Shop Talk: A Few Words On Writing For Free

Don’t. Even if you’re just getting started out in the freelance world, your time and energy are worth something. The prospect of having your work published, particularly if you’ve yet to sip from those glistening waters, can do crazy things to a new writer. It’s tempting to jump at any opportunity to have your work picked up by a publication – even a small one – regardless of whether you’re getting paid for it or not. Seeing your byline on a published article for the first time is exciting stuff. Period. The problem is the vast majority of websites in the video game world that actually take the time to publicly cast out nets to attract freelancers don’t want to pay you for your work. They’re looking to take advantage of your fine ability to churn out words in an intelligent and thoughtful manner by corrupting you and bending you to their own dark aims. Don’t let them.

Let’s try an exercise. Open up a Google search and type in something like “seeking freelance video game writer” or “freelance game journalists wanted.” Surprise! You were just inundated with an abundance of gaming-related websites seeking new writers, correct? Suddenly it’s not so hard to become a freelance game journalist. Holy hell, it’s time to celebrate! Woo! Hold on. Don’t crack open the beers yet. Spend a few hours poring over these websites, and you’ll soon find that they all have something in common. They want you to string words together about your favorite video games, lots of words in fact, but they don’t plan on paying you for them.

There are many words in a serious freelancer’s vocabulary, but “volunteer” shouldn’t be one of them. Slinging thousands of words month after month to fill some lame site’s coffers with steady content so they can generate meager web traffic and benefit off the ad revenues without kicking you some green for your troubles is not worth your time. Some of these sites are pretty damn ballsy in what they’re asking for too. No, they don’t want just any warm body to slap some thoughts together about the latest Mario game or button masher X. They’re looking for “experienced gamers” with “knowledge of the industry” and “sharp writing skills.” They want folks willing to crank out several pieces a week, provide a steady supply of hot traffic-generating ideas, and help drive new viewers to the site. Do that for them, and what do you get in return? Not much.

Pocket Full of Empty Promises

Like the best snake oil salesman around, volunteer gaming sites offer a lot of lofty promises. First and foremost, they prey on your burning desire to get published. “You’ll have your work read by scores of fellow gamers, just like yourself,” they might proclaim. What they neglect to mention is that they get less web traffic than your average personal blog and will probably evaporate in a couple of years when the site owners get sick of being broke. Anyone can say their generic, poorly-named gaming website is “rapidly growing” and “one of the top” gaming publications around. Do they have the proof to back it up? Didn’t think so.

When ego stroking isn’t quite enough to seal the deal, the promise of “occasional” free games is often the next carrot dangled in front of the gig-hungry freelancer-to-be. If you’re not making green, might as well be getting some free stuff, right? PR firms have a limited quantity of review copies to distribute for each title they’re pimping out, and you can bet your biscuits that the bigger sites get first dibs. Anything leftover gets distributed to the medium-size outlets next. If there are scraps leftover, smaller volunteer sites may get a few morsels to chew on, but it’s more likely they’ll land copies of Barbie Horse Trainer 6 before they’ll wind up with Awesome AAA Mega-Hit Shooter. In the rare instances they do manage to nab review copies of big titles, you can be sure the site’s editors, who are probably not getting paid for their time either, will call first dibs. So yeah, free games? Not so much.

If getting your work published and scoring free games isn’t enticing enough, there’s always the good old “we might pay you someday” trick. It’s insidious, to say the least. You’ll be fed up and long gone before that happens, so don’t even bother. If I had buck for every time I ran across a volunteer sight that promised the vague possibility of payment sometime in the very distant, nebulous future when “things get off the ground,” I’d be sitting on a foreign beach sipping fancy inebriating beverages I couldn’t pronounce.

Yes! Awesome! Oh wait, Eff That!

What’s even more infuriating for the budding freelancer than coming across site-after-site that’s blatant about it’s unwillingness to pay you for your work is finally uncovering one that seems like it might pay…but doesn’t. At the very start of my freelance writing career in the gaming realm, I spent hours a day scouring the Internet in vain for any sign of a possible paying gig. I searched for anything that would let me write about games and get paid actual human money to do so. What I found was depressing.

For every few dozen sites I found seeking volunteer writers, I’d encounter a few that actually seemed to be legit paying outlets. The fact these outlets didn’t explicitly state they were seeking unpaid writers gave me false hope. But if something smells fishy, it probably is. It’s not a good sign when editors are hesitant to broach the subject of payment after you’ve been communicating back and forth for an hour or more. I recall many IM conversations and e-mails that ate up hours of my time only to end with the editor on the other end offering me the gig but waiting to the last possible second to inform me that they can’t pay me. Thanks for wasting my time, jackasses. But shaking trees and kicking rocks long enough eventually led to some gigs that did pay. From there, all it took was a lot of effort, some serious determination, and patience, and I eventually found some decent starter gigs that  pay decently and worked my way up from there.

Here’s a secret: almost all of the major print and online gaming publications rely on freelancers to pick up reviews, tackle features, conduct previews, and keep good ideas flowing. There are simply far too many games out there for editors and staffers to tackle all of them, and it’s the freelancers who often get tapped to pick up the slack. A reliable stringer who can knock out assignments on short notice and provide clean, well-written copy is an editor’s best friend. Be that person, and you’ll enjoy an influx of steady work. However, you have to get on their radar first. “How in the hell am I supposed to do that?” you say? That’s a story for another day.

Want to read more Shop Talk? Why not scope out the archive for past installments!

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5 thoughts on “Shop Talk: A Few Words On Writing For Free

  1. I agree wholeheartedly that you shouldn’t write for free…but with the caveat “if you’re ready.” It’s all well and good for an experienced newspaperman like Nathan saying that your work is worth payment, but some people’s work is not worth payment.

    I started doing this when I was maybe 20 years old. First year of journalism school. Never wrote anything else in my life besides essays. When I look back on my old work, it’s not utterly terrible, but I’m glad I didn’t approach magazine editors with it. I needed a couple years in the farm leagues (volunteer sites) to hone my writing, build up ideas, develop a style, and understand the industry (both gaming and publishing) better.

    I would simply urge writers to be honest with themselves about their skill level. If you think you’re ready. Stop writing for free. This INSTANT. Nobody is ever going to notice your work if you keep working on low profile sites. Put all of your energy into networking and developing ideas. Not some tiny site’s news regurgitation.

    You should work for free if you need it, but make sure you’re working a job that benefits you. Find yourself an editor who will work with you and make your writing better. And the second that job isn’t benefitting you: leave. You don’t owe them anything. I worked for free and it was a good choice. My only mistake was lingering too long and wasting time.

  2. Thanks for weighing in! Additional perspectives are always welcome, and some folks on twitter have made some interesting points/counterpoints to this too.

    I’ll definitely be writing more on this subject down the road, as there’s plenty more to say about it.

  3. When I was still trying to decide between careers in games journalism and medicine, I wrote for some Australian site for free. I didn’t realize it at the time, but your description here is exactly what that site was doing.

    But I agree with Andrew. Looking back on the stuff I wrote for them, I can’t imagine ever showing that to a professional organization. I enjoyed doing it at the time, partly because I was promised exposure and partly because I just liked having an outlet to write about what I loved.

    Luckily, the folks over at GameSpot rescued me and allowed me to test my mettle in the real freelance world. I enjoyed writing for them because it let me work with people I’d known for years and looked up to. My acceptance into medical school quickly changed my plans, but I’d love to write again when I have more time.

  4. Thanks for your advice. It is much appreciated. I have noticed that many publications do this… not just gaming ones. It’s sad that they think our time and energy, as well as our knowledge, is worth nothing. What I have also seen, and I am sure you have to, is that many publications will offer to pay but it is a very low amount like a cent a word or ten dollars for an article. We as writers have to value ourselves and our work even more than we do, so that when we see these kinds of things we won’t give them a second glance.

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