I’ve been debating whether I should write this. Not because I think I’m wrong, but because I think it will be interpreted as angry, or ungrateful, or petulant. Then I looked at my window that needs fixing and my kitchen door that needs replacing, and I realized that this is exactly the article I should write because it epitomizes what a writer’s life is all about.
I have to call the window guys to fix the seal on my window, and the contractor to replace my door. Those people are running businesses and they expect to be paid for the work they do on my house. I’m sure they like me well enough (I’ve worked with them before, I offer them coffee and I pay my bills on time), but this isn’t about whether they like me. It’s about them earning a living.
None of us would ever call a professional and expect them to do the work for free. Unless you run a non-profit or a charity, and this is pro bono work, you expect to pay.
Yet, professional writers and editors are constantly asked to read and edit stories for no financial compensation. It’s an absolute expectation and it baffles me. Yes, we love our jobs and yes, our jobs are super cool, but they’re still our jobs. This is how we earn a living.
When I first started in this business, I allowed my time to be wasted and my bills to be unpaid. I’ve spent hours on the phone giving solid advice to people who didn’t value it. I’ve received emails from strangers saying that a mutual friend assured them I’d be delighted to edit their manuscripts, gratis. I was once asked to sift through a box of old diaries from a deceased relative, and turn them into a novel for future generations. Not one of my own relatives. The relative of this dude who called me—some friend of a friend of a friend. He was asking for a year of full-time work, for free. When I suggested he take on the project himself, he hung up on me.
It just happened again. I received a message from a woman who has offered to walk my dog if I read a story she’s written and tell her what I think. She doesn’t really want my honest opinion of course. What she wants—what they all want—is for me to tell her she’s brilliant and that her story will go straight to the top of the New York Times bestseller list without so much as removing a comma.
She’s put me in a difficult position. When I tell her no, she’ll be insulted. She’ll think me rude; she’ll think me difficult.
When you’re a writer, amateurs and hobbyists expect you to work with them for free, and to be grateful for the opportunity. I don’t know…maybe it honestly doesn’t occur to them that this is my profession and what they’re asking is inappropriate.
What I do know is that people will treat me the way I allow myself to be treated. If I allow my skills to be taken advantage of, people will take advantage of them.
My 17-year-old daughter happened upon me shortly after the request came in. Smoke was still coming out my ears and so she sat quietly in the kitchen watching me feed my sourdough starter, and listening to me vent.
“What,” I asked, “makes people think this is ok?”.
She shrugged. “Mom, people be wack.”