Practical things you can do as a writer working for free

I’ve had countless discussions with friends and followers recently about the issues surrounding working for free as a writer, creative or influencer.

Creatives are the only professionals (that I know of) who work for free – nurses wouldn’t, teachers wouldn’t and politicians certainly wouldn’t.

It is incredibly frustrating.

In 2012 the Guardian wrote an article about the industry expectation of writers working for free and eight years later we’re no further forward.

It’s not that much better for experienced creatives either at the moment, when jobs are scare. When I spoke with Christina Patterson (here) she said that despite writing for the Guardian for six years, not all of her pitches now even receive a response. Despite not wanting to write for free, Christina said she had to embrace it.

As young people, I think it’s common to tell ourselves that working for free is just part of getting into the creative industry. It’s the paradox of not being able to get a creative job without experience, but also not being able to get professional experience without a job.

So as a graduate or twenty-something we’re writing, designing and creating content for (in some cases) big wealthy companies for free.

The only benefit for us is that we receive free exposure and then can add the finished piece to our portfolio. Apart from that, we gain nothing.

With work experience, at least you’d get an insight into the industry or receive feedback from a mentor. And also, you expect to be working for free on work experience.

Whereas after you’ve created something for a brand or publisher, you’re still sat at home none the wiser about how to get into the industry that you want to be. You just have one more piece in your portfolio to share whenever a job opportunity arises.

I don’t know at what point it became the ‘norm’ to not pay creatives for their work, but it needs to change.

Practical things you can do as a creative working for free:

Educate yourself about your industry

Learn as much as humanly possible about the creative industry you want to be in. If you can’t find the information anywhere online then direct message or email people and politely ask them about it.

For instance: “Hey Sarah, I saw that you recently worked with x, I hope you don’t mind me asking but was that a gifted or paid campaign? And did you approach the brand or did they approach you? I’m quite a new content creator and wondered how brand collaborations work.”

I’ve done this before to find out if my counterparts are being paid for work when I’m being gifted it, as you just never know. 

Also, it’s so important to be vigilant with the information that you have, both for yourself and for others. Vix has written a great post here about how to ask about a brand’s diversity and inclusion, as well as the issues of gifting. It’s an important step to add to your collaboration process, if you don’t already.

Evaluate the pro’s and con’s of the opportunity working for free gives you

Does this job offer you something that you want?

As a writer, is this a magazine you’ve been dying to write for? Is it more important to you (at this point in your career) to write for them and have it in your portfolio than being paid for it?

As a creator, is this a brand you absolutely love and you would probably talk about their products on your channels without it being gifted? If so, then the fact it’s gifted is essentially a little bonus for you, but does that outweigh the time and effort you’ve spent on creating content for them?

As an artist, illustrator or designer, is this a brand or publication that you’ve wanted to design for, forever? Are you happy about creating a piece of art for free to support the business and grow your portfolio?

Weigh up the pros and cons FOR YOU in this moment in your career.  

EXAMPLE: I have done gifted work with Mapiful before because I love their prints and had been dying to get one, so having the print gifted was worth creating content for as I was going to buy the product myself.

EXAMPLE: I blog for Sue Ryder for free, because I want to actively support Sue Ryder however I can, and writing plays to my strengths. It’s also great experience for me. 

EXAMPLE: When I work with small brands that I like I sometimes buy their products at a discount or at full price to create content for simply as I want to support their business.

Say no more often 

For influencer and gifted work especially, I say no far more often to collaborations than I say yes and I’m happy with that.

Get comfortable declining work that isn’t a priority for you or that doesn’t tick all the boxes for your platform or your dream. My dream isn’t to design shoes, so I have declined a few shoe collaborations as it wouldn’t help me get to where I want to be.

Be selective 

Once you’ve weighed everything up and eliminated the hard no’s, then be selective about what you agree to. You want to grow your portfolio or be paid for work, but are these opportunities right for you? Is it with the kind of brand or publisher that would be a dream to work for?

Grow & Glow (an excellent platform for creators) reiterates the importance of having a niche on your platforms as a niche gives you a bit more focus to what you’re creating. Also, if you have a niche then it’s easier for brands and publishers to see what kind of topics you already discuss or create art based on, as well as your style.

Get a blog

My top tip for any creative, and I cannot stress this enough, is to get a website with a blog. It doesn’t matter if you only write a few times a month, the main thing is you have a website that anyone can find online.

It shows more about your creative personality to an employer than a LinkedIn profile and reaches a wider audience than your social media. You also just don’t know who is going to read it and what opportunities that will open for you and that is INCREDIBLY exciting.

Ask about budget 

We don’t often talk about money, but when it comes to your creative career ask the brand, business or publisher if they have a budget for your work.

The worse thing they will say is: “We don’t have any budget for this at this time.” But you’ve lost nothing by asking.

Consistency has a great template in their e-book on approaching brands about collaborations.

Keep track of your own expenditure

All creatives rely on materials and software to do their work.

For influencers that could be a tripod, camera, editing software and presets. Then there’s the time spent on creating content for a gifted product.

I personally think it’s important to keep track of how much you’re investing into your personal brand, business or portfolio. I do believe that investing in yourself is essential as a creator, but how much are you getting back from that investment?

Keeping a note or even creating a spreadsheet to track your income, time spent on the project and outgoings is a great first step to identifying where you want to place your energy and time and what is bringing in the most profit to you. Not everything is measured in money, your time is equally important, as is personal development, growing a portfolio or growing your platforms. But it’s about finding the balance that you’re happy with between working for free and being paid for your work.

Create a media kit

Regardless of whether you’ve been asked about a media kit before, every creative should create one. Then you can pitch to publishers, businesses or brands and attach your media kit with snippets of your previous work, as well as prices.

Canva has loads of templates for media kits, so that might be a good place to start.

Accept that sometimes you work for free 

This might sound slightly contradictory, but I do write for certain magazines for free, as I’m currently happy with the free exposure it gives me and it doesn’t take up that much of my time. Will I feel like that in six months time? Maybe not.

I also blog three times a week, for free, because I love writing, it’s a great outlet for me and it also grows my personal site. For me blogging has more pro’s than con’s, so I continue to do it for free.

Don’t settle for creating your art for free, but do be adaptable and open to the fact that sometimes a great opportunity might initially require you working for free.

How do you feel about working for free as a writer, creative or influencer?

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  • Hannah says:

    With regards to ‘influencers’, I think that often you do need to effectively work for free to build an audience before you can expect to get paid for promotions. No company is going to pay you to promote a product if you do not have an audience to promote it to. But when you have an audience of a certain size, I think that you should be pushing to be paid for promoting their product, just as you would get paid with any other job.
    I personally would always want to pay my friends if they did work for me. By not paying them, it makes it seem as if I don’t value their skills, training and time and that is not the case at all.

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