Bam! You’re a Writer
A question recently came through the Prompt-ly list from St. Elsewhere (thank you!) about being asked to be a judge for a competition or being asked to review a product, and I thought I would unpack my thoughts here. Since I am that self-important that I believe I have something worth reading on this topic.
This is my take, for what it’s worth. If you are a blogger, you are a writer, and being a writer is work. Not everyone who writes gets paid, just as not everyone who installs cabinets in their kitchen gets paid. If you’re helping a friend refurbish their kitchen, you may be doing this task for free. So there are cabinet installers who get paid and cabinet installers who don’t, and they’re both installing cabinets and they’re both doing work. There are plenty of other professions that have this dichotomy that extends beyond just pro bono work. There are people who act or sing or paint — and some get paid and some never get paid.
So all people who engage in these sorts of tasks are doing work, though not all of them can count this work as their job. Does that make sense? It’s sort of like how all chinos are khakis but not all khakis are chinos… or something like that.
What is it going to take for you to believe me when I tell you that you’re a writer? Do I have to yank out my extremely fake Harry Potter wand that I made out of hot glue and paper? Fine, swish and flick:
Bam! You’re a writer.
And now that you recognize you are a writer, you need to start thinking and acting like one. Even if you never make a dime off your blog, you are a writer and your blog is your writing space. I am a paid writer and there are still places — like this one — where I write for free simply because it makes me happy. I get paid here in the currency of control. It is the only place that I write where I have complete control of the process — from what I say to how long I say it to when it goes up. So this is a place where I write for free, but just because I don’t get paid in money doesn’t mean that it isn’t a task — and what is another word for task? Work? — and if it’s a task, it takes time and energy to complete. Therefore, I’m fairly picky about what I place in this space. It has to be an idea that I came up with or someone else suggests that resonates with me so completely that I don’t feel bitter about taking up my time to sit down and write the post.
So this is the mental place I start when I get requests to place something on my blog or do write something for free for someone else’s space.
The first thing I ask myself is why they are asking for me to work for free. If it’s because they don’t have the money to pay — such as a fellow blogger or a non-profit organization — I can wrap my mind around that and feel fine working for free. After all, I often ask people for favours; to give me their skills or time for free. I do so because I don’t have a lot of money. If I did, I’d pay them. But I don’t, so I have to ask and hopefully find someone who is kind enough to give me their skills for free. I am fine saying “yes” to a lot of these types of requests because I’ve been on the other end of making them.
If they do have the money to pay but are choosing not to pay me, I’m not quite as cool with that. That goes for big companies as well as small. You need to spend money to make money. While paying me for my skills may be a hardship for a small company, I can appreciate that and still say no. Unless the company itself is something I would write about unprompted, I don’t take on work — either to place here on my blog or to write something for their site — when asked. I even say so in my “about me” page in no uncertain terms.
Okay, so what about product reviews where they’re sending you the product? In that case, the product becomes pay, and you have to decide if you’re okay with both the virtual price and the work you’re being asked to do to get it. As that Trident commercial shows, some people like to be paid in gum. At that point, I ask myself, is an hour of my time worth being paid one bottle of baconlube? If I really wanted meaty lube, I might say yes. But 99.9% of the time, I say no.
I’ve turned down a new oven, electronics, use of a car, and free trips. All because while I was fine with the virtual pay for the task, I wasn’t fine doing the work. I wanted the oven, but I didn’t want to say nice things about the company giving me the oven because they’re a pain in the ass to work with as a consumer. So I couldn’t have written honestly about the company. I wanted the trip, but I didn’t want to go on the trip by their rules. In order for me to take on that “work,” I need to be fine not just with the pay but with what is being asked of me in order to get that pay. I can count on one hand how many times I’ve done a review of a product or business where I was asked (vs. the times when I write about the peppermint tea I’m drinking just because I like it and think you might want to know about it too).
There are times when the product is something I want, and then I think it’s a fair trade. My time, energy, or skills as a writer for their product. If Tim Cook wrote me tomorrow and said,
Dear Melanie [I just assume that he’d get my name wrong since so many people do],
We’d like to give you an iPhone 4s and have you review it on your blog. Would you be willing to do this?
The answer would be yes. I want an iPhone 4s, he is telling me that he’ll essentially pay me in an iPhone 4s to write a post on Stirrup Queens, and I am fine taking the time to write an honest review of my experience with his product in exchange for this type of pay.
But do I want to get paid in lipstick? Or meatless frozen dinners? Or washing machines? The answer is no. And once I start accepting those “payments” for the work, what I have is not an enhanced life where I feel like I’ve earned something of worth in exchange for my time and energy. What I have is clutter. I have a house cluttered with things I don’t really want.
What about being a paid reviewer? There are programs out there where you can be hired to review a product. You get paid for the post and you get to keep the product. Those I treat just like any other freelance article. I take some freelance articles that are pitched to me (at this point, the pitches go both ways — I pitch to certain places and sometimes other places pitch to me to write for them), and I skip others. I usually base my decision on the pay (is it enough to warrant the work), how well I think I’ll do the work (am I comfortable writing about it), and my time limitations. A journalist who reviews products for a magazine gets paid. They get paid by the magazine. A blogger who reviews products for their blog should also get paid. They work for the review program; not the product itself. And I’m fine with that as long as the review program wants an honest assessment of the product and will allow the writer to point out both its great features and its foibles.
What about being a judge? A bunch of times, I’ve been asked to serve as a judge for a website’s contest or help work on another organization’s project. Again, your time is valuable, and I’d take a good long look at how much buying your time should cost. A few years ago, I implemented and ran and judged Resolve’s What IF project, mostly because I came up with the idea and pitched it to Barb Collura while we were having lunch in New York, and it made sense once the idea was fully formed for me to run it and give it my time — for free. It came down to the fact that I believe the organization pays me in something else — lobbying hours on the Hill on my behalf. Resolve fights the good fight for us, and I think infertile soldiers should give something back to them. So they pay me in the work they do, and I give them my skills for free as a thank you.
I’ve also been a judge and been paid to be a judge. I was paid for my time in the judging process and then paid to attend the event where the winner was revealed. They covered my travel expenses and gave me a stipend. That showed me that the organization valued my time and energy.
But when I’m working on someone else’s project, I am giving up my personal time. Or my paid work time. Or my unpaid work time to dick around on everyone else’s blogs. So I ask myself before agreeing to work on someone else’s project if I can afford to allow this other site or organization to take away my personal time. Beyond that, when you work on a project, you are lending your name, your presence on the Web, your time and energy to THEIR project. And I think my name, Web presence, and time is pretty valuable. So I don’t give it out willy-nilly.
All of this comes down to one point: when someone asks me to do something for free (or for pay in the form of a product), I am rarely flattered. Which is not to say when someone or an organization I’m a little star-struck over contacts me that I don’t run around the room in a tight circle for a few minutes saying, “they like me, they really like me!” After I get that out of my system, I subject everyone and everything to those standards above. I do not give away my time, energy, or skills without a lot of thought. And I don’t think it’s very flattering to have someone ask you to work for free when they can pay you. I think it’s more flattering when they say in no uncertain terms: we value your time and your expertise and your space on the Web, and we’d like to pay you in order to access those things.
I’ve always had the motto that if I can say yes, I should say yes. But I keep myself inline with the word “can” since there is a personal cost every time I agree to give away my time or skills for free. And frankly, I can’t afford to give away things that I need for myself.
So those are my very long two-cents on this free-work, review product debate. And yes, it makes me sound like a curmudgeonly grinch. But I like to think of it as respecting myself.
Photo Credit: Stevendepolo.