It is a mantra in writing advice that you should never give away your writing for free. Writing as a specialised skillset has become so devalued by the interaction between cheapskate publishers and writers desperate to be published that it’s a race to the bottom to see if they can get us to pay them to publish us (oh, wait…). To try to mitigate this continual erosion of value in the writing field, experienced writers advise newbie writers to never give away their writing for free. This can be as strict as telling them to not keep a blog, write for friends, or write for charity newsletters and the like. It can also include not writing for less than a certain number of cents per word.
This is undoubtably good advice, especially for non-fiction, but also for fiction which is, if anything, even more devalued. But I recently came across something that puts it in a different light.
In the cognitive psychology book 59 Seconds: Think A Little, Change A Lot by Richard Wiseman, the author recounts various experiments having to with rewards. In one, children who were rewarded for an enjoyable activity (drawing with crayons) became less motivated than their unrewarded peers to draw, apparently on the logic that “adults give rewards when they want me to do something I don’t like; if they reward me for drawing, I mustn’t like drawing”. Wiseman writes:
The effect has been replicated many times, and the conclusion is clear: if you set children to an activity that they enjoy and reward them for doing it, the reward reduces the enjoyment and demotivates them. Within a few seconds you transform play into work.
Nor is this limited to children and fun activities. In another experiment, two groups of people were paid to pick up rubbish in a park (an unpleasant task); one group was given a large payment, the other a small payment. The group who received the large reward rated their enjoyment of the task as much lower than the group who got the little reward. Again, the logic seemed to be “people pay me to do things I don’t enjoy. I was paid a lot, therefore I didn’t enjoy it” vs “I don’t need much payment to do something I enjoy. I was not paid a lot, therefore I must have enjoyed it.”
It should be stressed these are unconscious effects. And it made me wonder about the effects of insisting on being paid on the enjoyment to be found in writing, especially for new writers. I’m not advocating that just because we like writing, we shouldn’t be paid a fair compensation for it, of course. I’m just wondering whether, in the early stages of establishing the writing habit, for the sake of discipline and motivation, writers should focus on the intrinsic rewards of writing itself, and worry about publication and payment down the track. Maybe the mantra shouldn’t be “don’t write for free” but “don’t publish your writing for free”…
Wiseman goes on to to say:
To encourage people to do more of something they enjoy, try presenting them with the occasional small surprise reward after they have completed the activity or praising the fruits of their labor.
This is a little like the occasional small victory in getting a publisher to accept a fiction story or the occasional bit of positive feedback from a happy reader. It also speaks to persisting in making lots and lots of submissions to earn that reward; that it is usually a small reward, in the early stages of writing, might actually be a good thing (“I don’t need much reward to do something I enjoy; this reward is small, therefore I enjoy making submissions and receiving rejections…”).
What do you think?