As someone who has been writing for years now, I have learnt a lot about the industry and how nasty it is and have even spoken at length on my bad experiences. Many of these bad experiences fall under the category of being taken advantage of. Lesson learnt: never let yourself be taken advantage of. Let me tell you a cautionary tale of a mistake I made early on in my life as a writer so you don’t make the same mistake. If you like storytimes, you’ll like this one! If you want to see more meta posts, check out this one about advice for writers.
Why you shouldn’t work for free
First rule of being a writer, don’t work for free. Actually, this goes for any creative: artist, musician, seamstress, poet, video editor, photographer, you name it. You may be wondering why I say this. I say this because your time is valuable. As someone who creates something, you need to have confidence, self esteem, and self respect. Have confidence in your abilities. Have the the self esteem and self respect to set boundaries and know your worth. Don’t take on more projects than you can handle. Charge what you’re worth, you owe it to yourself. It’s up to the market to decide if you’re worth it, so do good work and show that you’re worth hiring.
Of course, people can decide to DIY things and there’s nothing wrong with that. Some people are on a low budget. Learning new skills is a good thing! No shame in that. I couldn’t afford a graphic designer to make all the graphics for my blog, so I had to do all that myself. I took inspiration from the beautiful art around me, but I made my own edits. I’m not bankrolled by big corporations, I’m just one person writing this blog and doing everything for it, so I wear multiple hats. I hope one day to learn how to sew and make my own 60s accessories and clothes.
People like to read, look at pretty artwork, listen to music, wear beautiful clothes, watch films, and have their portraits taken. Your work has worth. Your time is worth something. Monetise it. Don’t work for free. Self respect means saying no to people who want to mooch and take work from you for free. The shouldiworkforfree.com website says it best. only under limited circumstances should you work for free. The circumstances are the following:
- If you have a good relationship with your parents, always do them a solid. They’ve done a lot for you, you can do a little favour for them.
- If it’s for a really close friend and you owe them one or you’re feeling generous, give them art or something for free, once off. A homemade gift is always nice!
- If it’s for a charity, only if it’s for a cause you truly believe in, you can think of it as a donation of your time.
The most common excuses for free work are:
- We’re a start-up! – Doesn’t mean you get to take advantage of people
- We’ll promise you more work and it’ll be paid! – You should be paid from the get-go, but this is just a cop-out. They just want someone to take advantage of them. You’re no slave.
- We’ll pay in exposure! – Doesn’t pay the bills. Let’s talk money! And really how much exposure will there be?
Basically, this clip from Goodfellas says it best.
Storytime: I worked for free for a “startup”
Now I won’t be naming the “startup”, but I’ll give you some details about what the business was or how I got the job. As much as I think the owner of the company is a jerk for taking advantage of young aspiring writers, I don’t want him getting hate. The fact that the company went under is karma enough. Moral of the story: pay your workers. Yes, even if they are an “intern”. Other companies may be named, but employees will not be named. I don’t want anyone getting hate, but it’s important to call them out on their poor treatment of others. I believe what goes around comes around and it’s important to speak my truth about the industry. Poor treatment of workers needs to be called out and potential applicants need to be aware of these things when looking for a place to work. A job interview isn’t just them interviewing you, you also need to interview the company and think about if that’s where you really want to spend a third of your day. That’s self respect. The company are making money off your work, you’re not seeing all your value. They are profiting from your work. Don’t forget that.
After I was finished writing my masters thesis, I was desperate for work or some sort of experience. I was supposed to do an work placement that was connected with my degree, but the option that was paid at freelance rates was all the way in Dublin and I was expected to live there and there was no way I could afford it or even feasibly commute, spending 5 or 6 hours a day on the bus. Screw that.
The course director was no help in helping me find a more local publication and the editorial manager of The Irish Examiner completely flaked out on me and lied to me, promising me an unpaid internship, but then telling me that they are “no longer in a position to offer unpaid internships”. I didn’t even get an “I’m sorry” or “good luck”. I understand that situations change, but to treat me like a piece of dirt when I was previously treated well at the interview (they even told me that they had no suggestions or feedback for me to improve my interview performance) shows their true colours. She didn’t even call me by my preferred name, Angie, which shows a complete lack of consideration towards me. When she interviewed me a few months before that for a paying job there, she and this other editor promised me big things like writing a story for them freelance, but then later walked back on that promise. Now you know why I wrote this post on why I’m glad I never worked for any mainstream publication.
I was not the only person to receive this poor treatment from the Examiner. A classmate of mine was also promised the same thing and they never got back to him even after he followed up like crazy. I spoke to another journalist and she said she only got an internship at the Examiner because her professor was good friends with the editors and begged and pleaded for her to intern there. It’s all about who you know I guess. Not to mention that if you’re a foreigner, you’re always going to be seen as lesser. Although ironically, I remember the interviewer having an English accent. Funny.
I was desperate for work and I was constantly spending hours and hours scrolling through all the websites with job listings for jobs that were relevant to my field or not. Before I worked with the company of concern in this story, I worked for free for an online women’s magazine run by a former RTÉ worker and which was featured on Dragon’s Den. The boss claimed it was a startup and promised big things. The articles on the website were simplistic, but quick to crank out, not hard hitting journalism, but experience is experience, right? When I applied I was told that there could be paying work in the future and she was working hard to monetise the website, but I saw that she was bringing in outside paid help and being pulled in so many directions and was completely disorganised. I expressed my concerns in an email and I was dismissed as a millennial who thinks they “know everything, but have experienced nothing”. I had other things to worry about and I wanted to get back to my true love, writing about classic rock. I left and literally a month later, the magazine shut its doors. It went ghost, no parting words.
This other company was travel agency that specialised in travel to Australia. Funny enough, I had just come back from my honeymoon in Australia and I had plenty of stories and information to share. Now, I knew from the get go that the job wasn’t paying, but I was desperate for work experience and I wanted my name out there and the only jobs hiring were ones that weren’t paying. He even said there could be paying work in the future. What did I have to lose? I was so naive. Instead of spending that time writing articles for this blog and building up my own brand, I wasted my time trying to enrich someone else for nothing in return. Never do that.
When I wasn’t writing listicles for them about Australia or general travel, I was editing other people’s articles. The other writers were not as experienced as I was, but it was definitely frustrating to see rookie mistakes. But when you’re not paying people, you can’t expect much for free. One time I read an article from someone who did not know how to write at all and it was so bad, not something worth taking for free. I spent about 4 months doing work for free for them and then I left. After a year or two, the company went bust. Now the website isn’t even around anymore, but defunct Facebook and Instagram pages are still up. Guess the owner didn’t have time to delete them. The posts on their social media didn’t even get much engagement. I’m guessing the company folded, possibly even before the pandemic, but I’d imagine that for a tourism business a pandemic that halted travel was the last nail in the coffin.
Moral of the story: when you pay well, you’ll get good workers. There’s no shortage of workers, companies are just too stingy to pay people what they’re worth. Especially relevant message especially when I’m seeing so many stories of restaurants desperate to find workers, but they can’t find any so they either raise wages or they close down the location or offer limited service because people don’t want to work for less than $15/hour, which in many places is still not enough to live well.
In conclusion, if you don’t have enough experience or you’re a square peg in a round hole, a unique writer with an unconventional niche style, like me, don’t ever give your work away to someone for free, unless it’s a quid pro quo. Make sure you’re getting something of value out of it. Best thing to do is build up your own portfolio and brand and market yourself. My blog is my oeuvre and this is just the beginning. I started when I was 20 and I’m almost 27 and I can proudly say that my work has improved and I’ve gained confidence and learnt so much from writing and speaking to so many musicians and classic rock enthusiasts. I want to thank you all for making this possible and making my experience as a writer so amazing and I would never trade it for anything. I wouldn’t be anywhere without my fans and readers. I am so grateful for all the praise and kind words I’ve received over the years. You’ve changed my life and touched my life. I mean it. I love you all! Till next time!
Shoutout to Patrick and Jeffrey from Maryland for supporting the blog!
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An unspoken, but hinted at lesson in there: a lot of people start companies with no idea how to keep them afloat. Had you taken those unpaid jobs, you’d have nothing to show for it. Had they’d paid you, you’d have had a few bucks but not much else when they failed. I’m glad you mentioned the quid pro quo. There are times that cashless trades can be of value to both sides. I do free plumbing work for a lawyer friend. He does free legal work for me. In our case, friendship is the deciding factor, but either of us would probably feel guilty if we didn’t have valuable work to offer.
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And even if these “start ups” paid me, it would not have been much. I have heard some really sketchy things happening at legitimate publications like stories being stolen or by-lines being changed or credited to someone who isn’t the writer. And then freelancers having to chase the publication to get paid. Really shady.