Should you work for free?: a quick Q&A guide
By now, you’ve probably seen this handy flowchart by Jessica Hische, answering that age old question plaguing creative types: should you, or should you not, work for sans renumeration? I’ve written on this subject before, specifically in relation to large media companies that try to save money by not paying for online content, but following debate on Twitter this week, I thought it was worth returning to it.
Should you work for free… if you’re still learning your craft?
Well, you don’t have to - Linda at The Renegade Writer often asserts that even beginning writers can get paid - but it’s often not a bad idea. Just choose who you do it for carefully. I wrote sans pay for three years before it even occurred to me to start sending my work to paying publications. I was cool with it, and still am, because I was writing for student publications and indie websites. Those three years of writing and editing also improved my writing abilities dramatically. And honestly, while it wasn’t terrible, my work probably wasn’t good enough to sell until around six months before I started selling it.
Should you work for free… if you’re doing someone a favour/it’s for a good cause?
Maybe. It depends on how happy you are to do the favour. Will be it be fun? Will it require huge amounts of time and energy? Is it a gift for someone you care about, or contributing to a cause you believe in? Will be it be fulfilling in some way?
Should you work for free… if the person you’re working for genuinely can’t afford to pay you?
How broke are they? Are we talking a totally volunteer run operation, or someone who could probably scrounge up the cash if they really wanted to, but would prefer not to? Not saying you should do it for the latter group, but if you do, consider it a “favour” or “gift”.
Should you work for free… if you just really love the project and don’t mind being paid?
Yeah, sure. I do it. This only really works if you genuinely love the project, though. Otherwise you might start to feel resentful, burnt out and realise that, actually, you do kind of mind not being paid.
And the biggie… Should you work for free… because it will be really, really good “exposure”?
It depends what you mean by “exposure”. My advocate/activist friends tend to write for free regardless of the outlet they’re writing for, because for them, exposure is about building the public’s awareness of the issue they’re advocating for. And it works for them. If you want to make your creative endeavour your profession though, and are hoping working without pay will open the door for you, I’m not so convinced about the payoff. In my industry, at least, mastheads tend to operate as a kind of symbolic capital. In other words, if you write for the New Yorker, everyone will answer your calls, but telling someone you write for [insert name of publication everyone in the industry knows doesn’t pay] doesn’t have the same effect. There are some exceptions here, though: for example, if you write for a publication (including your own blog) the editor loves. Or if the work you did for free was just really that good.
What about you? Fellow creatives, what are your rules when it comes to unpaid work?