Don't Ask Writers to Work for Free Unless You Want an Eloquent 'Fuck Off'


One weird thing about being a professional writer is that a lot of people seem to think your job is fake. Up until a couple of years ago, people said shit like this to me all the time: “Oh, you do your little jokes in the newspaper, right? Maybe you can help me write some jokes for my favorite geology professor’s going away banquet! It’d just be, like, 20-30 rock-themed zingers. Pay you? Haha, good one, but you’re welcome for the free joke-writing practice, slugger!”

DOOD. THIS IS A JOB. I haven’t worked for free since my first year out of college when did that “magazine internship” that ended up just being a front for the creepy owners’ motivational corporate fire-walking business. (My “internship” was mainly just driving all over L.A. hauling motivational firewood.) And even that wasn’t totally for free because sometimes they would touch me on the arm and give me $20, which I would then take to Trader Joe’s and glug limeade until I felt clean again.

While unpaid internships have a regrettable place in the present-day publishing industry (they’re really just another avenue for privileged kids to leap ahead and then demand credit for “natural talent” and “putting in the hard work”), they’re at least more legit than asking respected, established writers to work for free. But, weirdly, that happens all the time.

It happened recently to Australian comedy writer and columnist Catherine Deveny, who was approached by the Equal corporation (as in, the blue packet people) about joining “a community of influential Australian Women who will participate in a debate about the choices Australian women make.” All she had to do, you see, in order to participate in this very exciting fake-sugar talking opportunity, was to “contribute” her thoughts on various “controversial” and “frivolous” women’s issues, and then let Equal use her name and personal brand in their PR campaign to prove that a chemical sweetener corporation leveraging women’s body image issues for cash is totally all about feminism. Then she could just sit back and let all that lucrative “profile elevation” roll in! Oh man, nothing pays the bills like an elevated profile. Seattle City Light was so pumped last month when I mailed them a screengrab of my Klout score instead of a check.

Anyway, Deveny really wasn’t having it. You should go read Equal’s full letter here (if you love hilariously garbagey PR boilerplate, MERRY CHRISTMAS), but it’s Deveny’s response that makes this story special. And if you’re a professional who’s ever been asked to work for free in that condescending we’re-doing-you-a-favor tone, you just might fist-pump through the ceiling.

From: Catherine
Sent: Thursday, 13 June 2013 8:40 PM
To: Anne
Subject: Invitation for Catherine, to debate the choices Australian women make
Hi Anne,
Great to get your email. And when I say great, I mean hilarious.
Just one question. Why would I work for a multinational chemical company for free?
Do you?
How incredibly unprofessional to develop an advertising budget where you do not pay for the content. And how rude to ask people to work for nothing.
Did you pay the graphic designer? The web developer? The internet provider? Do you pay for the petrol in your car? Your hairdresser?
This is my job.
Joining a debate about the choices women make?
Here’s the choice I make. Not to work for multinationals for free. Or any businesses. I am a single mum and I pay every single person who works for me.
Women are 50% of the population, do two thirds of the work, earn 10% of the money and own 1% of the property.
And you have the gall to frame this opportunity to work for free as some kind of feminist jamboree. And why we are on gall, promoting a dieting aid with feminism? Excuse me while I throw up in my mouth. Sorry what? It’s about health, lifestyle and choices. No it’s not. It’s about selling dissatisfication and self loathing. I think you’ve picked the WRONG GIRL.
You don’t give a rats about women, if you did you would not ask them to work for free. YOU WOULD PAY THEM.
How patronising and unprofessional.
So Deborah Thomas is working for free? Yeah, right. And I’m Delta Goodrem.
I will make sure everyone in my network hears about this.
‘Exposure’ don’t pay the rent.
I look forward to your response.

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