The writer as scab

I learned something today, or re-learned it. (I learned it once before, several years ago, but the learning faded, or the circumstances were different enough that I didn’t apply the learning.)

I learned that if someone asks you to write something for their website, for free, and you don’t really want to…don’t do it.

I didn’t really want to because I have other deadlines already, and because the request was oddly specific – it should have this quality, and this, and this. But it was for a branch of Open Democracy, and I like Open Democracy, so I asked if I could also post it here and was told yes, so I said ok.

But the specificity was a problem, and made it hard to write, so it took up space over several days because of the difficulty. But I wrote it and sent it – and the editors sent it back requesting lots of detailed changes, including ones that would make it fit better with their line (but not with anything I ever write about).

I’m writing about it here because it’s an issue of workers’ rights, of scabbing, of the rights of writers. It’s not just me. This is one of those things – like modeling, like journalism, like a lot of coveted jobs – where people get exploited because there are a lot of people who want to do that kind of work. I don’t think people who run websites should take advantage of that.

I think they asked for way too much for a piece they weren’t paying for. Maybe I’m spoiled; in all three of the columns I write I’m used to deciding for myself what I write about and how I write about it. But I’m not spoiled to think that if I’m going to write something to other people’s specifications, I should be paid for it.

The section of OD is called Transformation. It has a whiff of the spiritual and a whiff of the touchy-feely…so I’m not sure why they wanted me to write for them in the first place. Anyway, quite frankly I think they should transform their way of dealing with writers first of all.


  1. Kevin Kehres says

    I don’t get this a lot, but occasionally will be recruited to do something where the payment is in “exposure”. As if I’m some sort of roll of photographic film.

    No thanks. I’m quite content being unexposed.

  2. says

    occasionally will be recruited to do something where the payment is in “exposure”

    I get that, periodically, and reply, “Obviously, my ‘exposure’ is good enough that you’ve heard of me. So until the grocery store starts accepting ‘exposure’ I limit the amount of pro bono work I do to causes that need my support.”

    Notice how I slide the “pro bono work” in there?

  3. Kevin Kehres says

    Well, it’s not really work, is it? I mean, all you do is sit at the computer all day. Typing.

    Reading some of the comments at the original Scalzi post, some people seem to be under the impression that charity = no money. Sorry, no. My cousin works for a non-profit. My nephew does as well. They’re both adequately compensated for their time. If a job is important enough to bring a professional in, it’s important enough to pay that professional what he/she is worth.

    Of course, I do donate plenty of writing talent to those causes that I have a direct engagement with. But if some charity down the road that I have nothing to do with seeks me out and expects me to donate my services…well, Scalzi said it best, though I’m inclined to be slightly more polite in my turn-downs.

    And now, I have to stop procrastinating and start writing something that pays the mortgage. Is it 5:30 already?

  4. stevebowen says

    From both sides of the fence: I’m a musician, these days for fun, but 30 odd years ago for a living. Back in the day venues used to “offer” stage space so you gigged for sweet FA but had the exposure and the chance of future paid work. It didn’t take long before I realised what a crock this was.
    Move on a few decades and until recently I had a venue of my own. Cover bands always want paying, as they should, but good original acts sometimes offered to play for free. I always payed a band to play, even if they didn’t request it and even if they didn’t make great trade. i also told those acts to charge on every occasion because they were ruining the market for musos otherwise. If you devalue your own art and skill you devalue everyone’s.

  5. sacharissa says

    I volunteered for a charity for a long while then got a job. As a volunteer things were a lot more flexible and easygoing. Once I was being paid I took on more and more that volunteers wouldn’t want to do and that needed to be done by a permanent staff member (especially banking and other financial stuff). Sometimes organisations blur the distinctions, especially with internships and this is a problem.

    As a kid my sister and I sometimes helped at the stables. I got fed up quickly by the way they acted like being allowed to groom and muck out their horses was a special privilege. My sister was far more into horses so she stuck with it.

  6. says

    Years ago I volunteered at the local zoo. I did it because I could – I’d learned that they used volunteers – and I wanted to. Doing it, I learned that it could lead to being hired as a keeper, so I kept doing it and eventually got hired. There were always issues. It’s a union job, and the union kept an eye on it. The theory was that volunteers did only stuff that was extra in some way, but that was a polite fiction.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *