One of the ongoing (often fiery) debates in the freelancing world is whether or not writing for free is acceptable. I'm lucky enough to be part of a few writing communities, and I've seen the question come up time and time again. Low or no pay gigs get slammed by more established writers, and honestly with often good reason. It drags down the pay rates for many of us as we all scramble to get the little scraps of cash sites are willing to throw our way. In turn, it's harder to make a living doing what we love.
But the more I see writers jump on each other for taking the $50 a pop assignment or writing for a site for free, the more frustrated I get with what I see as tunnel vision. I've noticed there seems to be a significant experience gap between those who are taking the low or no pay jobs and writers strongly opposed to those assignments. In a lot of ways, it reminds me more traditional job hunting, with a strong divide between those who had to find a job before the recession and those who had to find one after.
Writing wasn't my first choice of career. When I decided to pursue it, I was shoulders deep in a horrible job hunt, looking for a way into a career in foreign policy. Resumes on resumes were sent out every day, but I only heard back from unpaid internships. I did take one, and after a semester swore I'd never do another. That was around the time writing started really opening doors for me, so I changed gears and started pitching rather than sending in job applications.
During the day I'm a substitute teacher, and I've found myself in a lot of conversations with retirement age subs about why I, a young woman with a Master's, decided to step out of the traditional economy. I always tell them the same thing: Unpaid internships. It's just the rite of passage these days. A lot of them understand that, but some seem surprised to learn that anyone is all but required to work for free, forty hours a week. It's just not the same as when they were recent graduates trying to break into their chosen fields.
That's, in some ways, how I feel about writing for free. If we're being honest, unpaid internships aren't really internships. They are volunteer positions. I apply the same idea to unpaid writing assignments: If asked to volunteer some time for this site, would I? Is whatever I'm getting out of writing for the site beneficial? If the answer to either question isn't yes, then I don't take the assignment.
When you're starting out in writing today, sometimes free is all you can get. It's just the monster that is content these days. There are too many sites and too many people throwing pitches out there to demand high rates from the start. If you have been able to do this, amazing. I'm happy for you. But if I hadn't been willing to write for free or next to free for the first few months, I wouldn't have had the clips that eventually landed me the serious paychecks.
Although it's easy to argue that nonpaying and low paying sites are exploiting writers, you can easily be exploited by well paying clients, too. It's the same with traditional jobs; sure, you might make a hefty salary, but what you have to do in order to make that payday is important to keep in mind when judging the value of every dollar you make. If a site doesn't pay but provides a strong community, great feedback, and flexibility to make sure they respect the fact that you aren't being paid for your time, then why not volunteer a bit of your writing?
It all comes down to your own gut feeling. If working with a client or a publication feels good, then no one should tell you not to do so. But if you feel you are being exploited, it's your right to back away regardless of the pay involved. Writers starting today are struggling to make a living in the same ways those in the traditional economy are, and it's not the place of other writers to look down on them for hustling however they have to. We're all after the same thing: A livable income, a strong quality of life, and many years of putting pen to paper.
Bridey is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.
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