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.
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