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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?


Tim Cook

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.


1 Stephanie { 11.29.11 at 9:27 am }

I completely agree with this post. It’s amazing how many companies offer bloggers a free sample of a granola bar (or equivalent) in exchange for a post. I always say no; I put a lot of time into each and every post on my blog, and it’s really not worth a two dollar “free” sample. I like it when bloggers do thoughtful reviews of products from time to time, but I’ve unfollowed some blogs who post nothing but review after review after review – especially when companies troll through blogs and there are dozens of bloggers all reviewing the exact same thing at the exact same time. Unless you’re specifically a review blog, then reviews do not content make.

On a completely unrelated note, this morning I was laughing at a song on Youtube that someone emailed me. Only now, seeing your avatar, do I realize that you’re the one who made it! Ha! LOVED this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cIH5ayG1qho I laughed out loud at “the uterus of doom”.

2 KnottedFingers { 11.29.11 at 10:14 am }

This post was wonderful. I don’t think you sound like a curmudgeonly grinch at all. Recently a friend told me I should ‘cut down on my posts about loss and Calypso because it would make my readers uncomfortable and they’d stop reading’

But my blog isn’t about my readers. I mean it’s WONDERFUL that I have readers and if they ever need anything I will support them in any way possible even if it’s just pray (or send energy or whatever) but my blog? Is for me. If someone doesn’t like how I write it then they don’t have to read it.

I do love the people who listen to my rambles though, and I appreciate them. But my blog? Helps me and it’s for me.

Does this make sense without me sounding like a stuck up twit?

3 Ann Z { 11.29.11 at 11:15 am }

I think your post makes a lot of sense, though like many things, it depends on the blog, too, right? On my personal blog, I don’t do reviews, paid or not, because that’s not what that blog is about. But on my little four eyes blog, I think of my writing and keeping the blog up as volunteer work. I want to make a difference in that community, so I put the time and effort in to my blog, just as I volunteer at my church’s library. In that respect, I don’t mind doing some review writing or promoting or judging without pay, if I feel like the work supports the community and provides valuable information. Just promoting an item that has nothing to do with it, though? No. Not worth my time. I have done some reviews (book reviews) in return for a book. But I would have done the same review without being sent the book, I’d just get it from the library.

4 Eggs In A Row { 11.29.11 at 11:15 am }

Have you read what The Bloggess says about this? http://thebloggess.com/heres-a-picture-of-wil-wheaton-collating-papers/

I think it’s pretty interesting. Just a thought: I’m sure Daddy blogs don’t get pitched to do things for 2 boxes of cereal. Why should Mommy’s be asked to do the same?

5 loribeth { 11.29.11 at 11:59 am }

@ Eggs In A Row: Yes — and (in line with a recent rant on my own blog), I doubt I would ever be approached to pitch products through my blog (never have yet) since I’m NOT a mommy, & therefore not a desirable demographic in the eyes of marketers (even though I may have MORE disposable income than a parent, BECAUSE of the absence of children in my life). :p

6 slowmamma { 11.29.11 at 1:05 pm }

This is a great post. I am a tiny fish so I don’t actually have to worry about these things but I know that many bloggers do and there is some very wise advice here.

I also agree that bloggers ARE writers, paid or not. However, I personally still feel more comfortable saying: I’m not a writer but I play one on the internet.

7 St. Elsewhere { 11.29.11 at 1:28 pm }

You put it so beautifully…and I completely agree with you. What really spoke to me was when you said:

“when you work on a project, you are lending your name, your presence on the Web, your time and energy to THEIR project”


Thank you for the clarity you brought to the subject.

8 Peg { 11.29.11 at 1:36 pm }

When people ask me what I do, I always say that I’m an analyst, although the majority of what I do is write. But I have never considered myself a writer.

I started a blog almost a year ago. I never considered myself a writer until I read your post this morning. I care about what and how I write. I look forward to feedback. For the most part I enjoy the process of writing my posts. I guess I am a writer. Thanks, this has kinda made my day. 🙂

9 Kathy { 11.29.11 at 2:46 pm }

I really appreciate this post Mel. Thank you for sharing. It took me awhile to get here, but I do consider myself a writer now.

Here is a link to a recent post that I wrote about it: http://chicagobensons.blogspot.com/2011/11/on-being-writer.html

I think sometimes as a “small time” blogger, the rare occasions I have to participate in something (even if its unpaid) with an organization that has a big name, I have a tendency to get caught up in the excitement of that.

I have such mixed feelings about growing my blog and possibly trying to get published someday and often feel like I need to take advantage of every possible opportunity to network and “be seen” to help my chances for the future.

BUT, after reading your post, it is a good reminder, that though it helps to have a “platform” and connections with people who might be able to help me (if and when the time comes), the emphasis still is (and should be) on good quality writing about topics that readers can relate to.

If I want to pursue getting published someday, I should focus more on the writing and getting noticed by those who have influence. Not that a platform isn’t important, but I read somewhere recently to worry more about that later (if and when you get a contract with an agent and hopefully a publisher) or at least at the same time you are working on your book proposal.

So that’s my two cents on this topic. Thank you, as always, for encouraging me (and all of us) to value ourselves and our work (especially our writing) and to think about a subject from a perspective that may not be the most obvious, but it certainly makes a lot sense to me.

10 Kathy { 11.29.11 at 2:48 pm }

P.S. That was supposed to say,

If I want to pursue getting published someday, I should focus more on the writing and NOT ON getting noticed by those who have influence.

11 HereWeGoAJen { 11.29.11 at 4:08 pm }

I agree. I only do reviews for products if it is something I am truly interested in (I’ve done cloth diaper reviews) or if it is something I was going to buy anyway (like my Christmas cards this year) because those are the only times that I feel like I got my money’s worth out of my time.

12 Kate { 11.29.11 at 4:21 pm }

I agree that we are all writers. My blog, among other things, keeps my writing skills up because of sheer practice. I see friends freeze up when they need to write something longer then a post-it. The writing I do is good for me on many levels and if someone ever asked me to do something for nothing/pay/product I’ll keep your criteria in mind.

13 Lori Lavender Luz { 11.29.11 at 8:26 pm }

You are so doggone smart, Melanie. I posted this post’s link on a blogging group I’m in because we often talk about what we’re worth. This post goes so much further.

14 a { 11.29.11 at 9:35 pm }

Eh, I’m not a writer. I’m more of a dilettante. But that’s just me. I almost always consider the cost to me when asked to commit to a project. It irritates me beyond measure when my husband volunteers me to do stuff, because he thinks my time is not valuable. I don’t spend my spare time trying to make money, you see. I spend my spare time talking to people on the computer who I’ll never meet. Or playing games on Facebook. Anyway, if I find the task fulfiling, but there’s no money involved, I’ll do it. I like to rack up goodwill too. But companies? They will not repay my goodwill. (I don’t get many offers anyway). I would probably do a post for a granola bar, though…but you get what you pay for. 🙂

I think it’s hard for people to determine their own value. That’s why this is a difficult issue for bloggers – most of whom also probably consider themselves dilettantes rather than writers.

15 a { 11.29.11 at 9:37 pm }

Also, I hope you post this on BlogHer too – it deserves as wide an audience as possible. And I do love the Wil Wheaton collating paper saga from the Bloggess – especially since Wil Wheaton joined in on it himself.

16 Justine { 11.29.11 at 10:09 pm }

OK, get out of my head. 😉

It’s funny … a friend of mine down the block just started a mommy blog and says she will be doing reviews … I found myself getting upset, and couldn’t figure out why. Now I think maybe it’s because I feel like she’s cheapening herself and her writing before she even gets started. And even if you’re writing for other people (which I confess, I am … while I write for myself, my blog isn’t *just* about writing for myself, otherwise I’d have a private journal), you can’t build a genuine community of followers when the virtual equivalent of your living room is plastered with advertising. I often marvel that blogs with reviews get hundreds (or even thousands!) of followers, but then I also wonder if those followers are actually reading the blog, or just following for the giveaways.

AND: sometimes it’s easier to believe if someone waves an extremely fake magic wand. 🙂

17 mrs spock { 11.29.11 at 11:08 pm }

I still can’t wrap my brain around baconlube.

I generally have turned down product reviews- I never get any great ones. Of course, I’d be happy to review for an iPad2- anyone want to send one my way?

I did the OBOS work pro bono, but for me it was a huge, huge honor to be a part of that process. Working with the editors really helped me fine-tune my own writing and editing skills, in a way I haven;t done since college.And it did help get this Stella her writing groove back.

18 jjiraffe { 11.30.11 at 1:23 am }

Hm. This brings up an interesting debate. Very, very few bloggers (maybe 50 in the world) are able to earn a good living from their projects. The way most ad networks are run now and the traffic numbers brands demand to pay bloggers are not in favor of actually funding writers. (For example, in order to get paid $25,000 a year in ad sales, I’d have to get at least 25,000 page views a day. I don’t have anywhere near that kind of traffic.) Print media is declining, firing writers, the publishing industry is imploding. So I wonder if the profession of writing is a endangered profession to all but a few, huge, popular bloggers? And the surviving old media guard?

I’d love to be wrong on this. And if I’m right, how can we change it? Or is this the paradigm of the future?

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