“You should never work for free.” That’s the personal promise I’ve made myself and I really believe in it.
Most of the time I’ve kept my promise, even though it’s not easy. (I’ve done less well in the past when it comes to working too cheaply.)
Sometimes, you just need to feel validated, like you’re doing the thing you’re meant to be doing. Sometimes you could really use money, even if it’s only enough to cover a utility bill. Sometimes, you just need a story about someone taking advantage of you for your memoirs — or so I tell myself in the worst of circumstances.
In any case, the offers for free work or underpaid work are never far away, as I continue to find out on this journey.
Being Underpaid, Underappreciated
Here’s what I’ve noticed about being underpaid and underappreciated. Many people tolerate being treated far worse than they should.
You get used to the abuse. You rationalize it away. You give up.
But I want you to not give up.
The economy for the underemployed puts a lot of people in a difficult place.
Broke and idle. Broke and jaded.
How can you make such a choice?
I won’t tell you it’s easy. This is just my story.
It’s the story about the time I chose no work over free work.
A Monthly Column
It was the summer of 2012. I had spent the last six months trying to research what my writing could be worth. Mostly, I found out what it used to be worth. A feature piece for the local paper used to be worth $400. Now it was $100. The classical concert reviews I had been writing could be worth $75 each, although I was paid around $20. But at the time I was determined to keep trying at this scrappy journalism thing.
We sat down for lunch. A sleepy Mexican restaurant in the West-Side Latino neighborhood. J was warm and welcoming. Tall, silver-grey goatee, distinguished but still youthful.
We talked about my writing. He’d really enjoyed the cover story I’d just written for the August issue of his alternative monthly. I was proud of it too. It was quite complicated to put together — at least for someone who hadn’t gone to journalism school. There was a play opening. Three interviews. A citywide youth health initiative tie-in.
It was actually something I had done for free. I’d wanted the challenge. And the experience, ironically.
Now we were meeting to discuss what I hoped would be not-free work. At this point, I was willing to doing one or two things pro bono, the idea being I needed to prove myself.
We talked about the business of journalism. J had lived in San Francisco, D.C., Chicago. He’d managed publications. He had a career’s worth of writing and editing. Now he was running his own niche monthly paper back in the city where he grew up.
The conversation shifted to the purpose of our lunch. He proposed the idea of me writing more for the paper. This wasn’t a surprise. It was in the emails, our premise for meeting.
The head’s up was good, because it had given me time to think. I thought about what I wanted. I thought about what I thought I was worth. I thought about what I thought my work was worth and how surely he’d recognize it now that I’d proven myself.
He suggested he could make a spot for a monthly column for me. I could opine about whatever current event was affecting my little corner of the city. I was interested.
First, another challenge. Second, a chance to have a voice — somewhere inside, everyone has a desire to make people listen. And thirdly, to build a portfolio. Despite knowing how fickle and futile it is, I still romanticized being an essayist.
I asked what J would be able to pay. And there it was.
He explained he wasn’t able to pay any of the handful of writers that helped him write his publication. The fact checker was paid. They layout artist was paid. The printer was paid. He lived modestly off the remaining advertising revenues. That was it. That was where things stood.
I was surprised he wasn’t able to pay even $20 or so per piece for the paper’s 4–6 contributor stories each month, but I understood.
He’d created a business model based on not paying writers, so he didn’t pay writers.
J continued, explaining that another local writer had also decided he couldn’t contribute on a regular basis without payment. I do have to give it to J, who laid all this out in a tactful framework. He “understood the writer’s position and respected his valuation of his time and work.” It seemed more than anything to be a story related to help me give the words for my own answer.
And so I followed suit.
We had a discussion about how I also was “committed to finding paying writing opportunities.” I “understood the constraints” of his business position. He “respected my needs and valuation of my time and work.”
J paid for lunch and walked with me to my car.
Overall, it was a very nice and respectful experience. But also, it was a bit sad.
I’m glad I walked away, but I won’t tell you that I did something else immediately afterward for money. I didn’t. Outside of a couple office writing jobs — which that cover story did help me get — I didn’t do any writing for a couple years.
Was that what I should’ve done? Probably not. But it’s what happened. It was still probably the right decision for me. And now, I’m getting paid decently for writing. I have high hopes shit’s gonna work out this time.
What I Hope You’ll Take Away From This Story
You Don’t Need to Prove Your Worth
You have worth. Whoever you are, you have worth. Whatever you do, it has inherent worth. You don’t need to offer anything for free. Because what you produce is worth something to someone else.
Advertisers, audiences, readers, whoever. They see it. And that brings value to the person who commissioned it from you. Don’t undersell yourself.
Is someone asking you for something of value for nothing? Don’t give it to them without getting something of value in return. If they got it for free the first time, there’s little incentive to pay for it the next time.
Don’t Do Work for Free
I won’t tell you you should never do anything that doesn’t pay you in green paper or credits on a screen, but I will tell you not to do things for free. Experience, in my opinion, is still free work.
It’s worthwhile when you direct the type of work you’ll do so that you have an example of that for your portfolio.
It’s worthwhile when you extract a written agreement for a glowing testimonial.
It’s worthwhile when you get a guarantee for an introduction or a referral to another potential paying job.
It might even be worthwhile if you get a byline in a high-profile publication, for exposure. Although, as Linda Formichelli brilliantly quips:
You know, people die from exposure.
You get the idea. You deserve to be compensated for your work. Somehow.
What I Should’ve Done Next
So I found someone that didn’t want to pay and I gave up. For a couple years.
Don’t do that shit.
Keep looking. That’s what I should’ve done and it’s what you should do now.
There are literally two kinds of people out there. People who will try to get something out of you for free, even if you’re a famous designer. And there are people who will pay for your work.
Say NO to the first and keep looking for the second kind of people. The free work people exist because someone somewhere keeps giving away great work for free.
End of story.