Whether to write for free is a divisive question. Some argue that giving your work away not only undermines you but all writers; others argue that we all have to start somewhere. So where does America’s most enduring author come down on the subject? Well, he answers that in the recently released Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 2.
Now, the first thing to note before I go any further is that Twain’s autobiography is a doorstop of a book. The old boy didn’t put pen to paper but rather dictated the beast, so without cramping hands to consider Mr. Clemens was liberal with the word count. I mention this for one simple reason: I’m too damned lazy to dig through that monster again for citations, so all you’re going to get here are my shabby paraphrases. But trust me: What I’m sharing with you is in there somewhere. You can look for yourself.
Twain dedicates quite a bit of space in his autobiography to his advocacy for extending the length of copyright. You might infer from this that he was an opponent of writing for free, and obviously to some extent that is true, but actually he raises two very strong arguments for why you shouldn’t be so quick to turn down no-pay gigs.
The first of these seems tailor made for the internet age, where anyone with a keyboard can be a published author. We think of this as a recent phenomenon, but writing in 1906-7, Twain voices the very contemporary sounding complaint that writing is the one career for which people think there’s no need for an apprenticeship. We wouldn’t think of performing brain surgery without formal education followed by a residency. Most of us wouldn’t overhaul an engine, install an air conditioner, build a house, or run a company without putting in some years first. Yet, give a guy a keyboard or a notebook and suddenly he’s a writer.
Even other artists — actors, musicians, dancers — perform for free in order to hone their skills to a professional edge. Why should writers be any different? You have to write a lot in order to write well. You need feedback, rejection, success. You need to learn what works and what doesn’t, how to approach editors, on and on. We all want to get paid, but the writers who do are the ones who took their apprenticeships seriously. It’s not a matter of “paying one’s dues” as in some sort of fraternal hazing, but rather “paying one’s dues” in terms of putting in the work necessary to learn both the business and the craft.
The other relevant point Twain makes is his foolproof plan for getting a job in any industry. It goes something like this, and he guarantees that it will work:
Pick a profession — let’s say law, just for the sake of conversation. Visit your friendly neighborhood law office and volunteer to work for free. Do whatever your new employer needs, no matter how menial. Be useful. Slowly your boss will give you more and more responsibility, all of which you will accept without complaint. Inevitably you will be so damned important to his daily operation that he can’t help but offer you a paid position.
Twain claims in his autobiography to have seen this scheme work time and again throughout his lifetime, and he cites specific examples of his advice in action. Without knowledge of his plan, I have deployed this same strategy many times over the years. Not in a law office, of course, but you get my drift.
Writing for free, when done strategically at least, is a real world application of this concept. Publishing (both online and traditional) is a business, and just like any other employer, publishers surround themselves with people who make their lives/businesses better. And who makes a publisher’s or editor’s job easier? You do — now prove it to him or her by making deadlines, proofreading your work, following the publication’s style guide, etc.
Would I rather be paid for everything I write? Yes, absolutely. This is my 710th post on this blog in three years. That’s in the neighborhood of a half million words and no idea how many hours, and I’m embarrassed to tell you how little I’ve made directly off of the effort. However, the non-monetary benefits have been tremendous. My writing has improved significantly during that three year apprenticeship, and opportunities (both artistic and monetary) have presented themselves that otherwise never would have found me.
Whether you choose to write for free is up to you, but I think it’s an important first step in your career. Apprenticeships are important, not just in terms of the development of our craft but for the opportunities that they expose us to. If you’re serious about writing you won’t be doing it for free forever. You can trust me: Mark Twain told me so.
Categories: on writing