexperienced writer and an inexperienced editor?

This is Going to Get Emotional

Even assuming the best of intentions, I can’t imagine these sorts of situations ever ending without someone getting angry. Even at the level I work at, with clients who may be laying down quite a bit of money, I’m used to working with people who have absolutely no idea about what goes into any sort of content campaign. I spend a lot of time on what we can euphemistically call ‘client education.’ Even then, I’ve had situations where tempers run a little high.

If someone lists a writing project that he assumes will be easy and enlists the aid of an inexperienced writer, it’s going to take several tries to get anything near what the client has in mind. Most creatives get twitchy after one round of revisions; after multiple, we tend to cringe every time a new email hits our inboxes. That’s not because we don’t want our work to be great, of course — it’s that someone keeps telling us that we’re not doing things correctly. It’s tough to put up with, even if you’ve been doing this sort of thing for years.

And if you haven’t got that sort of experience and you’re dealing with a project manager who doesn’t know how to ease you into the process… well, let’s just say that I’ve seen plenty of creatives walk off a project after the first round of revisions and switch careers. That sucks for anyone who wanted to pursue a creative profession — but for a client who may have already sunk some resources into the project at hand, losing a writer can be enough to kill a new project entirely. A client who isn’t expecting any sort of problems just shouldn’t be working with new freelancers, as a general rule.

The Literary Corollary

Literary magazines (including genre magazines) occupy a special place in the writing world. Many get by depending on writers who either don’t expect payments or will work for rates that may work out to fractions of a penny per word. In particular, I’ve seen quite a few requests for material for brand new lit mags listed on Craigslist, promising exposure, glory, and anything else except money.

While I personally don’t submit my work to publications that won’t be able to pay me, I don’t have the same problem with established literary magazines as other people who ask writers to work for tiny amounts of money. Some of these magazines have been around for decades; there is a certain value to having your work published in some of them if you want to catch the eye of those few magazines that pay more for publication. Creative writing also has its own complications: because just about everyone seems to give writing fiction or poetry a try at some point, there’s a much bigger supply of that sort of writing than of copy for a specific business’ brochures.

Having access to a huge number of writers who just want to see if they’ve got what it takes to succeed — whether or not those writers are particularly good — means that a good literary magazine can afford to be picky, as well as to pay very little. That’s probably a good thing since the average literary magazine isn’t exactly a money-making endeavor. Even genre fiction magazine have a hard time building up a subscriber base that can fund paying writers professional rates, despite having incredibly dedicated fans.

As long as everyone understands those factors, I’ve got no problem with the pay rates that literary magazines offer, particularly those with reputations that can help new writers move forward. However, there are enough would-be editors starting up new literary magazines every month who can’t offer that sort of return value that I still get a little twitchy when reading their requests on Craigslist and elsewhere. A new magazine needs experienced writers, at least in order to pull in some new readers. When I’m going to read writers who are entirely unknown to me, I’m going to choose those who a magazine editor I’m familiar with have pulled together — I know that when I buy certain magazines (whether in print or electronically), I’m going to get carefully chosen and edited stories.

A bigger name on the cover (like a writer whose work I’m familiar with) is the push I need to pick up a magazine I don’t know. It’s a question of basic marketing: new publications can get a major boost in readership by piggy-backing off the the brand of a well-known writer. It’s up to the publisher, of course, whether or not limping along with a readership based mostly on personal connections is a better option than finding some incentive to lure an established name. Of course, that incentive will probably need to be financial; if the writer in question is better known than the publication, why would she ever write for exposure?

Good Writing is Worth the Price

Content is king. That’s the mantra of online marketing these days, because it’s true. To be findable online, a business absolutely has to have decent written content. But to be able to make money online, good content is key: it’s the only way to get people to come back to a website over and over again, letting a seller build a relationship with buyers who will never even talk to her.

Trying to skimp on a mission-critical part of your business just doesn’t make sense. If you don’t have the money at all to pay a writer, learn to write or find someone willing to take a barter or otherwise figure out what resource you can invest in getting the best content you possibly can. Otherwise, running your business is only going to get harder.

Image by Flickr user Michael Surran

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *