I have a confession to make, I have written for free.
You might not think that is a big deal, but it is, especially in the creating words industry. The writing industry spans all genres and content types and for some reason people think that it is okay to write for free. I am here as a warning sign to you all who are contemplating doing this very act to not do it!
Trying to get a job as a writer is a mental workout because you are going to read so many job posts that say: Experience Required or even No Unsolicited Work. It can be daunting and quite demoralizing for many, including myself, because through this barrage of negativity there will posts saying: Great Experience For New Writers or Experience That Will Help! These are the vultures that swoop in at the last moment of your trudge through the deserts of job postings and promise water but really they’re going to peck your eyes out; and when they’re done they’ll move on to the next victim.
Writing for free isn’t just bad for you but it is bad for all of the other writers as it sets a precedent that it is okay to work without compensation.
Here is my story:
Coming to the video games industry I really didn’t have a big portfolio. I had been published four times in a car magazine and on a website, but I didn’t have anything for video games specifically. A lot of writers coming to the video games industry want to write the next Uncharted or Fallout or Spec Ops: The Line; but there is a barrier to entry saying you need experience doing this sort of thing.
This kind of information, compounded with a writers sometimes low self-esteem, led me to working for free. I had just been laid off from Blizzard Entertainment and my friends had an indie company that needed a writer. Of course I jumped at the chance of actually working on a video game, because at Blizz I was a Game Master; which is the furthest you could get to working with the developers. If I could get a game under my belt I knew that would elevate me and help me find additional work. The hitch was they couldn’t pay me, I figured the experience is worth it, so I took the gig with a promise of being paid later. I was eventually paid, but for social media and marketing, I wasn’t paid for my writing for Retrovirus.
(Addendum: I want to clarify that my time at Cadenza was very educational. I learned a lot about video games, the industry itself, and how stressful it can be to make a game. I assert that working for free is a bad move in general, and while I wasn’t paid for my work, I worked under a contract saying that I would be paid if the game was profitable; sadly it was not. I could have taken a small check during production but I would have received a smaller percentage of the game sales. If you are given an offer like this, take the money, don’t be me here as I waved the check in favor of a larger percentage of game sales. It was gamble on my part and I wanted to clarify that information in this addendum. 7/25/2014)
I went down this path because I thought it was the only way. I was told by so many writers to not work for free, don’t give it away, because it will only make things harder. I thought they lived in a different era when you could live off of a meager sum of money and write at the same time.
I was a rather naive person at this time.
It is easier to be a working writer now than it has ever been before in the history of writing. I learned this the hard way, and while my self-imposed free labor gave me a leg up, I was hurting my profession.
How does working for free hurt the writing community? It hurt it because I aided in perpetuating a problem that has plagued writing for so long and that is this statement:
I don’t agree with your point of view, and if you don’t like it, tough! I can replace you with fifty fresh college graduates who would kill for this job and they would do it for free!
Knowing that you, a skilled vet, could be tossed to the curb because you disagree with a project director who may know nothing about storytelling is probably one of the most disheartening things that can happen to you. If you think I am over exaggerating, I’m not, this is standard protocol at some studios in the video games industry and other mediums. If your livelihood is threatened over some prose on a page, and you have a family to care for, you learn to shut up and let it slide.
This kind of mentality is how you get bad writing in games because in many circumstances the other alternative is to walk away. You might sit there and think that another writing job will pop up, but it won’t, writing gigs in video games are very hard to find and are highly coveted. The jerk project director in my example is speaking the truth and the truth hurts; but it shouldn’t be this way.
I am looking at writing for free from the perspective of the video games industry, as that is probably the most misunderstood area for writing, but a majority of these thoughts can be applied to almost any medium that involves writing. Once a content developer knows they can lure people in with the promise of exposure it’s game over for those who are trying to make a go at writing as a job. If we continue to do this to ourselves we are going to make the job of writing go extinct because if you can get it for free, why would you ever pay for it?
When people think that writing is easy and anyone can do it, they are right, but a paintbrush does not a painter make. It takes years of dedication to become a professional and to trade away the time, the hours spent, and receive nothing in return is wrong. I urge those new writers who are just starting out to not take jobs that are paying in experience instead of currency. The reason why we take these jobs is due to the fear that we need to do this in order to get the jobs we want. It can lead you there, but in many cases your name will be attached to something that may be known for being terrible; and in the end all we really have is our name and what that name means.
Now that I’ve dispensed with the doom and gloom my next post will talk about how you can get the experience you need to write any field you want.
Thanks for reading,