11/05/2013 12:15 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Why Write for Free?

Perhaps a tougher question than it sounds?

Cliché talking points about 'finding my passion' make me cringe. Self promotion can't be all there is. And then there is the fact that I need the money now.

So what's the real answer?

The answer is that I never write for free. Never have. Never will. There is always an investment and a return. The return might not be money. But there is an investment and a return.

For those looking at the world as something explainable by an Excel spreadsheet, my answer might sound strange.

Where's the return on investment if you write for free? Where's the money?

Money? I love the stuff. Wish I had more. I wake up at 4:00 am a lot and think about all the ways I can get more, worry about not having enough. Once I had a lot more. Money was never an issue. Now I could run out. A terrifying thought.

Maybe if money were my sole goal, I would have more. Maybe I should pay more attention to the terror. But for whatever reason, money is simply not my only goal.

Naïve? Could be. No nobility in having more than one goal. No pride. Just the way I was hardwired. When I write, I have other goals besides the literal exchange of writing for cash. All of them include a return on investment. My other goals?

1. Doing what I do best. Up till 2008 I had one job at a time. Now I'm a contractor. Doing the same work I've always done. They call it "talent or change management." They used to call it "training." It means helping make people more valuable to an organization. Being a coach. What I do best is coach leaders. Today, that job has about the same market value as a blacksmith. So, I needed something else, some other sandbox besides coaching, where I can say, "Here's where I can do what I do best." That's writing. When I want to do what I do best, I can write. My investment is my time. My return? Doing what I do best.

I've had jobs where I've failed on an epic level. Once I had a job that included running an espresso machine. And exactly how bad I was at running that machine is now the stuff of legends among those who watched. No one was ever worse. Put a gun to my head, I still would have been that bad. So it's a simple conclusion: doing what I do best must be a better path to the money.

2. Writing is really hard. Bad writing is easy. But filling the blank page with words that grab a person by the heart and make them want to read? That's hard. Don't think so? Try it. I don't always succeed, but when I do, my investment in the writing gives me back a return that is like a handful of diamonds. Huge investment. Huge reward. The fulfillment of a challenge is my return.

3. People respond when I write. I used to be a special education teacher. I helped start a workforce development program for high risk dropouts, have written and delivered senior management programs on visioning and succession planning, I've trained hundreds to run retail operations and call centers. Thousands to use their strengths and be better managers. And the BEST part of all that? It's when people respond. Same with the writing. The return I get when somebody says my writing had an impact is like climbing a mountain and breathing in the sky.

4. I need the practice. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell cites 10,000 hours as the amount of time one needs to become really good at something. I passed that Gladwell number years ago. And I still need the practice. Show me anything I've ever written and I will hand you back the needed re-write right away. My return is the practice.

5. I get to 'communitize' with writers. I'm no fan of made up words. But when I wrote Finding Work When There Are No Jobs, I had to describe the vital role community plays in how people get jobs. And "community building" was too many words. So, I made community into a verb. The community of writers is filled with the kindest and most generous souls that have ever walked the earth or signed into Facebook. My investment is my caring. My return? Working and playing on the best team I know.


If coaching leaders now has the earning potential of a blacksmith; the writer's earning potential might be that of a street mime at a deserted country crossroads. In the dark.

Standing in that darkness, every writer has their own reasons they write for free. But every writer also has a tool with a power capable of changing the world.

The Story.

Think for a second of a story that has inspired you, moved you to accomplish something you never thought you would do? Or could do?

Finding Work When There Are No Jobs is built on the premise that a story has the power to prompt you to find a new and different way to find work in a world where all the advice in the world didn't help at all. Not success stories. Or case studies. I'm talking about stories that suck you in and get you to think. Stories that get you to start asking questions that begin with, "What if ..."

How can the power of a story lead to money? Start with the great Studs Terkel. No one ever brought the power of an ordinary human being's story to the printed page like Studs Terkel.

When David R. Brown and I wrote I Am Your Neighbor: Voices of a Chicago Food Pantry, we were respectfully standing in the shadow of Studs. And when our book was compared with Studs' work, there was no greater compliment.

But there is another part of the story of that book. The book was the catalyst for what is now an annual fundraising event. And because of the vision and business acumen of it's leaders, Common Pantry now has a respectable endowment.

That book helped feed people. Along with paying fairly for the writing up front. So now, 100% of the sales go to Common Pantry. All from a book of stories.

The power of a story can show itself in other ways too. Recently,I did a piece on a friend from my writing community who got herself a full time writing job. I got to help celebrate my friend's success and promote Finding Work. Which was great! Good writer karma all around.

Then what happened is that someone else saw that piece and it prompted them to buy the reprint rights.

A surprise? Maybe not.

Because while there isn't always a check, there is always a return.

I never write for free.