Oh the irony of writing a (very much) unpaid blog post asking people not to do unpaid writing work. However, nobody else is making any money off of this either (not even WordPress — or at least not much — since I’m using the free version). This is in contrast to a job I was offered not too long ago to write for this really cool website. While it would’ve been amazing and I have plenty of ideas for what I’d write, they couldn’t pay me for the first month, with only the possibility of profit sharing after that.
You may ask, why not? If nothing else, it would get my (pen) name some useful exposure and give me something exciting to add to my portfolio and CV. And yet, would you think it reasonable for a plumber to do some work for free first just so they could get their name out, or a doctor, or any other profession? Probably not.
Writing for exposure has become a long-running joke in the writing world at this point, so if you have any interest in becoming a professional writer you probably already know all about the ridiculousness of it. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth repeating.
When I started out transitioning from being a fulltime researcher to editorial and copywriting work, I found a company that would give me odd writing jobs. Cool, right? Except they didn’t pay very much, didn’t treat me as an important asset (not when they have so many other chumps happy to write for peanuts) and just didn’t understand that for me to do my job I needed some basic questions answered sometimes.
At that time, I was just happy to be paid to write. I was still stuck in the mindset that most people have, which is that writing is easy so it’s a privilege to be able to do it for a (very small) living. Now that I’m further along in my career, I know exactly how dangerous that thinking is.
Yes, it’s easy, for me, because I’m a writer. Having worked on other people’s writing now, though, I fully understand it’s actually something not everyone can do. That means that not only should I get paid for my time and effort, I should get paid a reasonable amount.
Funnily enough, the expectation of writing for free also haunted my previous life in academia. While you get paid to do research and teach, etc., nobody specifically pays researchers to write up and publish their findings. In most cases, recent PhD graduates will have to find time in their off hours to publish the work from their thesis while they’ve already moved on to a new job. It’s very rare for a grant to give PhD students the time not just to complete their research but also complete the write-up. What’s more, universities in many ways pay to publish, as they require subscriptions to access the same journals that they’re doing all this free writing work for. And don’t get me started on the peer-review process…
But I digress.
The thing to keep in mind is that by working for free, you are making life that much harder for everyone else. Sure, you may be able to cover your costs with a day job or your parents’ money, but what about the rest of us? There’s a reason that most journalists nowadays are still overwhelmingly white, male and coming from rich families (same goes for the publishing world in general). It’s because they could afford to cover the cost of doing a free internship in a major city.
Don’t be like those entitled jerks. Think about the rest of us, and only accept work that pays, either in money or something else (advertising for something that will make you money, or good karma points for a charity you believe in). Sure, this is sometimes hard to define, especially when it comes to wanting to advertise your books for instance. Maybe the best way to go about it is to go into meetings with the expectation of getting paid, so that the other party has to convince you that what they have to offer is just as good. If they’re paying designers to make pretty pictures around your work and IT support to keep their website running, they can sure as heck pay you too.
Would you encourage a friend to spend hours working for free while other people make money off their efforts? Of course not!
If you were an employer and you can get writing work for free, would you consider paying someone? You should, as you’d get much better quality from someone who knows their worth, but if you’re like a few employers I’ve met who think anyone can write, you probably wouldn’t.
Why would you set lower standards for yourself than for a friend? Why would you sabotage your own career by creating the expectation that you’ll happily work without pay? Nobody needs to starve to be an artist, and nobody should have to go without their fair due. Everybody deserves a living wage, including writers.