I’ve been writing professionally for over a year now, and recently celebrated 12 months of joy working for this wonderful site. As someone who has always struggled to carve out an identity for herself, on top of spending a lot of time trying to figure out what the hell I want to do with my life, this milestone is an especially encouraging accomplishment. I have always wanted to be a writer of some kind, but it was never something I viewed as a feasible option for my future. Writing, be it as a journalist or author or ‘content creator’, never felt like a thing I could do as a full-time career: It was better suited to be a hobby or side-hustle or something almost secretive.
The older I got and the more I fought to gain a foothold in a crumbling employment market, the less silly it felt to imagine myself with the job title of ‘writer’. After all, I was pretty good at it and people seemed to like the articles I wrote. I possessed the ideal combination of being intensely prolific and flexible in my approach. If something was happening in the world that inspired conversation, I found myself able to compile my thoughts quickly and produce a response accordingly. As derisive as the label is, I was good for the hot takes market. Getting into the field, however, was its own challenge.
I wrote mostly for myself, on my book blog that slowly evolved into a more general pop culture discussion site. As my Twitter following grew, so did the attention my thoughts and words attracted. Eventually, people started asking me to write for their publications. Editors from lofty newspapers with major names attached to the masthead would DM me and ask if I was interested in writing on whatever matter was the most pressing of the moment. I said yes to all of them. Not one of them paid me.
I haven’t been writing professionally for long compared to some of my friends and colleagues, so when people ask me for advice, I always feel like an uninspiring pretender who’s quickly going to be unmasked. The answers I give don’t always feel satisfying, but there is one rule I must hammer into the heads of everyone who asks.
Do you want to be a writer? Then do not work for free.
Don’t work for free. Don’t work for ‘exposure’. Don’t write for that site who say they love your work but obviously they can’t compensate you for it. Don’t be seduced by those editors who want to exploit you, even as their attention admittedly makes you blush and offers the tiniest sliver of validation. Don’t fall into the trap that insists your only route to becoming a ‘real writer’ is through giving into this shameless con.
Do. Not. Work. For. Free.
I have written for a couple of big places you’ve undoubtedly read, and I received nothing for it. I saw one piece I wrote do gangbusters business on Twitter, being shared by dozens of accounts, and for that boost in clicks, I got zero. In this relationship between creator and distributor, one side clearly benefitted more than the other. It didn’t feel good to be published on this site I read frequently. Really, the buzz of seeing my name on that page wore off almost instantly. Instead, I just wondered why I’d even bothered. I tried to justify the decision to myself by claiming that maybe that would be the piece that got my spotted by an editor who would actually want to pay me, or even offer me a regular gig. Obviously, it never happened. That site was full of gormless hopefuls like myself who bought into an identical pipe dream.
There are various routes to becoming a professional writer, but this industry has almost fetishized the notion of the unpaid trainee who is happy to starve for their art because the exposure is filling enough. You don’t need me to tell you that exposure doesn’t pay the bills. Like the scourge of unpaid internships, all this vicious cycle does is shut out those who cannot afford to participate. If you can’t take those 40 hours a week of making coffee and filing papers for some faceless company or benevolent charity then it’s too bad because there’s a line of people behind you who are ready to jump at the chance, the blow of the exploitation cushioned by parents who can finance you. It’s the same for writers: Why pay someone when there are dozens of eager kids who have bought into the lie that exposure will lead them to greatness?
I’ve done unpaid internships, and I’ve written for free, and I always hear the same response when I voice my concerns: You should be grateful for the opportunity. Perhaps this is another symptom of our society’s utter disdain for both the working classes and those darn millennials, but it’s one whose toxicity has only increased with time. It forces you to work yourself into exhaustion, grinding your fingers to the bone, harder than you ever thought possible, only for your superiors or elders to turn around and say you’re an entitled snob. Through extensive gas-lighting and the might of a system that reinforces those notions, you’re told to believe that you’re lazy, worthless, and your work devoid of value. Of course, it can’t be totally worthless if people keep begging you to do it without compensation, but what other option do you have?
I became a full-time writer through a combination of hard work, savvy job hunting, good timing, social media openness and sheer dumb luck. It’s not an easy route to replicate and I couldn’t teach you how to do so if I tried. Yet I can tell you that your words matter, and that their value is not tied to exposure. If you want to establish yourself as a writer, don’t do it for free on someone else’s watch. Start your own blog or use your favourite platform and work on your own terms. Create a catalogue of pieces that you would be proud to show to others. Disciplining yourself into double-checking for spelling errors and the like can be irritating, but it’s a valuable lesson. Those free gigs may promise the sharpness of an editor, but they offer little else in return. Define yourself without adhering to the lie of exposure.
It’s not always easy. When those editors come a-calling, it’s tough to beat down the fleeting boost to your ego, simply because it’s always nice to be told you’re good at something. Pitching is scary, and rejection never stops hurting, but the hunt is all the more satisfying when you know the returns are tangible. I’ve been very lucky to have become a full-time writer in such a short period. There’s no thrill quite like it, but I wouldn’t be doing this seven days a week if it didn’t pay my bills.
Don’t work for free. You’ll be richer for it, I promise.