DeGroot: One unpaid internship is enough — don’t give away your work for free

Zara DeGroot

One of my journalism professors asked me recently what my dream job would be right out of college. Professional dog walker? Winner of “The Bachelor” season 25? Mrs. Harry Styles? 

Oh, my dream job in my field of study? Hmm. Anything that’s not retail or coffee was my answer, followed by a long sigh, signifying my frustration in trying to find any paid work as a writer. 

Ad

I have about a year left in the warm cocoon that is my undergraduate education before I’ll be thrust into the real world, left to find and secure a job in my field and make an income. Maybe this isn’t a huge concern for you, but it’s starting to be one for me. Why? Because, in the past few months, I have realized the tremendous difficulty it is to make a steady income as a young writer.

No one wants to pay writers, especially young ones. 

Why is it that writers don’t get paid much? From my experience, many publications don’t have the budget to pay their contributors. Fair. Struggling publications are a real thing. But is this always the case? 

Maybe, could it be that writers are not paid much because they are oftentimes willing to work for free as interns?

Last summer, I had a front-row seat in the magazine writing scene when I interned at a magazine in Los Angeles. The internship was unpaid, but what I learned in those three months far exceeds everything else that I have learned as a journalism student. Though ideally, it would have been nice to be paid, this was a situation where I took away more from the experience than they did. So it’s cool. 

But now, as I’m looking for additional publication experience to further my knowledge, I’m running into more and more internship postings that are unpaid. “Requirements include working from 9 – 5 p.m. in the office five days a week. This is an unpaid position.” Um, no. 

By not paying young writers for their work, what message is coming across? Creative work is worth little? It is okay to work for free as long as you are getting “good exposure?” Writing and creativity are not real jobs?

That’s ridiculous. 

Publications are capitalizing on young writers’ eagerness to learn and gain experience. While my intern experience was wonderful, I think it was the exception. I’ve heard horror stories of friends who interned for free and were taken advantage of professionally. They created content at no charge, being told that the opportunity was “a great way to get your name out there.” Essentially, these individuals were paying these companies for the opportunity to work for them. Something about that doesn’t sit right with me.

We’re living in a time where there is room for creative professionals. These individuals who are built to create are taking up space in the workforce. Creativity is woven into world change. Unwillingness to pay young writers for their work is stifling an emerging and growing group of professionals who will someday change the world with their creative innovations.

Ad

Here’s the thing: It’s critical to gain experience in whatever field you are going into. As a writer, chances are you’re going to have to take at least one unpaid internship in your early career to start you off. But after that? Don’t settle. You’ve got the education, you’ve got the experience, you’ve got the willingness to work hard and to learn along the way. Don’t give away your skill and your work for free.

Some of the best writing advice I’ve ever received was, “Fight for your words.” I’ll add to that — fight for the worth of your words.

Collegian Columnist Zara DeGroot is scared of being the stereotype of a poor writer, yet here she is. She can be reached at letters@collegian.com and on Twitter @zar_degroot.