Should a Screenwriter Write For Free?

As a WGA member, I no longer write screenplays for free as doing so is against union guidelines. As a business owner, specifically of a television development company, I continue to write on spec as I sell much of my own material.

There is a difference between “free writing” and “spec writing.”

Whether paying your dues or plying your trade as a more established screenwriter, I veer from the opinion of many and encourage a degree of free writing … but there are legitimate reasons behind that madness.

Read on.

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Free Writing

My preferred definition of writing for free is the expenditure of writing time for another party with no written promise of compensation. You may be asked, for example, to develop a project for a production company, with only a verbal agreement that you will be attached if a sale occurs.

Such asks may appear to be “opportunities.” Most frequently, they are not. Verbal “agreements” do not legally hold. A written agreement is a must, and immediately turns your effort from “free” to “spec.”

Using this present example, can writing “for free” pay off? Let me ask you this: If Steven Spielberg asked you to develop a project for him at no cost, would you?

Would you?

I wouldn’t. And therein lies the temptation. Where is the guarantee of any compensation or credit down the road? There is none. No one may know you did anything at all for Spielberg. The bigger the fish does not necessarily equate to the bigger the opportunity. Earn your respect and politely demand a written agreement. I’d still require the written agreement that I will receive payment upon a sale, whether the party who approached me is Mr. Spielberg or Mr. Smith.

Remember, that party may ultimately be responsible for millions of dollars of investment into your work if they find a buyer, or if they purchase the project for themself. Has any entity ever invested so substantially into either you personally, or your work? Why would they or anyone do so if they do not respect you, or if you have no written agreement to back you? Further, the investing party may have decision-making powers to retain you or hire another writer to rewrite you. With a standard written agreement, though there will likely be no guarantee of future drafts, at the very least some of these variables would be addressed including a respectful compensation for your efforts.
This is but one example of the difference between writing for free and writing on spec.

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Spec Writing

Writing on spec (“speculation”) is typically defined as writing for oneself with the hope of selling later, or writing for another party with a written agreement as to compensation based on a sale or a set-up with a financing entity.

When I was paying my dues, I wrote close to 20 spec scripts. The ideas were mine and no other entity was attached. By so writing on spec I improved my craft and created a wealth of content to attempt to sell later.

Here are the results of my own writing on spec, from starting to chase my dream in 1989, up through 2005 when I was finally able to sustain full-time as a writer: seven spec scripts optioned, two indie films produced, hired to write two television episodes. The most I earned was $35,000 for one of the two produced indie films, which was more money than I had seen in my lifetime.

Now, those results may sound promising, but here’s the proper perspective: That was a 16-year period. The money I earned did not sustain me, and I worked nearly 100 day jobs in-between, going from one to the next while maddeningly pursuing my passion.

Still, having so much material behind me earned me a degree of credibility. Ultimately, not giving up worked in my favor. As difficult as the journey may have been (and still is) at times, I’ve more than managed. You can too.

But please be smart. You are valued as a writer. Your work is valuable. You are not a mill; never allow anyone to devalue you, or you will develop a reputation as just another low-rent or free writer.

Write for yourself or with an entity on spec. Never give away your screenplays for free.

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Exceptions to the Rule Against Free Writing

You may ask, “But at the beginning of this article you mentioned you encourage a degree of free writing. When is that appropriate?”

Therein lies the rub. It is not encouraged in screenwriting. It is encouraged in other writing.

If I am writing an article for a content site, my pay is based on an internal algorithm. I am an educator by nature; I enjoy sharing my experience in the arts to help others. I am not writing on such sites to earn an income, though doing so can certainly pay off. If, however, the articles hit, I get paid and further my visibility. It’s a win-win.

Consider this: How many writers reading the ScreenCraft blog maintain a presence on social media? My gut says most of you. As you engage your readers, you are also writing for free and potentially enhancing your presence. There is nothing wrong with that. Also, I encourage you to interact with celebrities, film executives and other public figures on your social media pages. Perhaps they will become fans of yours. Perhaps they will become future mentors. This has all happened to me. Message them when appropriate; you’ll need to use your judgement in doing so but such a reach-out can be effective.

I’ve had New York Times bestselling authors promote my novel series on their pages, and noted film producers publicly solicit my work on Facebook.

So in that sense I still write for free … to increase my own contact base and further the potential to sell more of my screenwriting.

Hence the reason behind my madness.

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Summary, and More

Never devalue your screenwriting. Do not “ever” write your screenplays for free for others. Spec work is fine; if with another party, in a partnership or otherwise, always have an attorney write and/or review a written agreement. If you are intimidated asking a producer to sign a written agreement, thereby asking them to be professional and responsible, in the fear that you will kill your “deal” … you have no “deal” to begin with. You are crafting one via your written agreement.

Finally, write if so inclined on content pages (Medium, blogs, social media, etc) to increase your visibility and earn a passive income based on reads, and work diligently to improve your social media presence while regularly discussing the screenwriting trade. Follow ScreenCraft’s Facebook page for new articles on the craft and the business, and network with your fellow screenwriters.

You’re not getting paid for any social media writing, of course, but as a potential tool for visibility, such “free writing” can pay off handsomely.

Thank you for reading. I am looking forward to hearing about your success stories …

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Joel Eisenberg is an award-winning writer and producer, and partner in Council Tree Productions, a television development company. He writes and edits a publication for Medium, “Writing For Your Life,” which you can follow here.