Writers Worth: Putting the “I” Back in Freelancer

There is no better way to end what has been a fantastic month with a post from Kathy Kehrli.

Kathy is the brains behind the currently dormant Screw You! website, and she’s one of the first writers I met when I went freelance. I adored her instantly, and I consider her a good friend. She’s also not that far from me geographically, and someday, we’ll meet.

Why I love Kathy — she asserts herself when needed with clients. In fact, Screw You! was known for its calling-out posts. She’s known as Irreverent Freelancer, and this is why. When Kathy exhausted all usual methods of securing payment from clients, the client’s name went public. And she’s fair –she warned them in advance that nonpayment would result in a public shaming, so to speak.

While that sounds harsh, Kathy has this way about her. She can follow through on her threat and not sound like a harpy or an off-the-rails ranter. She’s matter of fact, and through it all, she still looks like a solid professional.

Who doesn’t want to be like that? Plus, she’s a dynamite writer. And she has a sharp eye for spotting a raw deal. This post illustrates that talent.

There Is an “I” in Freelancer

by Kathy Kehrli

When Lori came to me and asked me to write a post for Writers Worth Month, I was initially hesitant. Sure, I’ve been freelancing for over fifteen years. Yes, I’ve earned a bit of a reputation for being an outspoken advocate of my profession’s treatment. But I’ve also spent the past three years putting a lot of that on the backburner to pursue a long-time desire—obtaining my MFA and writing my heart memoir.

I’m still freelancing, but “Screw You!”—the blog that made me somewhat infamous in the peer community—has been on hiatus for quite some time. I may return to it at some point, or I may not. New directions are like that. They tend to beget more meandering yens. But the steadfast convictions that spawned that blog have not gone anywhere. In fact, if anything they’ve only become more entrenched.

As I prepare to graduate in July, I’ve spent the past eight months committed to beefing up my creative writing credentials. I don’t want to be one of those graduates. You know the ones: those whose bios are full of worthless filler to cover up the lack of publication credits and contest wins. And I’m not gonna lie. It’s been a struggle. The self-doubt is at times palpable. With each rejection I collect, I second guess myself. Then, just when I’m ready to admit to myself that I don’t have what it takes, a recognition comes along to tell me that, yes, I do. Case in point, I’m currently a finalist for the Penelope Niven Award in Creative Nonfiction. (Keep your fingers crossed for me.)

Beyond the insecurity, however, is a far larger problem—which finally gets me to the point you’ve all been waiting for. Alas, creative outlets aren’t so different from all those Screw You!-worthy job posts out there. If anything, they’re worse. “We regret that we cannot pay our writers, but we hope that seeing your work in print is reward enough.” “We charge a submission fee to cover expenses and with the hope of someday being able to pay our contributors.”

These are the kinds of comments I encounter on a monthly basis. These are the comments that leave me shaking my head and closing my browser as fast as I can. These are the comments that make me think, “Really? I refuse to write gratis material that means nothing to me. You really think I’m going to give away a piece of my heart for free?”

Usually I just surf right past these “opportunities,” but sometimes it’s not so clear cut. Take for instance the contest I recently entered with the $250 prize going to the winner. Entry was free, so I had nothing to lose, right? Until I learned that I was a finalist and that all finalists would be published in an anthology. Two winners—one in essay and one in fiction—for a total of $500. The rest would be unpaid material. And all of those finalist losers would be giving up first rights to their work, thereby almost excluding the possibility of ever being paid for it.

When this gambit fully dawned on me, I wrote the contest promoter and anthology publisher, telling him I wanted to withdraw my entry. And you know what happened? He got upset. He wrote back and told me that I was making a mistake. He said I was still in the running for the $250 prize and that in his opinion I should have waited until the winners were announced before pulling out.

I laughed and then I responded, of course. “I understand your reasoning, and if I were thinking only about myself, I would have waited to withdraw. But that would have put you through all kinds of extra work, which seems unfair to me. I also don’t think it’s fair for me to decide to be published in the book only IF I win the money. No one else is doing that. I’m probably an anomaly, but I still believe in integrity. I try to go through life doing the right thing. I felt withdrawing was the right thing.”

Stay with me. I am going somewhere with all this. The key word in my response to that contest runner is integrity—the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness. Unfortunately, not enough people in this business possess it. Find your integrity. Figure out what principles you won’t back down on and stand by them, cling them like there is no tomorrow—regardless of the situation. And just as importantly, find clients who possess integrity of their own. Don’t settle for anything less. You owe it to yourself, not only for the sake of earning a living but also for enjoying an unsullied freelancing life.

Kathy Kehrli is owner of The Flawless Word (http://www.theflawlessword.com) where she focuses her energies on math educational, financial, business, and marketing copy writing and editing. She is currently in her final year of the Pan-European MFA program in creative writing at Cedar Crest College. She was a finalist for the 2016 Penelope Niven Award in Creative Nonfiction. At present, she is immersed in sculpting her collection of personal essays into a nontraditional memoir on her heart themes: loss and love.

Writers, what kind of raw deals have you faced?
Have you ever entered a contest only to find out later the terms weren’t acceptable? If so, what did you do?

About the author




  • Cathy Miller May 31, 2016 at 12:55 pm

    Nice to meet you, Kathy. And fingers crossed for you on the Penelope Niven Award.

    I'm in an industry niche that loves to create publication empires on the free writing of subject matter experts. I wrote one such article to use for marketing and I did receive a few queries and a couple of clients.

    The trade magazine continued to write me every month asking for submissions (unpaid, of course). I basically was too lazy to Unsubscribe. When they contacted me to write a chapter for a future course they were going to charge nearly $1,000 for and expected I would write it for free (but, hey, I'd get a free copy of my finished chapter), I stopped the subscription. They surface every once in a while but I ignore them.

    The company makes their big $$$ off industry conferences where they solicit huge corporations to pay big $$$ to attend. The corporations probably saw the ads for the conference, while reading the company's magazines, written for free by others. Integrity. Ah, yes.

  • Lori Widmer May 31, 2016 at 2:36 pm

    Kathy, thank you. Again, I'm so thrilled to have your words here!

    You point out, as does Cathy, the math behind these decisions, as well as the ethical considerations. If the client is making money from the product, the writer should be paid. Period. In the case of the anthology, the writers should have been told upfront what to expect, or they should have been offered a stipend for their submissions.

    I really hate the anthology-crowd mindset. "We'll publish your work and you get to purchase our book" is just another way of saying "You get free exposure!"

    And they can put that in the same place I suggest to other fools offering these same deals.

  • Paula Hendrickson May 31, 2016 at 3:41 pm

    Happy to meet you here, Kathy.

    This reminded me of some poetry contests I entered in high school and college. I got the feeling everyone who entered "won" at least an honorable mention, along with a special "discount" on buying the fancy leather-bound edition – for a couple hundred dollars. Riiiight. Even if I hadn't been a broke student I wouldn't have bought a copy.

    It's amazing how expensive it can be to feed an ego. Luckily my ego isn't so needy that it needs external validation.

    Good luck with the Penelope Niven Award!

  • Anne Wayman May 31, 2016 at 4:58 pm

    Finalist in the Penelope Nivin makes you a winner, period. And so does refusing to participate in what turned out to be a scam… nice to meet you, as Cathy said.

  • Ashley Festa May 31, 2016 at 8:20 pm

    Hi Kathy. Integrity is definitely hard to come by these days in many circles. I've had a few raw deals pitched my way, and thankfully have avoided most of them, even back as a newbie in the freelance life. The ones that bother me most is when a client begrudgingly agrees to the terms and starts sending the work my way, but is very slow about signing the contract. I've even had one that verbally agreed to the terms and sent me the info, but when presented with contract, he backed out. He said, "I wasn't expecting to have to sign a contract." Hmm. Were you expecting to pay me for my work? Who knows. Thankfully I didn't take on either of these clients.

    Best of luck with the Penelope Nivin Award results!

  • Kathy@TheFlawlessWord May 31, 2016 at 9:53 pm

    Thank you all for stopping by and reading. I miss my blogging community. I ultimately was not the winner of the Penelope Niven Award, but I feel honored to be among the finalists. As for that darn anthology, the organizer is now claiming he is going to give the proceeds to an educational organization. I'm still not signing the consent form, but I hope he follows through with that notion.

  • Lori Widmer June 1, 2016 at 3:38 pm

    You should feel honored — it speaks to the quality of your work.

    Giving the proceeds to an educational organization? A rather thin story punctured by the fact that he didn't think to give that to the writers.

    I'd be surprised if the money didn't end up in his wallet.