Home > Thinking, Writing > TANSTAAFL


The great Robert Heinlein (a man I’ve mentioned before) used the principle of TANSTAAFL (there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch) as a guiding philosophy in his storytelling, and his life. Nothing in his stories ever happened “just because.” Only rarely did the deus ex machina clank its way through his endings. I say rarely though I mean never, but I’m sure someone could make a compelling argument for it in one of his dozens of titles. And he pointed out that writing for free was never free for the writer, bearing as it did a cost of time and effort.

Few people in my day to day life know that I’m writing fiction, so I am not (yet) facing this problem with storytelling. But non-fiction? Editing? The number of people who ask if I’d mind giving them “a few thoughts” on something they’ve written is astounding. And they  never call it editing, even though that’s exactly what they’re talking about and I advertise myself as being available to provide such services. I know because when I give “a few thoughts” the followup question is always “can you mark out a few examples?” The number of people regularly asking me to answer “a few quick questions” about my professional specialty is even  more astounding, since I make it very clear that I’m a consultant and a freelancer, and that stuff is my bread and butter. The questions are never quick ones, either.

In the latter case, I answer 30 minutes worth of questions for free, and then I attach my consulting rate schedule. I occasionally get complaints about that, and I try to say something  like “Well, would you ask a dentist for a free checkup?” In the case of editing, I’ve just stopped doing it for free. I would like to find a critique partner one day, someone to whom I can expose my soft underbelly, but the people asking me for free editing aren’t usually candidates for that.

Nearly every professional writer I know has run into the same problem. Every professional artist I know gets that, from the pianist asked to play a wedding cocktail hour for free to a painter asked to do a ten foot canvas “for the exposure.”

No. Don’t do it. We creative types must stand together on this one. No free short stories, no brainstorming, no jotting down of ideas. If you provide work without receiving money in return, be sure that you are getting something of value. Exposure is just something people die of in winter.

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