Bare List on Writing for Free

There’s this insane misconception in the writing world that it is acceptable to be paid in “exposure”. Are there situations where this may be true? Certainly. If the Rock asks you to write a piece for him to endorse and share on his media outlets solely for exposure, do it. Here’s the thing though: Dwayne Johnson is not going to ask you to shlep your craft for free because he is an artist and he recognizes that it takes a lot of work to create something meaningful.

You know who doesn’t respect your hard-earned words? Big content companies like Huffington Post and LA Weekly who want to exchange your grind for the bleak chance that you will be able to build a fan base while earning them the big bucks. I know, as an aspiring author/journalist it can be INSANELY tempting to submit to any outlet that offers the possibility of seeing your story in print. This post isn’t about shaming anyone or getting on a high horse and proclaiming that wanting to work for free makes you a “less than”. It’s not that AT ALL. I completely get why aspiring writers would gravitate towards these outlets. It’s part of paying your dues? There are unpaid internships in every industry, this is no different, right? Wrong. Being published by media corporations hoping to lower their labor cost by piggy-backing on your hard work is not the equivalent of an unpaid internship. Here’s why:

  1. You’re not learning the industry – Media outlets, publishers, agents, etc. do not follow the same process as Content Monsters that just ask you to submit work for them to publish/reject. Internships/apprenticeships/first jobs are meant to give you experience in your field. To grow your knowledge base and make you more comfortable in that world. Free content contribution is like being a cashier at McDonald’s when you aspire to be the next sous chef for Emeril: they’re in the same industry, but it’s a long, complicated road to get where you want to go.
  2. You will not build a network – These companies sell young writers on the idea that by being published with their outlet, they will have the opportunity to gain exposure and that’s more valuable than money. Exposure is valuable, especially when you’re starting out, BUT a microscopic amount of writers actually gain communities from these outlets. You will work your ass off for maybe three extra Twitter followers. However, the outlet still gets money. It’s not a symbiotic relationship.
  3. Your resume will not be boosted One of the MAJOR benefits of internships is that they look good on a resume when you head out into the world to find a job. Being an unpaid contributor to a Big Content outlet will not do the same for you. Agents, publishers, journalists, etc. are familiar with these organizations and 99% of the time will not be impressed that you’ve had work published there.
  4. You risk hurting your work – These companies have a formula for what they want to publish, and often times it is below the grade that you are capable of writing. They either want easy reads that are easily shared or emotionally charged rants that care more about evoking rage than stating facts. This is not what yo want your potential employers to see.
  5. Your work is worth getting paid for – Yes, you are new. You have no credentials and writing is a hard industry to break into for a lot of people. I get that. I do. But hear me: your words are worth money. Your plots may still need work, your voice may need refinement, but you are in this world working and striving to get better, and that’s how I know you are going to make it one day. Do not sell yourself short because you are afraid of going for the paid outlets. Do not be deterred because you’ve got a stack of rejection letters the size of a doctoral dissertation. THAT’S PAYING YOUR DUES. That’s your unpaid internship: submitting, getting destroyed, and getting back up again. Taking the feedback that people who respect writers are willing to give you and moving forward until the RIGHT outlet(s) are ready to publish your work. Believe that. 

Writing is a hard industry. It comes with a lot of rejection and self-doubt and Big Media Corporations prey on that. They know that you are willing to work and grind and do whatever it takes, and they’re looking to get a paycheck they have not earned off of your blood, sweat, and tears. Don’t let them. Your words are worth more.

Do you have experience with any of these media corporations? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.