Working for free – stop emailing me!

For over 30 years, I have been paid to write. Newspapers, PR stuff, ad copy, a couple of TV commercials. I’ve also won thousands of dollars in cash and prizes from screenwriting contests. During that time, I’ve written thousands of script pages for which I received nothing, but I considered it part of the dues one must pay to learn their craft. Yet it never ceases to amaze me how undervalued writing skills are in the business world.

Any writer worth their salt has probably heard this one before: “You’re a writer. Can you take a quick look at my (insert business letter, proposal, report) and tell me what you think?”

It’s like someone asking a doctor at a social function if he can take a quick look at a mole or rash, and offer a free diagnosis. (Most people intuitively sense that approaching a lawyer for legal advice anywhere/anytime starts the billing clock ticking, and frame their questions in more “theoretical” terms.)

The assumption seems to be that if you’re not a best-selling author or produced screenwriter, you must have loads of free time. It’s really not that hard to do a little editing for a friend or colleague, right? Just fix a few words here and there, put in commas where they should be. No biggie… “Oh, and could you do it like, now? I have to turn it in today.”

But that’s nothing compared to being asked to rewrite entire screenplays or book manuscripts by agents,managers or producers. For free. And until you either get published, produced or land an agent with clout, that’s something every writer must come to terms with. Of course, you could choose NOT to do free rewrites for an interested party, or stick to your artistic guns and say no. Unfortunately, the reality for new screenwriters is you’ll probably have to compromise your vision — and your pay standards — if you’re lucky enough to sell a script.

Stephen Rivelle, who cowrote NIXON for Oliver Stone, had been writing for 15 years (books, plays, scripts) before his first movie deal. In a screenwriting workshop I took at the University of Hawaii, he said writers basically “give away” their first script, and it’s not until the second or third one that they begin to make significant money. Provided the first one was a hit with critics or audiences, that is.

Anyhow, what prompted this topic was a thread on Done Deal about the perils of doing “free” script rewrites for interested producers and managers. Someone provided a link to this humerous, profane exchange between a writer and a business associate who wanted him to do free graphics work: click here. (Warning: some NSFW stuff on that page and offensive language as well.)

In a similar vein, here is another funny Done Deal thread started by a screenwriter, who got an unusually blunt response to his queries. Most agents and managers ignore the query if they aren’t grabbed by it, or simply reply, “No thanks.” This agent took it a step further: “Please Stop Emailing Me” (goes on for pages, but the writer’s response to comments is priceless!).

Bonus link: In case you never saw the hilarious exchange between a customer and company service rep over a disputed bill, here’s the classic spider email thread. I believe the spider drawing eventually sold on eBay for several thousand dollars… but the buyer then refused to pay for it (read the exchange and you’ll see the delicious irony).

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