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What I learned by working for free for three years

“We have this expression, Christy and I: We don’t wake up for less than $10,000 a day.”

Supermodel Linda Evangelista there, talking to Vogue in 1990 about her and Christy Turlington’s modelling mantra.

When you’re a supermodel, you can make these kinds of decisions based on your earning power, but what about if you’re just starting out?

I worked completely for free for three years (from 2011 – 2014) and none of my friends or family understood why.

Some of those roles included writing fashion columns for magazines, some involved writing short pieces of celebrity gossip  – sometimes filing up to five stories a day, and some included editing other people’s work and making it all fit a house style.

In short, I worked hard, for different publications, across different niches, alongside my University work, all for free.

Do I regret it? Not one bit.

I am entirely convinced that I would never have been hired for any of the paid roles I’ve had since then without the experience from those unpaid roles.

How could I have been hired with no previous experience? How would these larger publications know that I could write if I had no examples?

The smaller publications took a chance on me because they could see I was passionate enough to work for free, and they literally had nothing to lose. If I turned out to be a bad writer, they hadn’t lost a single penny in the process, they would just find someone else to write for them.

But don’t for a second think that this post is going to be all sweetness and light.

 

Here’s the problem: 

Writers should get paid for their work.

Just like plumbers do.

Just like teachers do.

Just like doctors do.

But once things are done online, there’s this idea that the work is somehow easier.

Just because I don’t physically come into your home and fix something, or go into a classroom and talk about something, or go into a surgery and diagnose something, doesn’t mean that work isn’t being done.

The most common line that publications use when asking you to work for free is ‘it will be great exposure.’

Unfortunately exposure doesn’t pay the bills, and sometimes you’re not even allowed to put your name on the article, or the publication on your LinkedIn profile. *sigh*

I spoke to 26-year-old blogger and content editor Steph Royalty about her experiences working for free.

She told me a great story:

“I remember when I first got serious about writing and started actively looking for jobs in the field. I saw a full time opening for a magazine so I applied for it hoping to get that interview call back. The next day they contacted me and asked me to send in three writing samples which I did.

“The day after that they called me for a phone interview, now working for a magazine is my dream job so you can imagine my excitement at this point. Long story short the phone interview went well and they emailed me later that day to tell me that I got the writing job.

“They send me over my contract and the position was virtual which I loved, I was expected to write three articles a day along with other tasks that are expected of the job. I get to the last page and in bold it says there is no compensation for this position.

“Hold the phone! Back up! Wait what??? So you want me to write for you six days out of the week, three articles a day with NO PAY??! This was not a no-name magazine either.

“If you write an amazing article for them that gets 300,000 hits do you know how much money you just put in their pockets? These companies are thriving off of ambitious young writers and I find it highly disturbing that they choose not to pay them.

“I also believe that people who choose to write for these publications for free make it hard on everyone else trying to make a career out of writing. If they have people who will work for free why pay people to do it?”

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So, Phoebe, what should I do to get hired as a writer? 

If you’re struggling to get hired by a large publication because of your lack of experience, there are a few things you can do:

1. Intern at a publication for a wage. Creative Access has some incredible internships for people from different ethnic backgrounds, they are all paid, and are at least a month long so you can really get a taste of how the company works.

2. Set up your own blog and self-publish if no one will publish your work for you – working for yourself for free is way less demoralising than working for someone else for free, and you’re building your own brand.

3. Really study one magazine or online publication and pitch them an idea you think could work for them. Instead of coming up with an article that you want to write first then trying to make it fit multiple publications. Always ask for feedback if they email you saying they won’t be accepting your submission, there could be another reason why you aren’t getting anywhere with them.

 

Is it ever OK to work for free?

Once you’re at a certain level there’s nothing wrong with choosing to work for free somewhere if you’re trying to break into a new industry.

This what I do whenever I want to move into something new:

  1. Learn the basic skills needed
  2. Volunteer somewhere to apply the skills I learned
  3. Build up a respectable portfolio of work and present it somehow online
  4. Apply for a paid role in new field

This is exactly what I did for writing and modelling, and what I’m doing now for radio, oh yes, I still work for free honey, but only with good reason.

What are your thoughts on working for free? Have you had a similar experience to Stephanie? Let me know in the comments.

 

You can now sign up to my email list to receive my free workbook on how to market your content effectively on and offline:

“Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!” – Luke 12:24

One thought on “What I learned by working for free for three years

  1. Jay Colby says:

    I have had similar experiences in writing. A lot of publications want you to write for free which can be problematic when you have bills and responsibilities. So I’m in the process of building up my blog/brand making money from that and doing a few free writing gigs.

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