Don’t give it away. Make them pay.

Mark Twain

Mark Twain. Despite what you may have heard, he didn't always dress like Colonel Sanders.

Over the years, I’ve collected a number of great quotes from writers teaching the craft. One of my favorites, from Mark Twain, comes in handy now and again:

“I never write ‘metropolis’ for seven cents, because I can get the same money for ‘city.’ I never write ‘policeman,’ because I can get the same price for ‘cop.’”

For a writer being paid by the word, it’s a good economic argument. We should be more judicious with our vocabulary choices, avoiding a ten-dollar word when a shorter one will do.

Writing isn’t just about conveying an emotion or telling a story. For some, the lucky ones, it’s a business. We make our daily bread based on the words we write, and it’s difficult to give them away for free.

Unlike some writers (Harlan Ellison, for example), I do occasionally give away my work. The writing I do for the Confabulator Cafe is completely free. I do it because the weekly assignments keep me creatively sharp, and I enjoy the company of my Cafe peers.

However, there are a number of “opportunities” for unpublished writers I won’t take advantage of … anymore. At one time or another, I’ve fallen prey to some of these:

  • The Contest — Take a chance. Spend hours, days, or weeks writing a story. Then throw yourself into the ring in a battle royale with other writers. Thousands of stories enter. One story leaves. Are you willing to stake so much time on such long odds?
  • The Contributor Copy — Who needs money when you can get a free magazine or anthology? Some publications pay for content by giving a complimentary copy to writers. Sure it’s nice to see your name in print, but you can’t pay the rent with it.
  • The No-Contributor Copy — Sometimes a magazine/anthology pays a small honorarium, but it’s not enough to pay for a copy of the publication if you want to see your story in print. In the end, you spend more to buy a copy of the magazine than they paid you as a contributor.
  • The Self-Publishing Publisher — When some frustrated writers can’t get published they make the move to publishing. As a result, they prey on fellow frustrated writers by promising them an opportunity to appear in print. Just don’t expect a lot of recognition, pay, or good editing.
  • The “Literary” Magazine — Unlike a real literary magazine, these faux publications have an artistic image but not the chops to back it up. It’s all style and very little substance. The magazine offers to give contributors good exposure. They love to talk about promoting their writers, but how can they when they don’t have an audience?

Keep in mind, these aren’t necessarily scams. My wife entered a short story contest a couple of years ago and won a few hundred dollars. Not a bad return on a story written in less than 24 hours.

And sometimes it’s beneficial to have a few writing credits to your name. So, if you have a couple of stories on your hard drive that you haven’t been able to place, try the non-paying markets and see what happens. But keep in mind that you’re not likely to get rich (or famous) by giving away content.

Finally, remember — always — if you’re asked to pay anything (whether it’s an entry fee, a reading fee, or to see your “winning” poem collected in a special leather-bound volume) run, run away! You should be earning an income from your writing. It shouldn’t be an expense.

Kevin Wohler is a copywriter and novelist living in Lawrence, Kansas. During the day, he works at a digital marketing agency in the Kansas City area. When time remains, he likes to tell stories of the weird and bizarre. And sometimes, he writes them down for others to read.

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