Getting your feet on the ground as a writer is one of the most challenging things you might ever do in your professional life. How do you get your first client? How much should you charge for what you write? Do you need to work for free for a while before you are able to command a decent wage for your work?
The ethics of volunteer free labor is something heavily debated today. They exist everywhere in the form of “Unpaid Internships”, and they are nothing new. They are especially prevalent in creative fields. But are they necessary for establishing yourself as a creative?
The Unpaid Writing Internship
Getting a job in a creative field without experience is borderline impossible. Let’s just face it — there’s a large number of writers who are all too willing to write for free. These writers may not be the top of the heap, but they make up a big of enough mass that writers who are just starting out need to do everything they can in order to stand apart from the rest. The unpaid internship, the universe seems to have decided, is your proving ground. If you can do an unpaid internship and somehow showoff that you’re good, you’ll have the opportunity to get paid sometime in the future. Maybe.
Free Labor Benefits Those with Small Content Creation Budgets
According to the Atlantic, the number of people taking part in unpaid internships every year is as many as 500,000 to one million!
“So, in a country where working for free is mostly illegal, a student population somewhere between the size of Tucson and Dallas will be working for free, in plain view.” — Derek Thompson, The Atlantic
Content is in more demand than ever before. Thanks to the internet, everybody needs something of a content strategy. Yes, even your grandma’s flower shop hobby needs someone to dedicatedly create and publish content to social media in order to grab attention. And with so much hubbub, there is an equal amount of buzz around gaining valuable writing talent, and winning it over to your cause. Truly, in today’s landscape, anyone with a talented creator, or team of creators, who can hone in on the core messages of your product, brand or service, quickly enables you stand out from the competition.
But how do you get access to high quality content when you are tight on budget? Well, why not get it for free? Or at least that’s the approach more and more businesses, brands, PR agencies and beyond are deciding to do. They shell out promises of enabling writers to “build out their portfolio”. Meanwhile they benefit from free labor, and access to content they can’t really afford.
Working For Free Can Be Necessary
Regardless of how you feel about it, and indeed in a perfect world this city-sized population of unpaid interns would probably not be unpaid but compensated fairly, working for free early on in your career can be massively important. Ultimately, if the unpaid internship does turn into some sort of paid work later on, then it might be justified. Similarly to getting an education, you’re putting aside something now in return for something greater later. At least, that’s the theory.
Should You Write for Free?
Well, it depends. Where are you in your writer’s journey? At some point, you pass the point of no return, where you absolutely cannot, cannot, cannot write for free. Unless you are writing for yourself. Then by all means, write for free. Until then, writing for free might be just what you need to get your career started.
You can’t have a job until you have a job, right? Unfortunately, most people don’t want to be the first one to work with you. Once you’ve worked with someone, however, and established something of a track record, it gets a lot easier to land new jobs. By building up your portfolio, and by being published on somewhat reputable sites, you can prove to others that you are a serious writer.
When the Exposure is Really Worth It
When agreeing to write for free, consider the exposure that you will actually be gaining by writing for free. Is it actually worth it, or are you essentially throwing your time out the window? If the opportunity is big enough, if the name is good enough, or the audience wide enough, then you might consider trading your talents for free.
One of the great things about having a portfolio is that people usually don’t care about whether or not you were paid to write every piece on there or not. If the brand name of the place you are published is good enough, or if your writing is good enough, or if the topic is in the right niche or challenging enough, that might be all you need to actually start selling your work for the green stuff.
There does exists a danger in this process, however. The problem is this — if one person is able to get your talents for free or for “publishing credit,” then why should that ever stop. Many a writer has fiddled away their writing talent on free gigs that never amounted to anything, before they threw in the towel in disgust and got a job selling paper instead.
Get Paid ASAP
Once you find yourself in this state of “unpaid creative work,” it’s important to make the pivot out of it as soon as possible. How much you get paid for your first bits of creative work is not nearly as important as just getting paid. I cannot tell you how many people I’ve known personally who failed at this exact point in the process. And yes — while it is best to get this out of the way earlier than later, just because you might be doing it later, that doesn’t mean it cannot be done.
If your sole interest in writing is just to write cool stuff, then you don’t ever have to worry about doing this as a business, or making money at it. But if you want to write professionally, then it’s inevitable. You need to find your first client. And unless you are really remarkable, it probably won’t pay a lot at first, and you probably won’t be able to write just whatever you want, either. It’s going to take some time for you to find a well paying niche, or to get the kind of projects and writing assignments that you actually enjoy.
But it’s all part of the journey, and you can’t make it there if you don’t endure a little bit of turbulence along the way.
“I finished my first book seventy-six years ago. I offered it to every publisher on the English-speaking earth I had ever heard of. Their refusals were unanimous: and it did not get into print until, fifty years later; publishers would publish anything that had my name on it.”
― George Bernard Shaw
In Summary and Looking Ahead
While a pain, writing for free can indeed be a great way for new writers to gain recognition and street cred. You could even say it’s an essential part of the treacherous path to becoming a professional writer today.
And once you’ve made it, and joined the gilded halls of writers who now get to toil away in relative obscurity to make a living from their God-given creative gift, you now have the freedom to once again write for free. But you don’t do this for friends, or businesses, or anyone for that matter. Instead, you do it as a way to promote yourself, your own business, your own brand, to grow a following, to show thought leadership, and to get ready for that next big break, where greater and higher paying jobs await, just over the hill.