They Came for the Cookies

For some of the creative writing classes I teach—thankfully, not all—I’m paid according to the number of students who enroll. Each student pays a very modest amount, so a small class means small remuneration for me.

After recently teaching six students at an arts center, I screwed up my courage and told the personable program coordinator I wouldn’t be able to offer my services there again.

“It simply doesn’t pay enough,” I said.

“How about offering a free seminar to the public so more people can learn of the class? Some of them might enroll,” she suggested.

To boost enrollment at a couple of places where I teach, I twice (make that three or more times) offered talks about creative writing. I put in extra time coaching my students so they could read from their own very fine work. The audiences sighed and clapped and laughed at all the right moments during the programs.

Afterwards, we held receptions and served coffee, tea, and pastries. Often I bought or baked the goodies myself.

Guess what? Few people who attended the talks ever took a class. One time, several people just wandered into the room and sidled straight up to the cookies.

No more freebies for me.

Since then, I’ve made it a point to seek (and get) teaching jobs that pay a flat fee.

But that can be tricky, too.

Recently I had an opportunity to submit proposals to teach several writing classes at a community education program where I’d always longed to teach. Then I learned they would pay $22.00 per teaching hour. Nothing for preparation. Nothing for the 30 minutes after each class answering questions from students too shy to ask during the class. What about the emails from students between classes?

So, I had to learn to demand not only a flat fee, but a decent one.

Writers are mostly paid peanuts, considering our formal education, and post college training and experience. (I won’t even go into our years of blood, sweat, and tears.) Most of us have written for free many, many times. We even guest post on one another’s blogs—for free. But, at least that’s usually reciprocal.

No more ridiculously low-paying teaching gigs for me. Well, except for two classes I’ve had for years and love.

How about you? Do you teach writing for pennies? Are you fed up with writing for free? Have you got a plan?

11 thoughts on “They Came for the Cookies

  1. Good for you. I can understand the cookie issue, as most writers enjoy cookies. At least you got a blog post out of the experience. There are some people, who want everything for free. I’ve found some low cost classes disappointing, but still give them a try — at least once.

  2. I just published a post reviewing another writer’s course to help writers get paid what they’re worth. The first comment I received was a scathing accusation that my post wasn’t encouraging because if I were really trying to help writers, I’d have recommended information they could access for free.

    I know that because most writers are paid peanuts–and enjoy cookies, as Stacy says–they’re frustrated by the idea that simple information should be paid for. Of course every piece of information in that course–and probably in your course–could be found for free elsewhere. But information is not power. Knowledge is power.

    We get knowledge by learning, which includes having a model (i.e. an expert who can teach us) in front of us, practice applying points, and accountability in the form of homework (even if it’s not graded, the review tells our teacher or classmates whether we’ve got it or not). The more of these elements we can get, the more we learn. We can’t get any of them from a free ebook–or even a collection of free ebooks.

    Yes, you can get ideas from free information, and use them. But if you don’t, or if you get confused, you’ll want an expert’s ear. If everyone who ever downloaded a free course from an expert had that expert’s ear, she would shortly need–not want or demand, no, NEED–those people to provide her with a means to pay the rent.

    How could this possibly be offensive to her students?

  3. I teach for a university on MWF, and volunteer in the community on TR. I try to make myself charge a fee for teaching in the community. I end up charging for materials only because I love the work so much–everything about it. I love the students; reading their work and responding to it; I love the interaction and seeing them improve and become empowered. I love making a difference in a person’s life. I am just starting a new writing venture–summer tutoring for college-bound teens, a kind of college prep consisting of the many writing occasions the students will be asked to engage in as well as some literature and creative writing. I like to tutor in small groups of 2 or 3 students at a time. I am trying to figure out how much I should charge per student. I’m sorry to admit that I would do it for no fee because it is so enjoyable. But I know that sends the wrong message about writers in general, and about Belinda. I have a long list of credentials that I will not post here; assume I am extremely qualified and please offer suggestions about the financial compensation I should request or require for my engagement with these students. Any other response is welcome, also. Cheers!

  4. Hi Lynette: I found this post to be most amusing and delightfully honest. It reminds me of most of the artist opening receptions that I attend. Ninety percent of the people that come go straight to the food table and stay there for most of the evening, gobbling up as much food as possible. Sometimes I actually feel sorry for them, thinking that they may not be getting enough to eat at home (!) I keep thinking that maybe we should all skip the snacks and let people just come and listen (and look) for a change. Love your sense of humor with these issues.

  5. Hear! Hear! Part of the problem is that anyone can call him or herself a writer. No Bar Exam like for Lawyers or CPA as for accountants. We can have our degrees, MFA, BA in English–whatever, but the proof is in the pudding. There are ways to make money writing, but for most it’s not in the art side of writing — unless you get so famous and lucky. Of course, one still has to be able to write a compelling cogent piece. If one wants to read about making money in this field I suggest reading anything by Kelly James Enger. She spoke at our writers group on the topic of the 6-figure writer. It’s a different paradigm and each writer has to decide which way to go. You deserve more than $22/teaching hour FOR SURE. So I am in complete agreement with putting your foot down.

  6. Terry, as usual, you have an insightful take on this. Maybe those folks really weren’t getting enough to eat. Glad you enjoyed (and related to) the post!

  7. Thanks so much for your comment, Belinda. What you should charge for tutoring might be determined by where you live. Are there tutoring services you can check with? Or even the high school; I have friends who tutor high schoolers, and often the school will advise you on a good hourly rate. Good luck! And keep enjoying offering writing instruction; I’m exhilarated after every class I teach.

  8. It’s not even that anyone can call him or herself a writer. It’s that everyone – even the worst of them – thinks they can write, and that the only reason they don’t write is because they don’t have time. Writing is something you pay other people to do – and they do it because they don’t have the skills to do anything else.

    My goodness, there are even management books that say you should leave a few typos in your email to convey urgency, and the importance of the vision over the details.

  9. I agree. People might think writers are writers because they’re unqualified to do anything else. WRONG. Most of us have been successful at other careers, where often we were well paid. We just feel compelled to write.

    It’s easy to write. But it’s difficult to write WELL. Yet many people can’t imagine how much skill and experience go into good writing.

  10. I am privileged to be a part of your classes and recommend them highly. The fee is unbelievably low and you deserve much more. The specific assistance and pardon the cliche ,”words of wisdom” you give out is priceless. I would follow you anywhere, for any price. Thank you for all your intelligence and support.

  11. Barbara, you are too kind. Your writing is smooth and honest. I must love having you in my classes; the next one has been scheduled at a time I knew you’d be back from vacation and would be able to attend. Thanks a ton for your warm praise!

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