Saturday, 20 February 2016

I did a bad thing

Bless me father for I have sinned. I have done a bad thing that I have never, ever done before. But I don't feel guilty, I feel pretty good about it.

So what is this bad thing I have done? I have let someone who commissioned me to do some work down.

I took it on in good faith, I really intended to do it to my usual high standard. I hate letting people down and I am a very conscientious writer who never, ever misses a deadline. You can ask any editor I have ever worked for, I will always go the extra mile. Give up that weekend or evening so I can get copy in to them, or make amends to ensure that it hits the brief exactly.

In all my 20 years as a journalist, I have never said no to any changes, any crazy shifts in perspective, any mad deadlines. I pride myself on being 100% reliable.

But a couple of days ago I emailed an editor who had commissioned me and said to her that I simply didn't have the time or energy to complete the writing task I had accepted.

I admit that I do bear some guilt in this. I should have said no from the outset, but it is so ingrained in me to accept any commission, I foolishly agreed to do this piece of work. I am heartily sorry for that. I know I made her life more difficult as a result and that was never my intention.

But what makes me feel a whole lot better about my shoddy behaviour is the difference between this and any of my other commissions. I was asked to write it for free.

So when I shamefacedly emailed her to say that actually, when push comes to shove, I am going to prioritise my job that pays me and my family that loves me, over scrambling to write up copy for nothing, I didn't feel nearly as bad as I probably should have.

This little epiphany in my life comes on top of a huge response to the editor of the Huff Po stating that he is proud not to pay writers, as those who write for free do it for the love of writing rather than  shabby commercial gain.

So I take it that he is more than happy to edit this online model of moral crusading for free? I mean it would just demean his position to actually, like, get paid to do it. If he is taking a salary then how can we know that he really is choosing the best, most enlightening and unbiased writing for our delight. I am just not sure I can trust him if I feel that he is being paid to do his job.

Come to think of it, why on earth did I pay the builder who renovated my house last year. Surely he is a craftsman and by giving him money I was sullying his art? He would surely have done a much better job of the loft extension if I had refused to pay him and insisted that the exposure it would provide for him, as it jutted proudly into the sky above all my neighbours, was reward enough for his toil? What a fool I have been to dirty all the transactions I have made throughout my life with the taint of money.

Next time I am in M&S I shall insist they donate my lunch to me for free, otherwise how do I know that my tuna and sweetcorn sandwich has been made with love, instead of the base desire of the person who made it to be paid for their work. Charlatans the lot of them.

So I am not sorry for the bad thing I did, but I am truly sorry for ever having considered writing for a commercial organisation for free. I'm ashamed that I was stupid enough to play along with the idea that writers should donate their words in return for exposure. After all I know just what that is worth, I have been on the cover of the Daily Mail twice, my stories have led on their website, with its 100 million readers many times, and yet still people think I should write for them for free, so what was that exposure worth in the end? Sweet FA.

Let this be a cautionary tale to all those writers who do consider their words so worthless that they are happy to give them away in return for that most ephemeral of concepts; 'exposure'. By gifting your words you are not paving the way to some distant point where someone will have a eureka moment and realise that actually your prose is worth paying for. Instead you are slowly hacking the heart out of the business of writing, killing dead the idea that it is a skill and craft that should be rewarded. Thanks for that.


  1. Totally agree - there is no way I would write for free. Trouble is there will always interns and keen young things who will (and there always have been - I remember being told at journalism school that the only people who ended up on glossy magazines were people who didn't need the money and could start as an editorial assistant on peanuts).

    1. You're right it hasn't changed, but I think it has got worse. At least editors used to know they were taking the piss, now they are proud of not paying!

  2. If you're a writer as opposed to a trained journalist, it's a very difficult area when you first start out. I don't write (much) for free these days but I was approached by the BBC because of a free column I was writing. That is paid and have lead to other paid, regular gigs. I disagree with the HuffPost guy though. It took them a while to break even but once you start making money, pay your bloody writers.

    1. Yes, I think what got me riled was that he was proud not to pay writers and thought it somehow made them more authentic. I know free work can sometimes get you more paid work, but at some point you have to say no, or there will be no paid work left and editors like him will have turned a skill and career into a hobby.