How NOT To Treat An Unpaid Writer

If you’re an online Editor, you already know how hard it is to attract dynamic, motivated and talented writers to your publication, and chances are you have very little other than your feedback, positivity and buckets full of thanks to offer, because let’s face it, almost nobody makes money writing these days.

As an Editor, it’s your job to keep the copy rolling in by using positive reinforcement, a never ending supply of thank-yous and always making sure to give recognition where recognition is due, because if you don’t have the money to pay them, then love, oh yes love, is your only currency.

Writers write because it’s in their blood, and if given the platform to express themselves on a topic they are koo-koo-bananas about with an engaged and supportive Editor, then anything is possible.  Unfortunately “anything” can sometimes go very wrong, very fast, as we’re about to show you right now.

Take a look at the following recruitment / retention / rear end roasting mailer sent out by the Canadian LGBT website The Gaily to prospective and current writers, and afterwards let’s circle back around the water cooler for a little discussion about how they could have done a much better job at not giving the old hot carl to their unpaid writers.


Hello Prospective Gaily Contributor!

You’re receiving this email because you have either been in touch with us about contributing or have already begun the process of contributing. We’re still in the process of going through applications and figuring out who we want to ‘audition’ for us but we’d like to know if you are still interested, and to hear back from you!

We’re excited to get you started but before we do, let’s go over a few things that you MUST KNOW.

I know you are all very intelligent, creative, confident people, but from time to time, as your editor I will have feedback, and you might not like it all. Please take this with a grain of salt. I am here to help you put out the BEST QUALITY writing possible, in order to best represent both The Gaily and ourself. If you don’t like people editing, reading, or changing your work, this might not be for you.
Next, if you tend to: not respond to emails, flake out on commitments, or generally fall of (sic) the face of the earth for extended periods of time, this also may not be for you.

New contributors typically make the same mistake: writing in a formal / academic style. People want to impress everyone with big words and structurally complicated sentences, so they turn in an assignment that looks less like something you’d hope to read on the interwebz and more like a work of a mini masters’ thesis. The problem that I run into the most is that the author’s voice is nowhere to be found and there are around 200 unnecessary words to sift through.

As your editor, this makes me want to CRY.

So! In an effort to avoid this happening to YOU, I’ve put together a handy list of tips and required reading. Hopefully this will give you the confidence to throw out some rules and find your own voice. If it takes us more than a few hours and one editor to turn your piece into something we can publish, we won’t be able to work with you — even if you’re the smartest most specialist snowflake of them all. I really HATE not being able to publish people’s stuff, so I’m REALLY hoping this works! So listen up!

Are any of you Editors or writers out there cringing yet?  Just wait, it’s about to get worse before it gets … well, it doesn’t get better unfortunately.


1. We are NOT A NEWS SITE. I do not want to regurgitate news that is floating all over the internet already. Nobody reads that shit. BE ORIGINAL. It is okay if you are replying or responding to news or news articles.

2. Ensure that your thesis is loud and clear and ideally toward the top of the piece. Use the rest of your article to reiterate and strengthen your point.

3. Briefly summarize and link back to the article you’re referencing or responding to. Also, link to other articles and websites throughout your piece. This is an easy way to a) back up your point, b) provide further information, c) break up the monotony of a billion words on a screen. Whenever possible, link back to The Gaily’s coverage of a topic. This improves our stats which improves our mood which means I can do important things and not cry more!

4. Be intelligent, but also approachable and conversational. One of your goals is to start a discussion in the comments! Speaking of which, as our newbies, please start a discussion in the comments!! Go! Comment!

5. Say what you’re saying in as few words as possible. Try not to exceed 1000 words if it isn’t necessary.

6. Don’t be afraid to use slang, foul language, contractions, ALL CAPS, exclamation marks, etc. I mean, don’t go overboard, but remember who you’re writing for. Remember that our readers have very short attention spans and are likely to only re-share content that is actually original, funny, and oh, did I mention ORIGINAL?

Remember when we said it didn’t get any better?  Well, in this last section the Editor not only makes the case for her being the only writer that should be on the site, but strips away the individuality and the “voice” from each and every writer she is trying to entice.  Cue “waah-waah” music in 3 … 2 … 1 …


Pour yourself a cosmo and spend some time reading the following sites. Their voices and writing styles are similar to mine and to the vision of the gaily. If your article doesn’t read like something that could be published on one of these sites, it needs to be rewritten. Also these are all good for your brain anyway. I know these are all lesbian sites, but I am a lesbian and I read lesbian shit.
Effing Dykes

Tyrone Smith and Erika Jahn who run the Gaily may have been well-intentioned with their sassy hipster “informal” approach, but from the dozens of freelance writers that I showed this mailer to, none of them had ever seen anything like it and were openly offended at the tone and language used.

What most of the writers we talked to pointed out as their biggest concern about this mailer were the overbearing and overpowering restrictions being laid out for the writers to become cookie cutter copies of other sites, and the Editor herself.  In fact, several of the writers shown this mailer suggested that perhaps the only person qualified to write for The Gaily, following Gaily editorial guidelines, was again only the Editor, Erika Jahn.

“Who wants to write for a site where you have no creative voice, and in the words of the Editor they are basically only concerned about themselves and their own images, not of the writers,” one blogger submitted back in an email.

Lambasting current and prospective unpaid writers with gripes about how hard it is to be an Editor, and how much of a privilege it is to write for the site for free was enough to turn off each and every scriber we passed this mailer on to.  Not one person was willing to give up their free time to be, and I quote, “talked down to like a child by an Editor who isn’t paying me” … ouch.  That just happened.

So listen up Gaily.  Writers are telling you something extremely important.  No one wants to write for a site where their voice is over directed, where the Editor complains about their job and the tone from the editorial team comes across as a page from the “Burn Book” from Mean Girls.  People are being asked to write for free, and just like the top of the article says, “love, oh yes love, is your only currency,” and consensus around the ink well is that your mailer was bankrupt of it.

When you’re asking people to donate their time, you always have to remember that they’re the ones doing you the favour and not the other way around, and that until you’re handing out pay checks to your writers you might be better served if you added some sugar to the teapot.

Jeromie Williams Eats The Internet For Breakfast


2 thoughts on “How NOT To Treat An Unpaid Writer

  1. The next lead article for the “Gaily” should be how NOT to go about attracting new writers. They’re off to a GREAT start.


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