By Andrea Calabretta
As I writer at the beginning of my career, I once got a job offer by email from the managing editor of an online literary magazine. It read: “We really like the work you’ve published with us and were wondering if you’d be interested in coming onboard as our nonfiction editor.”
My heart gave a little leap. Of course I was interested, and I was so very flattered. I wrote back in the affirmative.
After a couple more enthusiastic email exchanges, the managing editor dropped a bomb. “Unfortunately we can’t pay you at this time,” the editor wrote.
I felt as though the rug had been pulled out beneath me. At the time, I was working a part-time job and freelancing as much as possible to support myself. Now, I was looking at spending additional hours each week volunteering.
My writer friends discouraged me, saying I shouldn’t give away my talents, and the advice I found online said that working for free undervalues the whole profession. I was torn. I certainly didn’t want to contribute to undervaluing my fellow writer, yet I really wanted to do this job. As I’d been drawn into more high-paying assignments in marketing and development, I had left behind a certain amount of creativity. I missed the days of grad school, when I was regularly in dialogue with other writers in my program about their work. I liked the idea of taking a break from some of my more mundane endeavors each week to read stories and help make them better. So I decided to try it out: I would give it six months.
Since then, there have been other instances when I’ve been asked to work for free, and I have mostly declined them. At a certain point, I became too busy with paid work to even consider doing something for nothing, but I still wouldn’t say that all unpaid work is worthless. For a writer starting out, achieving the milestone of a first published clip can be just as valuable as a token payment for said clip. Building a portfolio of work, paid or unpaid, can be the first step toward winning new assignments and making a living wage as a writer.
When considering whether to work for free, ask yourself these questions:
- Will this gig be of value to me beyond the (lack of) pay?
- Will it allow me to take a creative risk or do something I wouldn’t otherwise get to do in my professional life?
- Does it have networking or other opportunities that might lead to something more lucrative or compelling in the future?
- Would another company/organization/outlet pay me for this same work?
- Can I afford to spend X hours doing something that does not contribute to my income?
- How does this gig support my professional goals?
As it turned out, I didn’t volunteer at the literary magazine for long. I was soon offered a job teaching writing that satisfied the same creative urge and paid me for my efforts. But I never regretted my time at the literary magazine, nor the opportunities it offered to hone my editing skills and meet interesting people.