Unpaid Writing | When Do I Stop Working For Free?

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Dear fellow writers, freelancing friends, creatives and anyone who has ever had a job; I need some advice. I’ve been writing seriously for around three years now and by ‘seriously’ I mean paid. However, it seems that there are a lot of employers out there who still want me working for free.

They advertise online for freelancers, glossing over the subject of payment until I’ve sent in a CV, cover letter and pitches for articles. Other places are offering full-time ‘paid internships’, which only cover the ‘expenses’ of travel and lunch.

When I question this, the email responses are almost always the same:

‘Sorry, we can’t pay interns / freelancers / writers.’

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We can’t pay

That word can’t is an interesting choice because in most cases they can.

I recently got a freelance blogging job with a major travel company. We emailed back and forth for weeks about pitch ideas. But, when I asked about payment, they said they expected 500-750 words on Bali by next week but, ‘unfortunately, we can’t pay you.’

When I went onto their Facebook page, I saw that they were running a contest with prizes worth over £3,000.

Can’t? Or won’t?

If a prospective employer is just a small start-up then I believe that they genuinely can’t pay. However, the best money I have made through freelance writing has been for start-ups. Personally, I have found that they are more generous because they know what it’s like to work hard and get very little for it.

What I can’t understand is when the word can’t is being used by big established companies that obviously have the means, but just don’t want to pay.

Why pay when you can get someone working for free, right?

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Can you be paid in exposure?

Some companies are quick to add that they can pay me ‘in exposure.’ This is usually the offer of a link to my blog, or Instagram, or both.

Three months ago, I started using Google Analytics on my blog. This finally gave me the chance to see whether the unpaid articles I write were actually bringing traffic to my site.

My data collection is still in its early days, but so far it has confirmed exactly what I thought in the first place. No visitors were directed to my blog from the links at the bottom of the unpaid articles that I wrote. None. Nada. Zero.

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Besides, why can’t you be paid in both exposure and real-life money?

Another travel website picked up a pitch of mine, but told me if I wanted to include a link to my blog in the article then they couldn’t pay me. I replied saying that I was more than happy with that: I don’t care about links, I would much rather have the cash.

Then I stopped to consider. Why did I have to choose? Why is it always one or the other? What’s wrong with both?

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Ok, so why should you pay me?

The problem with jobs that involve any ounce of creativity is that there is a preconception by some people that ‘anyone could do that job.’

This is when I point out that I have an upper second class Bachelor’s degree in English Literature from a British Red Brick university (complete with debt). I have an impressive CV and a bulging writing portfolio.

Dear employer, this is not my first writing job. It is not my second, nor third. It isn’t even my tenth or eleventh. At this stage, I need more than exposure. What I need now is to earn money so that I can continue to do what I love and what I’m good at.

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But, what if you’re just starting out?

There is also an idea in creative industries that you have to ‘earn your stripes.’ You know, work a bit unpaid so that you can ‘put your name out there’ and ‘have something to put on your CV.’

To that argument, I present the following case study: a 16-year-old studying for their GCSEs is entitled to minimum wage serving cheeseburgers at McDonalds. But you can’t pay me to write?

If I spend time researching, writing, editing, drafting, re-drafting, sourcing images, applying SEO and goodness knows what else to write one article; then I should be paid for that time.

That’s what work is, isn’t it? An exchange of time for money.

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If you really loved writing, you wouldn’t care about the money

‘Oh, but you should write because you love it,’ are the echoes of judgment that I hear. If I want cash so bad, I should go into finance or recruitment or dentistry, right?

I write this blog for free, don’t I? I journal for free. I write my own poetry and fiction for free. I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo for two years running for free. I have written a lot of pieces for a lot of different companies over the past eight years for free. I have been working for free for a long time.

I do love writing. I love it so much that I do it all the time.  In fact, I might even dare say that I’ve got rather good at it. I’ve turned my passion for writing into a skill and I deserve to be paid for that skill.

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It’s easy to quickly type up a few words. Anyone can do it!

I don’t want to bore you by giving you a rundown of every little thing I do to write one article, but I can reveal that it takes me around five to ten hours to write one post. However, these hours are usually strung out over several weeks.

Why does it take that long?

Because research. Because Google Analytics and Adwords. Because SEO, image sourcing and social strategy. Because interviews and quotes and permission and credits. Because grammar and syntax, vocabulary and terminology, spellings and turns of phrase. Because showing not telling. Because readability score. Because word count. Because uploading onto the CMS. Because re-drafting until my Editor is happy.

Can anyone do that?

No, only someone with the relevant qualifications and experience to do so. Also known as a job.

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So, when do I stop working for free?

I first started writing and working for free when I was 19. I wrote book reviews for a now-defunct website called The Graduate Times. I wrote for free until I got my first paid job as a writer when I was 24. I’m now nearly 27.

When does it stop?

I know that by continuing to write for free I am only exacerbating the problem. I am leaving the door open for others to ask people to write for free too.

If I refuse to work for free, what will I gain? I’ll have less work.

If I demand payment by making the very arguments that I’m making in this post, then I run the risk of pissing everyone off. I don’t want to make enemies with the very people I want to work for.

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So this is the best thing I can think of to do about my dilemma: write about it.

I’m writing this post to put the question out there. Continuing the conversation might just put pressure on companies to pay. It might ‘expose’ the employers who want to pay you in ‘exposure.’

I’m not the first to write on this topic, and I won’t be the last, but I’m adding my voice to the choir. I love writing. I love writing so much that I just wrote a whole article about how much I love writing.

I’ll never give up my love of the written word.

And that’s how I know that my words are worth something.

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