More thoughts on freelance writing and “writing for exposure”

Earlier yesterday, I wrote a series of tweets about why online journalism’s push for writers to work “for exposure” is terrible and the reality of what life is like for someone who does it. (Thread starts here.)

Here are some more  (bitter) thoughts.

There’s something so very upsetting about the idea of online journalists (amateurs, newbies, and professionals alike) working “for exposure” as a rite of passage with no token payment or help with getting further along in their writing career.

Writing for exposure means that you get to spend hours, days, and even weeks of your time working to put out an article or essay that you aren’t getting paid for. This work comes on top of your day job or your education and can in fact take time away from things that bring you the money that you need to live off of.

And I think it’s wrong that journalism as an industry has conflated “earning your due” with “working for free”. Now it seems that freelancers that don’t want to or can’t write for free are “lazy”. They’re seen as trying to get over the established idea of building your brand and then building your bank account.

But here’s the thing:

When you work for exposure, the companies you’re writing for or that you want to write for aren’t seeing that you deserve to be paid for your writing. They’re not. What they’re seeing is someone that they don’t have to pay to create content for them and they won’t pay you unless they absolutely have to.

I’ve been doing serious freelance writing for a year and a half. I have never been paid for anything I’ve written in terms of nonfiction. In fact, I made more money from writing fan fiction and the single piece of fiction I sold in 2015 than I did for any outlets I wrote for.

Think about that. I spent half a year writing about James Bond and nothing ever came about it that put money in my pocket. No paid job opportunities or editors looking for a Bond essayist came running. My social media following didn’t leap and, once I created a Patreon for my writing, I didn’t magically gain subscribers due to the so-called exposure I got from writing for free for half a year.

In fact, I did apply to at least two different book and comic sites that paid their writers and I got rejected (or at least, my application was ignored) so the exposure of writing for free for a popular site didn’t help me in that department.

The exposure I got from writing over two dozen James Bond articles dried up the second my recap for Skyfall was sent in to my editor. I wasn’t even asked to do something for Spectre which was you know… a bit surprising considering that my original article pitch centered around doing the Bond recap in order to get readers hyped for the movie.

No one came to me looking for essays. No one came to me asking to work for them. There were no job or blogging opportunities that came from it. I finished my last recap and then got to fade away into obscurity.

Mind you, I did get accepted to two different sites that don’t pay their writers. One of which I knew from the start didn’t pay and that I was doing this on a purely volunteer basis. The other… not so much. In fact, I assumed that they paid up until I sent in my first post and well… didn’t get paid.

And the culture of online journalism (especially in nerdy/culture spaces) doesn’t allow us to ask about this, it doesn’t make it easy to communicate with the people we want to write for because asking for and needing money is portrayed so negatively.

I’m pointing this out, not because I’m mad at these sites I’ve written for specifically (though I am bitter about TMS), but because I’m mad at an industry that essentially refuses to pay the people that work for them as contributors because other people will always be there to work for free.

Because we’re fans and fans are always so very happy to work for free –

Or so the story goes.

How many culture/nerdy sites actually pay their contributors? How many more of them don’t even bother with a token payment or cute site swag?

And here’s the thing: most of these sites don’t say that they don’t pay their contributors up front. You hear about it after you’ve pitched and you’ve gotten yourself all hyped up and then, what can you do?

Because we’ve been told that wanting to be paid and getting mad that you’re not makes you look greedy and it makes you look money-hungry.

As writers and creators, especially new ones, you have to worry about being labeled “trouble” or “disruptive” because you just want to be able to pay your phone bill after turning in an article. You have to worry that the person you’ve pitched is going to be snarky to you, that you’re burning bridges by asking “hey, will I be getting paid for this” after you’ve pitched.

The industry makes it so difficult for creators to ask for what they’re due and that’s so messed up because there’s now an environment that exists where writers are afraid to open their mouths to ask for money for hard work they’ve done because they fear being labeled.

The sites we’re writing for don’t help either. Let’s be real here. They misrepresent themselves by putting up tweets and blog posts asking for pitches or letting people know that they’re hiring.

Except they’re not.

Because hiring implies getting paid and that’s not happening.

What is happening, at least in my experience, is that you wind up writing a ton of content for little to no reward. You wind up killing yourself to meet impossible deadlines or stressing over meeting a reasonable one because you have a job or school or work and you are putting so much of yourself into something you’re not being paid for.

Freelancers can’t live on exposure alone. Seriously. If we try, we starve. We run out of money. We have to ask for donations and handouts because it’s the only way to support ourselves since our “job” isn’t helping.

Just because I love talking about social justice or James Bond or Batman, that doesn’t mean I don’t want to be paid for it. My newness to freelancing doesn’t mean that I don’t deserve to get paid either.

Sure, my rates as a newbie might not be as high as a writer with dozens of actual published books under their belt, but I still have one. I’m not trying to jump a line by asking to be paid, I’m trying to live.

I’m capable of marketing myself and working hard, but if I’m working for you or your site as a freelancer, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t get tossed even a token payment.

Seriously, I can write “for exposure” just fine on my own blog.


One thought on “More thoughts on freelance writing and “writing for exposure”

  1. I’ve been a freelance writer for almost 10 years (I’m a newspaper theater reviewer and occasional feature writer, cover startups for a tech publication, write marketing blogs for a couple of businesses, and land the occasional copywriting project), and I’ve given up on writing for other people’s culture/nerd sites. The pay is so shitty, and I get more satisfaction out of writing whatever I want whenever I want on my diversehighfantasy blog (my commentary there gets a lot more exposure and engagement too). Of course, that means I have to write unglamorous marketing blogs during my self-set work hours. But for about 10x the pay of a nerd culture article, it’s worth it, and makes putting time into my own blog possible.

    I’ve gotten free con tickets, free books and products, interview hookups, etc from unpaid/low-paid freelancing when I was in a position where I could not have gotten most of those perks on my own, but still, it’s not a living. Writing “for exposure” has only really benefitted me once, and I wasn’t actually writing for the exposure — I started covering plays for a local arts blog unpaid because I couldn’t afford to go to the theater as often as I wanted to, and writing reviews meant free access. That did lead to a paying newspaper gig. But again, even though it pays better, people think that’s my living, when it’s about 1/5 of what I do as a freelance writer.

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