If you write for the internet, sooner or later you’re bound to get one these. It’s an email that will begin by stroking your ego and saying flattering things about your work. Then the emailer will explain that she’s an editor at a website and would loooove to publish your stuff. Just as you’re rummaging around in your brain for some appropriate ideas to pitch, you read the next few sentences, which are a total buzzkill: “We have a limited budget and aren’t able to compensate our contributors right now. But you’ll get great exposure! And we pinky-swear we’re start paying you as soon as we are able!”

Writer Tim Kreider has a great op-ed on this phenomenon in today’s New York Times. As he points out:

People who would consider it a bizarre breach of conduct to expect anyone to give them a haircut or a can of soda at no cost will ask you, with a straight face and a clear conscience, whether you wouldn’t be willing to write an essay or draw an illustration for them for nothing.

The fact is, when a total stranger asks you to work for free, it is an affront to your professional, and human, dignity. I know what the going rates are for internet journalism, and I hardly expect to be paid massive sums for my work as a writer. But I do expect to be paid something. I refuse to slave away for an enterprise that someone else is making money off of.

The only exception to my “no work for free” rule is that on occasion I will write for no pay for political or nonprofit causes I believe in. But I only do this on a limited basis, to the extent I’m able to fit such projects into my busy schedule.

The reason I insist on being paid for my writing is not only because my time and services are valuable and doing unpaid work for someone else is insulting. There’s also a principle of solidarity at work. Every time a writer agrees to work for free, she drives down writers’ wages and makes it harder for other writers to make an adequate living from their craft.

In that spirit, I strongly second Kreider’s advice to young writers:

I beseech you, don’t give it away. As a matter of principle. Do it for your colleagues, your fellow artists, because if we all consistently say no they might, eventually, take the hint. It shouldn’t be professionally or socially acceptable — it isn’t right — for people to tell us, over and over, that our vocation is worthless.

Here, for public use, is my very own template for a response to people who offer to let me write something for them for nothing:

Thanks very much for your compliments on my [writing/illustration/whatever thing you do]. I’m flattered by your invitation to [do whatever it is they want you to do for nothing]. But [thing you do] is work, it takes time, it’s how I make my living, and in this economy I can’t afford to do it for free. I’m sorry to decline, but thanks again, sincerely, for your kind words about my work.

Feel free to amend as necessary. This I’m willing to give away.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee