Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The problem with working for free

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When I first started writing, I took any opportunities I could.

First, I interned at a magazine for a high co-op program. Later, I wrote CD reviews for free, got a few poems published in some zines, and started to figure out how to become a freelance writer (and eventually get paid for it).

It made sense at the time because I was trying to build up my portfolio with the hopes of one day going to journalism school. I had a goal attached to it all and I saw it as a short-term solution.

That was in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, when, at least it seemed to me, there was significantly less discussion about working for free. Interning at a media outlet was a rite of passage, a given step towards some kind of journalism job. The internet had not quite bloomed into what we have today. My parents still had a daily newspaper subscription and iPads were still something that we might have only seen on the Jetsons.

Now, internships are becoming more and more suspect as companies of all kinds are being accused of taking advantage of free labour. Outlets like Huffington Post, which boast tremendous readerships, are often the subject of concern for professional writers who are feeling the pinch of non-existing freelance budgets and the ever-increasing pressure to work for free.

As I moved away from freelance work myself over the years, I’ve watched these discussions unfold, particularly between friends who are still in the game. Surprisingly, though, it’s been through my own experience of turning my interest in tarot reading into a full-time profession that I really started to understand the problems that come with working for free.

For years I did free tarot readings for friends. That’s how a lot of tarot readers learn and practice, and it was always a privilege to have the opportunity to read for someone else. I wanted the experience. I was getting something from it just as much as they were, and there was mutual respect between us to begin with because of our friendship.

As I got closer to making a decision about going pro with my readings, I was offered an opportunity to do a trial run with an online tarot network that offers email readings to clients around the world. After six months, I could apply to become part of their roster of readers if I was interested.

The trial run meant I would be giving free readings to people. I could set the number of readings I wanted to do per week and started with two. I was already doing tarot readings at parties and in-person one-on-one, but I didn’t have a lot of experience connecting with clients online. So I decided to try it and see how it went for me.

I lasted a month. The first two clients I had were wonderful. Lovely. But then, something turned. The network offers two different options: Paid readings, or free readings that are given in exchange for feedback. While there is still an exchange either way, I started to notice a level of demand for those free readings I hadn’t experienced before.

Boundaries were set for the clients: Give the readers a week-long turnaround time to respect their schedules, be constructive, etc.

And yet those boundaries didn’t seem to be upheld at all. Requests for free readings were always rushed. People would submit a request and follow up a day later asking where their reading was.

In other cases, the feedback was short, hurried, or MIA altogether. Some people did not even bother to say thank you.

Clearly, I was starting to see that when people invest in something – when they pay for it – they have a much different level of respect for it.

This felt entitled. Because it was free, it was as though people felt they were owed a service: “You’re offering this, you’re saying I can have it, so I want it. Now. Gimme.”

When someone is willing to buy something from you, they are showing that they see value in what you are doing.

If these people really valued tarot readers’ work and what they were doing, they would not be using a free reading network, and taking it all for granted to boot.

So where, I started to wonder, do people place the value of something when it’s offered for free?

There are times when it makes sense to work for free: Volunteering. Taking on a client pro bono because it’s a project you care about. Piloting a workshop or program to figure out the kinks before you start selling spaces. Writing for zines or journals because you love what they do.

But when you start working for free to fill someone else’s need without satisfying any needs of your own, then things get off balance, and when something is just there for the taking, well, some people will take it whether they even want it or need it.

After a month of majorly imbalanced experiences – too few positive opportunities and too many draining ones – I quit the network and decided it wasn’t for me. I could find better, more supportive opportunities that would move me forward.

This applies to writing, too. Or anything you are putting out there. Working for free makes your work look as easy as making a sandwich. It’s as though it’s nothing for you to pull a story out of thin air. It makes it look so simple that you don’t even need money to do it.

Where does our energy go when we continuously put it there with little or no return? It’s very easy in any line of work to get caught up in busy-ness rather than in business.

Professional writers need to be in business, not in busy-ness. Writing for free might work for someone who is building up a portfolio, testing the waters, making contacts, gaining experience. But when a writer is ready to move beyond that, they need to be in business. Otherwise writing is just a hobby.

Sure, there will always be amazing independent magazines and journals and blogs that you might want to be published in that just don’t have the budget can’t pay. But writing for them can be a labour of love, and it’s not the same as writing to help fulfill someone else’s goals.

I do still take opportunities to write without compensation now, but only if they get me really excited and gets me working with people I really want to jam with. The exchange of energy needs to be balanced, just like it does when I am doing tarot.

But I also know what my goals are and I know how much time I can put aside to reaching those goals through a little bit of free work once in a while. It’s different, though, if you are a writer expecting that one day, all of those free articles are going to add up to something else.

It also sends a very clear message that you don’t need or want money. If you are looking to get paid, then you need to seek out paying opportunities.

Don’t move towards the opposite of what you want. Know how every opportunity is going to keep you moving forward.

What are you getting out of it? Are you at least having fun? That’s something. That can be a valid exchange of energy on its own, if it’s what you need.

But if you are writing for free expecting to make money out of a vacuum, well, I have to tell you that a vacuum’s job is to suck up whatever is front of it.

Whether that vacuum is simply helping you clear a pathway to an attainable, reasonable goal, or whether it’s sucking your energy away in the process, is something that only you can decide for yourself.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Liz Worth

Liz Worth is a Toronto-based author. Her first book, Treat Me Like Dirt: An Oral History of Punk in Toronto and Beyond, was the first to give an in-depth account of Toronto’s early punk scene. She has also released a poetry collection called Amphetamine Heart and a novel called PostApoc. You can reach her at, on Facebook or Twitter.

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Go to Liz Worth’s Author Page