In 2005, when I was 22 and googling “how to be a writer” from my musty apartment in Cedar Rapids, the internet seemed to be in agreement: I would have to work for free. Literary magazines and websites were all willing to take my words, but not willing to pay for them. The argument was that the more you were published, the more you were seen and it would lead to better publications. Payment in exposure. Other writers assured me: This is the game. You build up a portfolio, then you get paid.
So, I wrote and wrote. Sometimes getting $50 here or there. Most often getting nothing. I got nowhere. Turns out, writing for sites that don’t pay, or pay just a little, doesn’t really impress anyone. Finally, I decided if I was going to write for free, I’d do it for myself. I restarted the blog I had in college and got to work.
Requests for free labor are endemic to any field, especially if you are a woman. After all, our entire society is built on the uncompensated labor of women to maintain homes and birth a sizable tax base.
It’s also a way of shoring up privilege. Unpaid internships are uncompensated labor in exchange for the promise of experience and a future job. But all too often, the people who have the ability to take those positions are the ones who need them the least. Data shows that internships are less likely to be held by people of color, further widening the opportunity and income gap.
But just telling people “Don’t work for free” misses the realities of opportunity and access in America. I created a writing career outside of a major metropolitan area. It wasn’t easy. Often, I flew to New York for trips on my own dime to meet with editors and establish relationships with other writers. I appeared on panels and did speaking engagements, all uncompensated, just for the chance at networking. I even worked for two years as an unpaid editor for a literary magazine, before transitioning to a (poorly) paid position, just for the opportunities the job provided. And it did give me opportunities. I met people and did work that I am relentlessly proud of. But it wasn’t work I could sustain as a single mom.
It’s a juggling act. When you are on the outside, trying to get in, it feels like a balancing act of how much you can do for the experience with how much you can afford to do based on the dwindling numbers in your bank account. A lot of my unpaid work was subsidized by ghost writing projects, where I wrote unbylined marketing copy and op-eds for companies and major websites. But I could only do that for so long.
I do wish it hadn’t taken me so long to learn that if I’m going to do uncompensated work, I should do it for myself. That work and that effort of building a network is never wasted, but the best networking tool is doing good work.
The best pay off I’ve ever received for work was this year, when I sold a book that was based largely on essays and chapters I was working on for years. I wrote them at night and rewrote them over and over. It was an idea I was obsessed with since 2005 and it took me until 2021 to sell the idea. I think about this often now, when people reach out to me for assignments. I have my own newsletter and honestly, if an outlet is going to pay me $200 to write an op-ed, why not just put that effort into myself and build a network and an audience that will pay-off over time. I’m playing the long game for my own career and we all should.
It’s never an exact formula. I do take less for stories that I feel passionate about or ones that I know need a broader audience. And as a friend reminded me once, “Volunteering and giving back to others is essential work too, even if it’s uncompensated.” But at some point, you have to focus on the work itself. And now I judge all work by a loose rubric, which is…if I did this work for myself would it benefit me more than if I do this work for someone else? If the answer is yes to that question, it’s no to the other person.