Writers, particularly those trying to launch their careers, frequently argue that the iron dictum that writing must always pay shouldn’t really apply to them. Sometimes it’s worth writing for little or even for free, they argue, in order to build up a portfolio of clips that can be shown to editors down the road.
There is a certain humble logic to this, but it doesn’t hold up to hard scrutiny.
First, in thirty-one years of freelancing, I’ve never once been asked for clips. True, it’s nice to say in a cover letter that one has written for this or that magazine, but I’m not convinced that that is what sells proposals to magazine editors. (In fact, I now have proof; I’ve been a staff writer for The New Yorker — about the finest magazine-writing credential there is, and before we took job at an NGO in 2015 I was still having a lot of trouble finding work.)
What matters to magazine editors is the quality of the proposal. If you have the goods, they’ll buy. They don’t care where you’ve published before; all they want to know is: what can you do for them now? Your proposal has to be superb, and we’ll get to that later.
The second reason that writing for clips is a loser of an idea is that, like anybody else, editors value something they’ve bought according to how much they’ve paid for it. If you offer to write a piece for a magazine at less than their going rate, you’re going to look like a chump, a greenhorn, a tyro. That’s not the image you want to project. You can certainly negotiate. If an editor wants to pay you four days’ wages for a piece you know will take eight to write well, say so. She’ll be impressed that you want to do a good job and that you know your business. You may not get more money, but if the assignment is a money-loser, giving it up will do you more good than harm.
The final reason you never want to lose money just for clips is that you’ll go broke doing it, and then you won’t be able to write for anybody at all. Do not be tempted, for example, to write for the Huffington Post. It pays writers zero. Its editors ask me with some regularity to write about guns or drugs and I won’t even discuss it with them because the Huffpost’s policy is not to pay writers. (I won’t even read Huffpost because I think the policy is reprehensible.) Starting writers tempted to write for Huffpost have said to me, “But it will good exposure.” Remember: you can die of exposure.