I’m a full-time freelance writer, which means I’m all too familiar with being asked for free work. And after burning bridges with potential clients, debating with fellow writers, and possibly being guilty of it myself, I think it’s high time someone excavates the concept.
For me, the most common example of free writing work is the ole “unpaid writing test as part of the interview process” routine: someone reaches out with a job opportunity, and in order to be considered, you have to do a handful of tasks that mirror future responsibilities. Often, these will be unfinished tasks they need done, which means that, if we’re being logical, they’ll probably use the work if you’re hired. And I’ve never been retroactively paid for a test project.
I’ve also had clients who paid me for the test project, and the test project was a previous assignment that ensured they wouldn’t be using it, even though it was the paid work. Some clients highly respect your time and skill, others sit happily on the other end of the spectrum.
I’d like to say that, after learning my lesson time and again, I reject opportunities contingent on excess free work, but I don’t. I’ve been just recently suckered into one, and another somewhat recently led to a pretty great gig. I think it’s a case-by-case basis issue, but it’s also undeniably asking for free work.
And it’s also undeniable that if you can’t afford to pay for the test projects, you shouldn’t demand it. Take a leap of faith based on their resume and portfolio, or get your wallet out.
Admittedly, free work test assignments are hard to avoid, especially if you’re just breaking into the freelance writing world, so it’s not recommended that you dwell too much on it. However, we also have downright abhorrent free work practices, the ones that I couldn’t imagine being justifiable at any level.
Upwork clients paying one dollar per 1,000 words (free work for a rating, basically).
Acquaintances or barely-friends pressuring creatives into using their finely tuned skillset for a time-consuming favor.
Directly messaging writers to write for their publication. (Yep, not cross-posting a pre-written article, but directly soliciting an unpaid entry into something that makes them money. It happens more often than you’d think.)
Oh, I’m not done. Freelancer.com has “Contests,” wherein a project is posted and the “winner” (the best piece of content) receives the payment. Some of these contests have hundreds of entrees, and while their victims are normally designers (the writing test of the design world), it’s not uncommon to see writing projects on there as well.
Copywriters, think about it—”I need a headline for my business. And I’ll only pay for the very best one.” This is people’s livelihoods we’re talking about. That’s downright bullshit. Freelancer.com should be ashamed of themselves. That’s worse than anything I’ve seen on Upwork, and I could go all day about my issues with them.
The mere fact that all these free work postings and solicitations even exist and require legwork to sift through is enough to seek paid work elsewhere and keep writing strictly for fun.
Although, like I said, there are plenty of clients out there who respect and appreciate your skillset so much that they show it without having to say it. Money does a lot of talking.
But all this brings me to the real question. The above is undeniable, but what about unsolicited calls for submissions? What about fledgling literary journals or the like who are paying out of pocket to get their work and the work of all those accepted in front of as many eyes as possible? Is simply posting an opportunity for exposure sans payment considered asking for free work?
Not to me. When I was first starting out, I jumped at every chance to submit. I wanted to list as many publishing credits as possible, and simply posting my work on your site was payment enough. It led to being a full-time freelance writer, and gave me the confidence and inspired the drive to continuously seek a creative edge in my free time. Now, I’m at the point where I pay for the opportunity to simply get feedback from industry people in the hopes that other industry people might someday be interested in the piece.
Yes, I make money writing so that I can pay to have my writing analyzed and improved. The more you advance in your writing career, the more expensive exposure becomes.
In the beginning, it’s free—all you have to do is submit and hope you get accepted. And that resource is always there. If all my free-time wasn’t spent screenwriting, I’d still be writing and submitting short stories without paying a dime. Why? For the privilege of exposure, for the betterment of my portfolio, for the need for validation I constantly seek (but is never truly satisfied).
Listen, if you need to be paid for your writing no matter what, I’m with you, and there are tons of paid fiction opportunities. But right alongside them are unpaid opportunities. To me, they’re not asking for free work, they’re offering an intangibly valuable opportunity to anyone who might see the posting.
Disagree? Okay, ask yourself this: why do actors do community theater and musicians play on the street? Do they consider that work, or do they consider it a means of exposure? A creative outlet with the small possibility of being paid for it? Either way, why do writers so commonly think their art demands payment without exception? It’s art when you’re writing a screenplay or a novel manuscript in the hopes it will sell but know it’s a longshot, and it’s “asking for free work” when it’s an independent literary journal or similar medium? Come on.
Further, if not offering any payment for an accepted submission is considered “asking for free work,” is token payment cool with you? If they give you $10, $15, $25, do you consider yourself properly compensated?
Consider this: if a fledgling publication is accepting 15 short stories, and the whole project is being funded out of pocket, token payments can really add up. Plus, all the administrative work, publishing fees, website fees, and marketing. Would you rather that $375 go towards getting your writing out in front of as many eyes as possible and upping the notoriety of the publication itself, or a $25 token payment made purely out of principle, months after you wrote the piece and made the submission? (I know that sounds a bit like a libertarian asking if you’d rather not have a job than be paid less than the minimum wage without health insurance, but if we assume these literary journal editors aren’t sociopaths like all libertarians, the point still stands.)
If you need to be compensated handsomely without exception for your short story, more power to you. Go ahead and submit to The New Yorker. Assuming they even read it after not recognizing your name, they’ll never get back to you. In fact, I’ve heard they could take over a year to respond to an accepted short story. Meanwhile, the rest of us will be pulling our hair out over real-world examples of asking for free work, and the mere idea of it applying to a fledgling literary journal offends us.
Then again, you could easily argue that I don’t consider unpaid acceptance asking for free work simply because I have the other examples to compare it to.
But then again, again, this is the internet, where literally anything can be endlessly argued about. Let’s do it, I’m in—if I catch it in the comments, I’ll go back and forth with ya.