Working for crumbs

When looking for new work projects, I’m constantly amazed, actually, shocked, at how little people are prepared to pay freelance copywriters for their work, if they’re even prepared to pay them at all.

All too often I have replied to adverts looking for “experienced writers”, only for it to eventually transpire that the work is unpaid. “You’ll get great exposure”, they say, or “it’ll be great for your portfolio”. But what they fail to understand is that as an experienced writer, you already have a portfolio, of work you’ve actually been paid for. And having your work “exposed” on a site which is notorious for not paying its writers, is almost worse than having no exposure at all.

plate of custard creamsThe final straw, which prompted me to write this post, was an advert I saw recently for a “Blogging, Copywriting and Social Media Intern Position”. The ad started by saying: “I’m afraid I must begin by saying this isn’t paid, but there are still great opportunities to be had”. It then went on to list these, which included “working on some pretty exciting projects” and having a “large portion of creative freedom”. Certainly nothing that would be enough to compensate for the fact that YOU HAVE NO MONEY! Until, that is, its closing gambit of, wait for it… “Sometimes there are biscuits also”. Oh, ok then, you’ve got me.

Biscuits? Seriously?! Is that what helping to boost your business by attracting more traffic to your site is worth? Biscuits? Sometimes!

Obviously it depends on the type of biscuits on offer. If it’s Tesco Value Custard Creams you’re on about, forget it. If it’s Sainsbury’s Taste The Difference White Chocolate and Raspberry Cookies, on the other hand, then we’re talking.

In all seriousness though, it’s well documented that companies spend a fortune on building websites, advertising, and it seems, biscuits, but are reluctant to pay for the content that will actually bring people to their site and sell their product.

The problem is that there are people out there who will write for free, and that is how this culture of not paying, or underpaying writers has been allowed to develop. Sadly this not only devalues the individual writers, but the profession itself, and ultimately means that no one ends up being paid what their work is worth.

biscuit crumbsFor those just starting out, writing for free can seem like the only way to break into what is a competitive industry. However, truth be told, the chances of a company which asks you to work for free ever remunerating you satisfactorily, are slim. Once you’ve tired of being taken advantage of, they’ll just employ another poor sucker who also believes that it might lead somewhere. And the reality is that all your hard work probably will be for nothing anyway, as a company that scrimps in such crucial areas is not likely to go far, so it probably won’t even look all that great in your portfolio.

What makes the situation even sadder is the irony that by working for free, these interns are only perpetuating the culture of paying writers a pittance, and this will ultimately make it even more difficult for them to make a living from writing in the long term.

It is true that the notion of payment in this business can be a grey area and there are times when it’s ok to work without financial compensation. Having an article published on a respected website or publication, for example, can be payment enough as it actually may help to advance your career and will look good in your portfolio. Not to mention the sense of satisfaction of seeing your work alongside that of those you revere. Reciprocal arrangements can also work well in this business. Working in the hope that you might, might, get a biscuit with your coffee, however, does not.

I understand that small start up companies don’t have much budget to play with – we’ve all been there – but to reward someone for their work with little more than biscuits, if they’re lucky, strikes me as the ultimate piss take. You wouldn’t expect someone to build a website for you for free, I hope. So why would you expect the person who fills it with the content that will ultimately drive business forward, and without which it is useless, to do it for free? The answer is that you shouldn’t.

Unfortunately, as long as there are writers out there who are prepared to work for crumbs, there will always be clients who’ll take advantage of that. The only way to change the culture is to refuse to work for less that your going rate. No matter how much you like biscuits!

Over to you…

Do you think it’s ever acceptable to expect someone to work for free? Please leave a comment below. I’d love to hear your views.

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6 responses to “Working for crumbs

  1. No, not at all. I’m so tired of the same thing – this expectation that we should want to provide our creative work for nothing. I’ve had emails asking for photo usage with a release form attached as if I’m just going to sign my work away for nothing. And then when you ask about the budget, it all goes quiet…

  2. I know exactly what you’re talking about. It’s actually pretty sad just how undervalued copy writing becomes when you’ve got writers willing to work for a penny per word.

  3. It’s perennial problem. As you say, you’d never ask a website designer to do it for free, yet the content of the website is far more important than the framework.

  4. Amen…sick of it. And it’s even worse if you work in niche markets!

  5. Hi there- i’ve had a very similar problem and it seems i am both guilty of it and a victim of if. I’ve written about it here: http://katydartford.com/2013/10/18/chamonix-giving-up-on-the-dream/ really good to read your thoughts and seeing that we are in a similar boat. although i think i need to promote my copywriting more now!

    • Hi Katy, sorry to hear about the position with the radio station in Chamonix. That kind of situation is so frustrating. I hope it all turned out ok though and that you didn’t have to leave Cham.

      I think we’ve all been “guilty” of working for free when starting out and it’s only a bit further down the line that you appreciate the repercussions.

      I had a look at your site and couldn’t help noticing that you’ve copied some of my website content for your copywriting page. While I’ve got nothing against you using my site as a guide, we’ll both be penalised by the search engines for having duplicated copy. Also, in such a small industry it probably won’t go unnoticed, which isn’t great if we’re claiming to write original and effective copy!

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