I’d Rather Work for Free

November 29, 2022 § 24 Comments

“Platform” and “literary citizenship” are the same behavior with different hats.

By Allison K Williams

Almost all of them tipped. Sadly, it was in Macedonian dinars.

I blogged a couple weeks ago about writing technique. How it’s valuable for artists to explore their craft and their tools in the company of other artists in the same stage of development. I mentioned these learning opportunities are rare for writers: we have plenty of write-your-feelings workshops and respond-to-pages workshops, but not much that goes past schooldays-grammar into building strong sentences and paragraphs. One commenter thought I’d missed the mark–she felt her K-12 education had been rigorous and adult writing classes she’d taken had covered plenty of technique. She also jabbed

But then I got to the bottom and see the whole essay was really a presale for your own classes here.

Ooof.

It hurts because it’s true. I do write blogs here and elsewhere to advertise my classes. I write long posts in Facebook writer’s groups where I’ve personally made the rule “anyone advertising must give immediately useful information; group members should benefit from your post even if they never click the link to explore your services.” I tweet threads breaking down editorial concepts or writing craft elements, then mention relevant webinars. I host The Writers Bridge, a free biweekly series on author platform, and yes, I mention my current offering in the emails with the Zoom links.

One of the things that attracted an agent and a publisher for my book, Seven Drafts, was proving through social media engagement and mailing list numbers that people think I’m an expert. Why do they think that? Because I’ve spent years giving away advice, and I still do. Last year, on a blog about freelance editing, a commenter asked

…do you give free advice online for writers? If so, my question is—do you think it is worth your time and effort?

I responded in part,

I do write blogs and participate in FB groups, and that way writers see the quality of the information I can offer.

That’s how we become experts. People try our free advice; if it resonates, if it makes their life or their work better, they come back for more. Memoirist Ashleigh Renard shows up on social media every day answering every direct message she receives. Her advice helps people. It also lets her know exactly what her audience needs. Love her free marriage counseling? Get some more at her retreat in Tulum!

We stay experts by making our free advice part of our income flow. I might spend an hour writing a blog, or three hours editing other authors’ work (free editing for them!) for the Brevity blog, or five hours preparing and running a Writers Bridge episode. Each time, I sacrifice billable hours for volunteer hours. Creating a new webinar–marketing copy, lesson plan, slides, workbook, execution, follow-up Q&A–is 16-18 hours. Attendees pay $15-25. They say things like “I got more out of this than a semester at my MFA!” and I can deliver that quality for $25 because a few hundred people show up. How do I get a few hundred people? By giving free advice to twenty thousand.

When I was a street performer, we delivered a theatre-quality show with acrobatics, aerial silks, duo trapeze, fire-eating, whip-cracking, audience participation and comedy. After each show, we passed the hat. Our job was to deliver a show so impressive, so captivating, that even though the entire audience could scatter without paying and suffer absolutely no penalties, they would choose to stand in line to hand us money. Plenty of people watched our show without paying. Some of them were cheap. Some of them were unhoused, or in hard times. Some of them shook our hands and apologized for not giving, and we said, “We’re just glad to have you at the show!”

We meant it.

Yes, we were working for money. Yes, it was our real job, and we needed people to pay us. But the joy of genuine communion with the crowd, of sharing regardless of profit, was part of what made the show worth seeing. The great artistic paradox is that the more you write, or paint, or dance, for sheer love of the work, the more monetary reward you’ll see…as long as you’re strategic.

As a trapeze artist, I said it in the hat pass: “Our greatest gift is your smiles, your laughter, and your applause. Unfortunately, we can’t go to our landlord at the end of the month and go”–clapping–“Good apartment man! Good apartment! Go power bill!” I’d say that the people who can pay subsidize the people who can’t, but everyone gets to see the show. I watched people look around, assess how many people were present, and pull out a ten or a twenty instead of a five.

In my editing and teaching career, I rarely say it out loud: Writers who pay me $3595 for a program or $4495 for a retreat subsidize every free blog post. Writers who buy an $1850 edit or a $685 book proposal evaluation have subsidized 50+ episodes of The Writers Bridge. I have privilege from income, whiteness, lack of children, and a supportive spouse, subsidizing my ability to lie in bed for an hour dispensing writing advice on social media and answering blog comments. I’ve made the calculation: I’d rather charge for value delivered than hours spent. That means doing about 1/3 of my total work hours for free, and pricing paid hours high enough to stay joyful and excited about volunteering. And I’ve learned that part of not feeling guilty about charging high prices (or advertising!) is not bothering to work for cheap–just happily working for free.

___

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. OH LOOK SHE’S ALSO SELLING SOMETHING: Just cranked through NaNoWriMo? At the end of your draft and unsure what’s next? Please join her for the webinar Second Draft: Your Path to a Powerful, Publishable Book December 14th. It’s $25. If you prefer to track down and print out every blog Allison’s ever written about story & structure, put them in a binder and work from there, it’s free!

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§ 24 Responses to I’d Rather Work for Free

  • Allison, I think most of us here are fully aware that you are a gift. Yes, you self-promote and sell time and experience, you have an amazing book that I recommend to everyone (and am even thanked for recommending), and despite all your time and dedication and generosity, you are rarely thanked adequately. So, thank you. I will now go order yet another copy of your book to gift a friend. (Because, you know, it’s brilliant.)

    • Allison K Williams says:

      Thanks, Jan – I always look forward to your comments and I’m so glad we share a community. And thank you for the kind words–I truly love what I do, and it’s really terrific to know it’s appreciated!

  • youngv2015 says:

    Allison, I always love reading your blogs, I always learn something. And at the end when you list your upcoming gigs or books, I look forward to seeing what you have to offer. I often attend your webinars. I’m waiting for your revised book Get Published in Literary Magazines to come out next year. Your knowledge and your ability to teach about writing are gold to me! Your kindness and generosity comes through, and I always leave one of your webinars feeling uplifted. Keep on keeping on!

  • Heidi Croot says:

    Some of us have a ringside seat to how much of yourself you give away and the joy you take in doing it. Deeply grateful and I could name a helluva lot of people who feel exactly the same way.

  • Sue Repko says:

    Allison, thank you for all you do for the various writing communities all around us! This piece provides a fantastic model for anyone who wants to do all the things: Teach. Help nurture individual writers and writing communities. Get paid. Be accessible. And, in the process, uplift others as well as oneself. At least that’s how I imagine it because you keep coming to the dance with so much positive energy. Seems like a pretty good way to live, work, and be in the world. Thanks for articulating all this!

  • Lynn Haraldson says:

    Covid took away a lot of things, but it also brought you (and Dinty) into my writing life, and I’m so very grateful for everything you’ve taught me. My memoir would not be almost out in the world without you and Seven Drafts!

  • Amanda Le Rougetel says:

    I appreciate the path you walk with such generosity towards others, Allison. I particularly like your point that “platform and literary citizenship are the same behavior with different hats”. It seems to me that neither will grow productive roots unless pursued with the intent to help others and collaborate in the larger writing community.

  • After reading some comments, I’d like to clarify that Allison’s point pertains not only to the writing community but to any kind of expertise. The model she describes of offering substantive, original content for free and letting readers know how they can get more – for a fee – is also used by everyone from management consultants who write “thought leadership” content for Fast Company to the local HVAC company that posts genuinely helpful information on its website. Most consumers find this an eminently fair trade: free, valuable information along with unobtrusive links to paid services.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      Yes!!! It’s a really common model, even with apps that offer a free level or a free trial. It’s why the gym will let us come in for a week before we sign up 🙂

  • Yes, Ooof. But this post is the perfect response. Thank you, Allison, for all that you do.

  • I’ve been a very fortunate and grateful recipient of Allison’s expertise through both paid courses (excellent fire hose value) and free opportunities (so many choices). If you know Allison, you know her literary citizenship is generous and invaluable. She is a recognized leader and advocate for all writers – even the snarky ones. I admire and appreciate her dedication to encouraging and supporting everyone – paying or not – on the path to being a better writer, reader, and member of the writing craft community.
    Having ‘next up’ opportunities posted at the bottom of blog postings or newsletters keeps me informed and saves me the search.

  • camilla sanderson says:

    Hi Allison,
    The thing I appreciate most about your writing is your authenticity. It takes guts to write about feeling hurt and not blaming the “other.” It requires the courage to be vulnerable. I also love the connection you make between platform and literary citizenship. What a gorgeous insight! You go girl! ✨🌟💖🙏🕊

  • Marisa Russello says:

    “Good apartment! Go power bill!” Lol, love it.

  • Alison, you are nothing short of amazing. I learn so much from your posts. This platform/literary citizenship toggle is so useful. I began blogging to “build my author platform” 10 years ago. I’ve segued to newsletters because I have built a meaningful following which populates the classes I offer. I still do free events online and in person so that anyone who wishes to study with me has that opportunity. Yet, there are moments when I think “you want me to dream up the thing then write it in my own blood THEN SELL THE F*****?” I wish the system were different, sure. But I have met and had so many meaningful conversations with people in my classes or at my events that add to my thinking and presence in my writing-I value those interactions highly. Thank you for what you offer us here at Brevity. I am glad you are not ashamed to market your work. Doing so helps to disassemble the belief that artists can work for free because “how long can that take, ya know?”
    xoxoS

    Please remove this comment if it is duplicated. WordPress and I are not always compatible. All those blog posts…

  • debraeder says:

    Allison: I’ve had the privilege of following your rise for years (see metaphor in the photo of your performance with aerial silks.).
    You epitomize the term “literary citizen” even if it means you were building a platform at the same time (keep the metaphor going.)
    Allison, you have earned your success— generously sharing your knowledge for free AND when you are paid your worth.
    Best, Debra Eder

  • Charlotte Wilkins says:

    I think it’s a matter of integrity, and we can take a lesson from Allison’s approach to balancing giving and receiving. If you have any doubt, take one of Allison’s webinars or retreats where you’ll see her intention is her singular attention to making your writing/experience the best it can be. Will I pay for that kind of dedicated attention and expertise? You bet. It’s a win-win for both of us.
    The same is true of her fountain of free advice, encouragement, and pointing to others’ expertise. The fact that she lists for-fee classes/events at the bottom, or even within the text, is nothing more than opportunity. If I like what I’ve read and want more, then here’s some offerings. Nobody’s making me click or buy.

    Women tend to give and give without attending to their own self-care which includes financial earnings, then are resentful that others don’t appreciate “all I’ve done for you.” What’s needed is wholeheartedness that results in balance with integrity. Give with joy. Receive with joy. I’m going to buy 2 more copies of Seven Drafts and give them to writing colleagues, and enjoy every minute of paying for then, and every moment of their delight in receiving them. It’s a win-win.

  • BJ says:

    Well said!

  • nagneberg48 says:

    Brilliant. There is a time to give and a time to receive. You do both magnificently.

  • Bio Chem Pro says:

    A beautiful way to rob without intent…its a polite way you used there. I see something there worth adopting; clap clap! You got them.

  • saradovrewudali says:

    I think the number of us ready to roll up our sleeves and weigh into the fray here shows just how much your literary citizenship is a value to us. And spelling it out here in this blog is helpful as a reminder to each of us to evaluate our give/receive ratios too. Thanks so much.

  • kfinevet says:

    Allison, your openness, generosity, and humor – especially in response to negativity – are beyond compare! The community is beyond blessed to have you.

  • amye66 says:

    You are a gem, Allison!

  • Lois Roelofs says:

    I so appreciate everything you write and teach. It’s clear and down to earth for those of us always wanting to learn. I like, too, your candidness in telling us how your writing life works, paid and unpaid. Thank you.

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