Should you ever work for free?

Should you ever work for free? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately. In theory, the answer is no. If you’re doing work, you deserve to be paid for it. But in practice, the answer isn’t as clear.

As I’m sure many of you already know, I’m a writer. If you didn’t know that, I’m impressed, because that’s kind of my whole thing. Anyway, I’m a writer. I write things. I usually get paid to write things, but sometimes I don’t, and I think that’s okay in certain situations.

I don’t get paid to write these blog posts or any of my short stories (at least not as of right now). I write them because I want to and because I believe doing so is making me a better writer. However, if a company (that isn’t a charity) were to ask me to write this exact same blog post for publication without paying me, I wouldn’t accept, and here’s why:

I may not get paid for all of the writing I do, but no one else is making money off the content I’m not getting paid for. And that’s the most important question you should ask yourself if you are considering doing anything for free. Of course, there are obvious exceptions, but it’s a good rule of thumb. Doing work for a charity or for someone you love for free is worth it, but you should make sure you’re actually enjoying it and not getting taken advantage of.

But when you’re not doing work out of the goodness of your heart, you need to ask yourself: Is anyone directly making money off of this work? If I give a publication content for free (or as they like to say “exposure”), they are making money off my work, and I should be getting a cut — even a small one — of that money. Whether they’re making money from subscriptions, marketing, ad revenue, or if someone is paying money to have my writing specifically, I demand to get paid for that.

And it’s possible I will ask for money, and the company will say no, but that means they won’t get my work. Which is a hard thing to stick to. There is a lot of self-doubt that comes with writing and art, creating anything, really. Sometimes you feel like you aren’t good enough to get paid for you’re work, but believe me, and every other writer out there, you should be getting paid. If someone wants your work, even if it’s just one publication, they want it because they see the value in it and you should get paid for it.

Not getting paid for work that you’ve put a lot of time and energy into is not only insulting to you, but it also devalues the work of other people out there who are trying to pursue a career in that field. I’ve talked to people before who like to write in their free time, which is awesome. They are the kind of people who have a day job in a completely different field and enjoy it, but when they come home from work, or for a few hours on the weekend, they’ll write. So, when someone wants to publish their work, they don’t depend on that money, because they already have a job.

But people like this should demand payment just as vehemently as the people who are doing it for a living. Because giving away your work for free, is telling that company or publication that people will continue to give them work, and they can continue not paying their writers or contributors. Places like the Huffington Post make tons of money, but don’t pay a single one of their contributors, because they know there are plenty of people who want to be associated with their website.

If someone is making money off your work, you (and every other writer out there) deserves to get some kind of payment for it. This could be through trading, getting a service, or in money. But please, please, please, get something. You absolutely deserve it.

That’s not to say that you should do everything with the expectation of getting paid, because that’s not realistic or healthy. By all means, have hobbies that you enjoy and don’t monetize them (unless you really want to). Doing something you like is a wonderful feeling and we need more things in our lives that are removed from our working lives.

You should also be practicing. Writing short stories, creating sketches, doing the things that will make you better at your hobby or profession. And if you think people will enjoy what you’ve made, you can give it to them for free, if you’d like. I crochet a lot and I don’t always think there’s a market to sell something, but the simple act of creating it or trying out a new stitch is benefiting me, even if I’m not getting paid for it.

If I crochet something and give it to my friend for free, that’s fine, because they’re enjoying it and not making any money off of it. But if they took that scarf or hat or whatever it was and sold it on eBay, that would suck. So, if you knew they (or a company) is going to do that, don’t give them your work. The same goes for writing and art. If a friend wants to read it for free, or if you want to post it on your website, by all means do it. But the second that someone else is benefiting off of your work, is the second you should stop working for free.

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