Don’t work for free

People often turn to me for advice on developing writing careers, especially freelance careers, which honestly makes me a little bit uncomfortable. It’s not because I’m so leery of competition that I don’t want to provide information to people that would help them enter the industry, but rather that the industry is an extremely hard place right now. Competition is extremely ferocious, pay is shite, and people are typically expected to work in internships for at least a year before they’re taken seriously in publishing. Meanwhile, building up clippings necessitates a growing struggle to find publications that will take you without experience, and a vicious loop tends to perpetuate itself.

My regrettable gut advice to people asking about writing for a living is ‘don’t,’ because it’s frustrating and painful and it takes years to really make a living. But I don’t want to crush people’s dreams, and while many would-be writers flame out, some do just fine, and everyone should have a chance at chasing the careers they love.

The work of writing is grinding and grueling, translating into well over 40 hours a week of labour, especially in the early years. I’d note that even now, I work 50-70 hours a week, because my profile isn’t high enough to command high fees for my work — I don’t get $1,000 for an essay or feature, for example, no matter how much I put into it. New freelancers will deal with a world in which connections are everything and it can be very hard to wedge into the doors of publications that choose from the same small stable of writers, admitting others only in very limited circumstances. They’ll also deal with an environment of repeated rejection and treatment that often borders on the unfair.

But one of the most unfair and demanding expectations of freelancers is that they work for free or very low pay. ’round upon the time that sites realised ‘content’ paid, they realised that people are so desperate to get their work out there that they will become content producers for free or with almost no pay — in some cases, no pay other than the promise of a share in ad revenues, a prospect further down the line of some chance at monetary success. Most of these writers are heavily exploited and never get beyond this phase, which is one reason I strongly encourage people not to work for free.

In the immediate future, working for free or low wages means that you are investing substantial energy in producing work that doesn’t net any money, and in some cases it’s work for hire that you don’t even retain copyrights or reprint permissions for, so you can’t sell it elsewhere. You can’t support yourself on unpaid work. Sure, it might start to develop your clips, but so does blogging, which you control. Blogs allow you to create content customised to the kind of work you do well while you develop your writing skills, and writers can and do get picked up from blogs (including yours truly).

It usually means that you’re generating profits for your ’employer’ without any returns. They’re getting ad revenue from hits on your pieces, they’re getting increased impressions they can use to improve saleability and appeal to advertisers and sponsors, and they’re quite happy to keep their writers underpaid even when they have the capacity to support their writing staff.

Moreover, your work has value. You are a human being. You have value. The things you produce have value. You wouldn’t ask the welder above to produce work without pay, because you recognise that welding is a professional skill that requires training and a certain degree of risk. Likewise, work in the arts is also a professional skill, and one that requires years of training and refinement. Good writers are constantly improving themselves and their work is in a continuous state of evolution — look at the archives of anyone, including high-profile figures of hero worship, and you’ll find clunky pieces, work with poorly-articulated arguments, and more. In five years, the work you think is fantastic now will feel unfinished and rough by comparison. In the arts, time is invaluable.

Writers who are just starting out can’t draw upon that library of skill and their years of experience, but that doesn’t make what they produce worthless. It might indicate that their work doesn’t merit the same fees that experienced writers with impressive resumes receive, but their work still has value. They’re putting in the research time for individual pieces while they develop skills and train for success in the larger industry. They — you — matter as individuals, not cogs in a machine.

Devaluing your work devalues your worth as a human being, and it also contributes to the perpetuation of a system where artists and creators are abused. As sites learn that they don’t need to pay for content, they abuse more writers, and grow more reluctant to pay people what they’re worth and what they ask for. Writers are often not aware that it can be surprisingly easy to pressure a site into paying more — if they ask for it, and especially if they have strong pieces.

Don’t work for free. Not even if a site promises exposure or a share of future profits or dangles the possibility of being paid in the future. You deserve to be paid now, not later. The only time to ever write for free is when the exposure will be so significant that it will have wide editorial reach: For example, if the New York Times or Washington Post approaches you about an editorial, it’s worth it. Editorials are typically unpaid and both of those papers commission editorials in addition to accepting submissions, but the lack of pay is made up for in the advantages of having your name in one of the most prominent sections of one of the most prominent papers in the country.

Never settle for less, because you deserve more. Working for free is beneath you.

Image: Welding, Julian Carvajal, Flickr