When, And When Not, To Work For Free

Liz Furl
Written by Liz Furl

When you’re first starting out in a new creative profession, whether it be writing, graphic design, musicianship, or art, there can be the impulse to work for free. There are so many companies that bring in creatives with the promise of exposure: You work for us, we’ll promote your name, and – eventually – you’ll get paid for what you do.

The problem with that line of thinking is that the exposure given is also gained. The company who takes in your words, your designs, your songs, or your masterpieces is using them to build their business and their own brand. Every dollar earned by way of using your work goes into their own pocket, whereas the exposure you get can be vary, depending on whether or not they find your work to be sellable.

It can be a grim prospect, staking your success on working for free with the hope that someday it will turn into a paying gig. Unfortunately, it’s sometimes a risk that you have to be willing to take.

I can only write about the experience of writing. I am not a graphic designer, a musician, or an artist—except, that is, with words. But I do have experience, nine months of it, with writing, both for free and for money, and I’m beginning to know now when it’s appropriate to do one or the other.

Hopefully, this will be some use to those who may not have learned yet, or who are in the process of learning.

In the beginning, it may be necessary to work solely for exposure. If you don’t have a compelling portfolio yet, who will pay for your work, your words? In this instance, start with the most prestigious publications that take on unpublished authors. Build a rapport with them. Work with them for months, long enough to have an extensive and varied list of pieces. Deliver your absolute best work to them.

Next, use those pieces to make your way into places that don’t pay, but require samples of previous work. These will be more prestigious places, places that use your published pieces as a key to entry. This is why everything you deliver to your first gigs must be top-notch – if you don’t have something worthy, you won’t get anything better.

In your next tier of unpaid work, continue to deliver your best (This holds true regardless of whether or not you work for money). If anything step up your game, as these will be the pieces that will land you the paying gigs. Take advantage of the higher level of exposure. Work at your first publications as long as you can – after all, you owe them everything you’ve achieved thus far.

But there will come a time when you need to part ways with your first partners in publication. You’ll want to dedicate that time and effort to the next tier in order to continue to grow. When you part ways, make sure you do so amicably. There may come a time in the future when you have a piece in need of a home, and you’ll want as many good contacts on your side as possible.

And again, once you’ve put in several months working in the top-tiers of unpaid work, it will be time to move up again, to begin to pitch your pieces to places that pay. This is why everything you’ve made so far has to be the best of the best – in order for a place to shell out money for what you’ve made, you need to have a profile that really shows off what you can do.

The problem that comes with places that pay is that they’re much more choosy. They take on staff writers on a rare basis; mainly, you’ll be freelancing, instead of partnering with a specific venue. This is why you need to master the art of the pitch, why you need to constantly be thinking of new ideas, why you need to develop an incredibly thick skin.

People will say no more often than they say yes, and you need to get used to that. At the same time, you must constantly search out new arenas that pay. Pitch newspapers, pitch high level online publications, pitch places that seem ‘above you.’ The worst they can say is no, but there’s always the chance that they’ll say yes.

And in the meantime, continue to write for free. Why? Because you need to constantly build your portfolio. You need to show that you’re constantly working, you need to continually improve your craft, and you need to leverage the exposure. When you’re writing for prominent places with thousands of readers, you never know who might be paying attention, who might see a piece you’ve written and offer you a job.

One piece I wrote got me an email and a phone call with an impressive literary agent. One piece got me a spot in this publication. And others have inspired many tweets, emails, and messages, all telling me that what I’ve made has touched them, inspired them, or made them feel like they weren’t alone.

At the end of the day, it’s only you, your work, and your audience. Whether you write for money or for exposure, remember that above all. If you can make an impression upon a single reader, a single brand, a single listener, or a single viewer, you’ve really made something.

So keep making. Keep moving. And aim higher next time.

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