Harlan Ellison Hates Cheap Writers

Harlan Ellison's rant on YouTube shows why writers do themselves a disservice by giving away their writing for free or cheap. I quit responding to freelance jobs on Craigslist, because I was getting beat by newer or worse writers who would do a one day project for $25. (Let's face it, if you're doing a job for that much, you're losing money. Your time is worth more than $3.00 per hour. Go wait tables if you're happy making $25 for a day's work).

If you're a writer, freelance or otherwise, and you're getting less than you're worth, watch Harlan's video. Then ask yourself if you're worth more than $25. Ask other freelancers what they charge, and then charge accordingly. We writers tend to take it on the chin, pay-wise, because we're humble and have self-esteem issues. We don't think we're 1) allowed to ask for money; 2) allowed to ask for more money; or; 3) it seems fair to ask for $75, $100, or even $250 per hour for our craft. After all, it's so easy, it seems like cheating, right? Wrong.

There's an old joke about a businessmanwho called in someone to fix his computer. The tech fixed the computer by tapping on it with a tiny hammer, and then charged $500 to do it. The businessman didn't understand how a single hammer tap was worth $500, so he asked for an itemized bill. The bill came back: "Tapping the computer with a hammer: $1. Knowing where to tap the hammer: $499"

As a professional writer, you know where to tap the hammer. What may seem like easy work to you (writing a press release, newspaper article, blog post, etc.) will take someone else 5 hours, and it still won't be that good. If you can knock something out quickly, easily, and most importantly, that's good, then you're worth the money.

But they said I could use this sample for my writing portfolio, and I could get some free publicity out of it. (If you hear this from clients/editors, be sure to watch the video. Harlan's answer to that is hysterical.)

I quit taking the "but this will help you get publicity" jobs several years ago. I still have some gigs that I do for free (this column, for example), but I have turned down some other newspapers because they want it for free. I have also not taken any freelance jobs for the publicity. And, I keep samples of my work for my portfolio anyway.

Would you ask a doctor to do surgery for free because you'll tell your friends about how great he was? Ask a realtor if she'll waive her commission if you leave her sign in your yard for a year. Do you think a nice restaurant would give you free four dinners if you wrote about them on your blog? So why do we fall for the publicity trick time after time?

There's a reason clients want us to do their work for cheap: because someone has done it for that amount. But the old adage, "you get what you pay for," rings true in this case. If a client will only pay $25 for a piece, they'll get something written by a $25 writer. But if they want something good, they'll find the money and get something professional.

So, did this post make you think? Did it change your mind about writing for free or little money? If you're an editor/buyer, are you reconsidering asking someone to write for poverty wages? If so, that's the power of a professional writer. It's why I charge what I charge, and why I'm worth every penny. And if you're a good writer, you're worth it too. Don't sell yourself short.


  1. I want to be a professional writer. I have no official training, but think that my general intelligence and background in writing for my jobs qualifies me. What do those of you who are truly professional writers think of that? When you comment that there are people taking much less, hurting your ability to earn, I understand. I don't intend to do that. Do you feel anyone can write professionally as long as they have desire and are willing to learn?

  2. I am also looking to move into a professional writing career in the Indianapolis market. Coming from a sales and marketing background in Terre Haute is making that difficult, so I am guilty of selling my talent for far less than it's worth to facilitate that transition. That being said, I think you could earn a living and charge close to the going rates if you are a good writer AND a good salesperson - even without training. It all depends on talent.

    My wife is a talented artist and graphic designer. I am good enough at graphic design that I could make a living at it, but if you look at some of my work and then compare hers, she just has a polish to her work that I don't seem to be able to match. The converse is true with writing. She is a good writer, but I can take anything she has written, spend five minutes editing it, and make is sound significantly better.

    I watched the movie Rudy over the weekend - for about the twentieth time. It's a tremendous story about passion and determination carrying a young man to his dreams, but I couldn't help but notice the counterpoint of how much harder Rudy had to work than everybody else on the team for that chance to dress out in just one game.

    With the resources available on the Internet today, I think almost anyone can learn the mechanics to become a professional writer, but 'almost anyone' probably isn't going to command the same rates as someone with the natural skills, and it certainly won't be as easy.

  3. OK, Erik -- With this post and the Smaller Indiana discussion, you've got me realizing I've fallen into the trap of selling myself short out of fear of losing business. THANK YOU for the kick in the pants!



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