What’s a Word’s Worth?

I really appreciated that she came to me for a filling. She needed x-rays, too, but I wasn’t sure I should charge for them. I don’t want to scare her off and lose her as a patient down the road. So I just did them for free.”

“Well, he’d already agreed to pay me to draw up the documents. Then he called for more advice; I spoke with him for another hour or so. Do you think he’d be insulted if I charged him for the phone consult?”

Can you imagine a dentist or an attorney saying either of the above? Of course not! But you wouldn’t believe the times I have had similar conversations with fellow writers. On second thought, if you are a writer, I suppose you would believe it. Because you’ve probably had similar worries somewhere along the way. I know I have.

What is it about creative fields that makes us devalue our work, taking little or nothing as payment and being grateful to boot for the opportunity? Why is it so hard to set a price on our talents? And why do so many assume that we will give it away simply for the joy of being asked? Or for the promise of “exposure.” Or the thrill of seeing our byline.

Why is this? Because art is perceived as being optional? Or because there are so many of us creative folk that we’re a dime a dozen? And a devalued dime at that. Or is it because creative fields, by their nature, rise from a place of evanescence? How do we value materially that which springs from places deep within us, places that we cherish as the essence of our highest selves? Does it cheapen our spiritual and artistic gifts when we have the audacity to ask for payment? Or does putting a price on our gifts make others respect our unique talents?

I’ve asked a lot of questions here. And I have no answers, really. Each of us has to decide how far we will go to be known, how many unpaid articles we will write for the promise of paid ones down the road, how many “opportunities” we will turn down for lack of payment.

On the upside, this blog brought a surprise by way of publication for a past post. A wonderful editorial assistant at Good Housekeeping magazine read one of my blogs and has paid me for its use. “On Dogwoods and Daughters” appears in the May issue. On the stands April 14.

Will I write a freebie every now and then? Sure. There are sites I enjoy writing for. I appreciate the opportunity and the site owners’ enthusiasm for my work. And I’ll occasionally serve on a panel gratis or speak for a non-profit for a reduced fee. But more often than not, even in these challenging times, I expect to be paid for my expertise. And you?

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8 thoughts on “What’s a Word’s Worth?

  1. Cindy L

    Wow — great post again, Debra! This should be shared with every writers’ group across the country. After freelancing professionally for nearly three decades, I wish I had a dollar — just one dollar — for the all the free editorial advice I’ve given; articles I’ve proofed or written pro bono; and free pieces I’ve run online for editors who can’t pay for content.

    As you’ve pointed out in this post, I wouldn’t dream of approaching a business consultant, a lawyer, a carpenter, a window washer, or a dentist and ask THEM for free advice and service. But more than a few of these have *expected* as much from me as a writer. As if writing were as simple as tying a shoelace and as dispensable as soda pop can…. Now you’ve got me started!!

  2. cindy

    You make excellent points, Debra. I think that in all creative venues some editorial types who need content but don’t want to pay for it know we love what we do and (especially if we don’t have a big name) take advantage of that.

  3. Paul

    The Dentist’s life

    Debra, you would be amazed as to how hard it can be sometimes to have our patients understand the true value of our services. To often we hear “well if its not covered by my insurance…then I don’t want to …( even for non elective procedures) . as if the insurance company has their best interest in mind. Or, wow I wish I was a dentist so that I can charge… always forgetting about the significant overhead it takes to run a small business

    Early in my career ,a mentor of mind once told me the following story ,when I expressed to him my difficulties in justifying my fees (again this was way early in my career)

    One day Monet was sketching the landscape by the river Seine. A woman (a visiting tourist) was observing him from a short distance and was quite taken by his obvious talent and ability. She approached him with a clean napkin in hand and asked if he would be so kind as to sketch her portrait on the napkin. Monet decided to oblige the women, took the napkin and began sketching and in ten minutes handed her the completed drawing. The women was amazed at the completed work of art and carefully placed it in her purse. She then asked him ,what do I owe you ?, and without hesitation he replied “ that will be 500 francs Madame……….500 francs ?? she questioned…but it only took you 10 minutes…Then Monet replied…Madame that’s were you are wrong…it has taken me a lifetime!
    Debra thanks again for another great post!!! what do I owe you???

  4. Only the Half of It

    So apropos. I was just reading about tips for desperate job seekers and how they should never come across as desperate and never offer to work for less or even free for a short while. Why? Because it devalues you.
    Reminded me immediately of us in our field. Where this is common. I often do articles that don’t pay well, but in those cases, it’s because it’s a new opportunity either to expand my publication/media base or write a story I want that might not be accepted somewhere else. I’ve gotten new assignments with this method.
    Still, we are underpaid.
    It makes me wonder how that affects my psyche whether I want to admit it or now.

  5. Cindy La Ferle

    I’ve enjoyed reading the other comments here so far. I wanted to add something on this topic:

    Once upon a time I taught a series of free writing classes and workshops at a local library. The library paid me a small honorarium for this — but did not charge the public for the classes. Of course, all the local patrons and curious new writers loved the free programs. So it was, in many ways, a wonderful community service and a great bargain for new writing students. Many of the same students came to ALL of the programs offered.

    In fact, one them liked the programs so much that he enrolled in one of my private workshops, which was hosted at a local high school. But he was shocked to learn that he had to actually PAY a fee for that class. He told me that he just assumed that my services were offered for “free” everywhere else, too!

    When I realized I was starting to look like a walking freebie, I vowed to stop giving away my time and expertise. What took me so long?

  6. Debra

    Thank you one and all for writing. The only other column to receive such attention and readership was the one I wrote about our sweet dog, McKenzie, last year when she died.

    It is validating to know that we are all faced with these issues although it surprised me to learn that the dilemma/insult isn’t foreign to my dentist and attorney friends.

    Perhaps when we actively make the choice to writer w/o compensation (as opposed to taking an assignment grudgingly, out of anxiety that we’ll never have another chance) we retain some sense of professionalism. We do have a choice to use these gigs as stepping stones to something else or as opportunities to reaffirm (by saying ‘no thank you’) that we are in charge. In either situation we work (or not) at our own behest. Thank you ALL for staying with me on this one. I am very grateful for all your support and for helping to create a forum for all my readers.

  7. Christy

    I”m in a different field, but I often comp or discount my services for friends/family. (I take care of children) Sometimes I view this as my way of providing a service to others. I found your blog through Good Housekeeping. I’m glad the editor there paid you a bit to publish your post or I wouldn’t have found you. Maybe we should consider it passed forward?

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