John Walker's Electronic House

To Clarify On Working For Free

by on Jan.12, 2012, under The Rest

A lot of people have responded to the list below by disputing the not working for free clause. I wanted to expand on it a little.

First of all, it’s important to note I wrote “for professionals”. i.e. sites that make money. That’s the crucial point. Writing for sites that don’t make money for free is a good idea. Amateur sites, whether they have ambition to become professional or not, are a great place for writers to cut their teeth. They’re a thing that didn’t exist when I was starting out. In fact, my career began in the gap between the popularity of zines, and the existence of gaming websites. So it’s something I know isn’t necessary for success, but certainly very helpful.

Writing for such sites is a good way to practice your craft, learn the skills of writing, and get noticed. Exposing that work in public is great too, because you’ll get used to feedback. It’s something you can refer to when contacting editors, and it’s also something editors may well be reading themselves.

But it doesn’t need to be an established site. Your own blog is a great place to be writing. The important thing is that you’re writing, getting better, and building up a stock of links you can send to editors. When you email an editor to suggest they give you work, you pick out two or three of your best pieces and you put those links in there. It’s an instant way to prove yourself.

So, to be incredibly clear: there is nothing wrong with writing for free for non-profit making sites. (So long as that site is not making profit for everyone involved.)

BUT, there IS something incredibly wrong with writing for free for sites that do make money. For the reasons I gave in the tips list. And it doesn’t matter how many people tell me it was how they got started, I still absolutely believe it to be wrong.

Certainly people will get started that way – some people get past the exploitation stage. But it is being exploited, and if you’re just starting out, I don’t want that to happen to you. And it’s for the two reasons I gave:

1) You devalue your words. Those words are going to be used to make money for that site/mag, and you’re not getting any of it. That’s deeply insulting to you, and establishes your effort as worthless. Just as soon as you’re in a position to expect money for your efforts, why wouldn’t they ditch you and move on to the next sucker?

2) You’re encouraging a culture that allows this exploitation to take place. You’re as much a part of it as the unscrupulous editors who line their pockets with your work. When you work for free, you ensure the expectation that others must work for free. And further, you devalue the work of everyone else too. If your words are worth nothing, then my words are worth nothing.

Freelancers have a crappy time of it. I received an email last night from someone who hasn’t been paid by any of the outlets he works for for three months, and doesn’t know what to do. It’s normal in this industry for sites and mags to delay payment to freelancers by as much as they can (usually a minimum of two months), and even then they’ll “forget” to pay you, and not be in any hurry to remember. Accounts Payable will say the editor hasn’t clicked the right button, the editor will say Accounts Payable haven’t processed the payment, and neither will be bothered to rush to fix it until you make a real pain of yourself. Future were hideous at this, with barely a month going by where I didn’t have to send repeated emails and make phone calls to get paid properly. Freelancers tend to notice interesting patterns, like how payments for big articles strangely don’t turn up the wrong side of a financial year. These companies literally don’t care, because as a freelancer you’ve barely any rights. If you have a contract, the chances are it will be a list of ways they can screw you, rather than protect you. And most don’t have a contract at all. If you make a fuss, they don’t need to fire you, pay you severance pay, or risk an employment tribunal. They just don’t call you up to offer work the next day/month. And they know you know that, and they know you’re terrified that if you make too much fuss you’re screwed.

That’s the position people getting paid to work are in. So going into that mire and accepting working for free is endorsing every one of those scummy practices, and encouraging publications to continue not paying people to fill their pages, and their wallets. It’s an insult to you, and it’s an insult to me. And I don’t care how much it helps someone fill a portfolio, it’s the wrong way to fill it. So, like I said,

3) Never work for free for professionals. This is a no compromise position. When you’re starting out, that’s when you must insist on being paid, or walk away. Sure, it may open doors, but they’re doors leading to unscrupulous scumbags who prey on the enthusiastic and the poor. And worse, and this is incredibly serious, not only are you cheapening – even devaluing – your own work, but you’re doing the same for anyone else in the industry. If you work, for free, you make words worth nothing, and that’s a disservice to everyone else.


19 Comments for this entry

  • Dean

    Out of interest, how do you define a professional site?

    As in, where is the line? If a site runs ads, but only makes enough to cover server costs? And then that’s a grey area as a site doesn’t go from barely covering costs to being able to afford to pay all the writers overnight.

    I do some stuff for a ‘professional-looking’ site. It runs ads. I imagine the guy that runs it breaks even and probably makes a little over that. But then I also know he works a full-time job to make ends meet.

  • John Walker

    Exactly as I said – if it makes a profit.

  • Pierce

    This is really great stuff, and it’s fantastic as a young person to be told it’s okay to stand up for yourself – I wish I’d read it before I started having a stab at writing. I think it applies to almost every field of journalism, not just games.

    I was wondering, how do you feel about writing that’s technically unpaid, but rewarded with goods in kind, so to speak? I’m sorta starting out as a performing arts critic, and frequently I’ll be reviewing for free, but I get free tickets to opening nights (which come with delicious wines and cheese). Most of the time that seems like a fair trade; I’ve saved hundreds of dollars in ticket prices to plays and operas that I would have wanted to see otherwise, and in return I’ve had to write some words about them.

  • FunkyB

    John, I have no experience in journalism but everything you have said here applies exactly to programming, web dev. and graphic design.

    I know it seems harsh at the time, but you really are hurting yourself in the long run if you accept for-profit work without remuneration. On the other hand, charities are crying out for knowledgable IT people. Volunteer for them and everyone wins.

  • Han Cilliers

    2) You’re encouraging a culture that allows this exploitation to take place. Enough said surely

  • The Sombrero Kid

    I can see what Dean is saying & i think that’s a personal issue, you can’t put content on the internet without someone else making money from it, as with any product it’s part of an economic ecosystem, what John is refering to is pretty specific. When you provide content to a site/publisher who personally & directly profits from the publishing of that content, they should be recieving a percentage of profits comparable to the division of labour, not all of it.

  • J_Smitty_

    I would nominally agree with you.


    If you’ll note, the “payment” for contributing an article to the very nice Nieman publication is a free subscription to the magazine.

    Scott Raab, a writer I read voraciously made a recent comment on his blog about having sold major articles to newspapers at the age of forty for forty dollars.

    The overall point being that you determine the value of your own work. Writers write. It’s what they do. It lives inside them like a wild beast that demands freedom. I don’t write but I enjoy reading good writing wherever I find it. The turning of a profit by your words is distinctly a “you” problem.

    It’s the monetizing / commodification of your passion that is the great challenge to writers – the outside constraint. Honestly, it has been the only concrete challenge for…well…the amount of time writing has been a tool of expression.

    In the past you needed patrons and sponsorship and so forth. Now the challenge is to leverage your established reputation (or establish one, for that matter) into this new marketplace. In this market your competition is “everyone in the world” and that’s whether they are paid or not.

    In many aspects telling people “don’t do x” is (I’m afraid for your proposition) one of the more futile and hopeless arguments available.

  • Phil

    Hang on… aren’t there people who write for RPS for free? I’m sure Robert Florence has said in the past that he doesn’t get paid for his column.

  • FreudianTrip

    Does anyone know of a good place for Freelancers to look for how much they should charge? My uni degree (in Graphic Design) was pretty fail at informing us on this side, claiming that we should call up other graphic designers and pretend to be a client to get an estimate out of people.

    Now since I’m not a giant arsehole filling peoples pockets with false promises. Whats a better way of going about it. I get a groaningly large amount of people asking for free work per week (which I’m obviously not going to accept) but I don’t know how much I should be asking for (being on the lower bracket having just graduated I’m just using freelance until I can find a fulltime job meaning I don’t mind a slightly lower than professional pay but I don’t even know what that is)

  • Josh Brandt

    So to add another experience to the pile, back in the early 2000s I worked for (I posted the news article that everyone linked to when Halo was announced for the PC and Mac in 2003, if that dates it for you. doesn’t exist in any recognizable form any more.).

    The guy who actually ran the site was great– I’d happily work with him anytime. He supported his 2 or 3 writers, gave us good stories to write (Halo release dates and things like that) and the resources we needed to write them.

    The publisher and owner of the site, on the other hand, was, uh… Flaky. He paid us pretty well… when he paid us. And that last bit was important. For a year or so he paid monthly like clockwork. Then he kind of stopped. We kept writing for a month or two and then staged a strike, posting nothing, even when exciting or interesting things happened. Six months later he did finally cut us checks for the last cash he owed us, but at that point none of us wanted to go back to work for him again. About a year later, the site was pretty much dead. I have no regrets– stopping work was the right thing to do, and not going back was ALSO the right thing to do. That was the end of my brief games journalism career (and it’s probably just as well– I was a crappy reviewer, and it’s hard to get excited about Sims expansions when that’s the only news coming down the pike– this was in the bad old days of Mac gaming) and I moved on.

    I could probably have wrangled another game journalism job somewhere, but I was at the point where to move upward it would have become a major time investment, and I was burnt out on it. It was a good thing to learn, I think, and now I have a couple of stories to tell.

    So yeah, don’t work for free for people who profit from your work, and if you find it hard to write about the boring stuff along with the fun stuff, this may not be a great career choice for you… 8)

  • John Walker

    Pierce – if you’re there to work, it’s expected that the tickets are free. They want reviewers to be there, and the paid reviewers aren’t paying their way in. If the people you’re writing for are making a profit, I’d ask them for money for your words.

    FreudianTrip – the only way I know is to ask other people doing the same job what they get paid. If they know you’re asking so you know what to charge, most people will say.

    Phil – I’m informed that Florence refused to be paid! We tried, he wouldn’t let us. Quite a unique case there. I hope that the rest of our freelancers feel they are paid fairly, and on time. Now the business makes a profit, we make a point of paying over the norm, and promptly – no waiting two months bullshit.

  • Kris Lipscombe

    Just as a thought what are your thoughts on sites that are on the tipping point? Say a site that can afford to pay some people (for example the editors) something, but not everyone? Would you class them as professional, amateur or somewhere in between?

  • Mike W

    I had a paying job in games writing – for a site I didn’t like to work for. I struggled constantly with the battle between the thrill of being paid to write about games, and the quality of the site I was working for. Recently I have somewhat retreated (and I fully acknowledge it as a retreat) to a un-paid writing position, at a site that is more respected, better known and has given me pretty free reign to cover my genre of expertise (MMO’s) I now wait patiently for my next opportunity and hope that my hard work and experience affords me another opportunity to be paid for my words.

  • Craig Grannell

    @FreudianTrip: London Freelance has some reasonable suggested rates, which you can find at

    You’ll generally find that as publications become more niche (such as gaming, computing, tech, etc.), rates fall, and so the rates specified for ‘smaller magazines’ (£250/1000) are, frankly, a little optimistic. The same goes for web, which pays lower than print.

    FWIW, I’ve been writing in a professional capacity for well over a decade now, mostly in the tech and gaming sector. My rates last year varied wildly, from about £70/1000 up to £400/1000. They tend to average out at about £175/1000 or £80/page. But even then you must be mindful of the effort required for any one commission or job. In some cases, you can make more out of lower-paid jobs that are quick to write. But one thing you cannot make anything out of is jobs that pay you nothing at all.

  • Sebmono

    I wanted to chip in here since Twitter has become limiting for this discussion. To address your two main points here, those of devaluation and exploitation:

    1) On devaluation, I have to strongly disagree here, if you have written for a site and that writing leads to profit, then your words most definitely have value. Just because you haven’t received monetary compensation, doesn’t mean that your words are devalued. There’s a difference between your words not having value and you not receiving anything for the value of your words. The closest concept I would associate here would be ‘stealing’, but that’s not appropriate either since one voluntarily engaged in this. Also, at the very least you have gotten your name out there and it is ostensibly attached to good work, so there is value in that. (although I am not aware of it, if there is a rash of not crediting writers for their work, that is another issue entirely and would be completely unacceptable). As for the question “why wouldn’t they ditch you and move on to the next sucker?”, if your words did in fact generate value (be it just for the pub) and it is not fungible (i.e. your quality is not easily replaceable) then a smart for profit biz would rationally like to keep you writing for them and at that point you can demand compensation. If your words were valuable and they still ditch you then A), theoretically another pub would be willing to pay for more of your valuable words or, B) you can start selling your words directly to the consumer and charging for it. This is how markets work. This is obviously an oversimplification but I think you see my point.

    2) On exploitation, I think you are making a mistake here of conflating choosing to work for free and having people not pay you what you are owed. Those are entirely different issues. Me choosing to work for free does not encourage a culture of companies not paying me for my work as agreed upon (which is the issue you focus on here). If I consciously decide to work for free, how am I being exploited? The issue you do focus on however, that of a pattern of outlets refusing to pay for agreed upon work, is very serious and truly despicable. Going back to your original line of “encouraging a culture”, I would argue that the writer who continues to work for a company that has poor payment practices is the one who is encouraging a disgusting practice and the one truly doing damage, not as you say the writer who works for free by choice. They are the ones who give companies the idea that they can continue their crappy payment practices and not have to suffer for it. Those are the people that are hurting others and should stop.

    Lastly, I’m an engineer/energy consultant and not a writer so please allow for my lax grammar and perhaps spelling. And I’m glad I finally made it over to your blog since I love your writing on EG and RPS and somehow managed to never see this!


  • John Walker

    1) When you set the cost of working for a professional site at zero, you make the work worth zero. I don’t care what comes next – you endorse a culture of not paying writers for their words, thus ensuring writers’ words are recognised as not being worth paying for. Your version of “how the market works” is grotesque, and should be fought against at all costs. I certainly do not see your point.

    2) I am not conflating anything. When you create a culture where it is expected that people should go unpaid for generating revenue for your business, you are exploiting people. That people are so desperate/naive/unaware/ignorant/beaten down/demoralised etc that they’re willing to do this slave labour is the very saddest part about it, not some ludicrous justification for it. Businesses know people are desperate/naive enough to do the work for free, and rub their hands together in glee when they stuff their pockets without sharing it with you. That someone might willingly volunteer to be exploited does not make them any less exploited.

    Your other point, that continuing to work for a company that is bad at paying for work is worse, is not only irrelevant to the debate, but also poorly thought through. One cannot know that a company one relies on for one’s living is going to become bad at paying. Once your rent and food is paid for by regular work for a publisher, it is not practical, nor possible, to just up and walk away in a huff. As Future became more appalling at paying me, I recognised (among many other reasons) that they were no longer people I wanted to be working for, and in a large part came the motivation to create Rock, Paper, Shotgun as a means to become self-sustaining. I reacted to the situation, and moved away from it over time in such a way that I didn’t end up homeless. But that’s all a giant aside, as it has nothing whatsoever to do with the exploitation of young writers who don’t know they don’t have to work for free.

  • John Walker

    Kris – if a site can’t afford to pay for writers, it needs to restructure until it can. If it’s making money to pay wages, it needs to pay writers.

    Mike – you’re saying that MMORPG-Center don’t pay their writers then? Despicable.

  • Xercies

    I do have to agree with John absolutely here, if you accept giving your words for free why the hell would they start paying you later on? In fact why would anyone want to pay for you later on, they know you want to work for free.

    Also this goes with Internships as well, I really don’t like the way businesses are working in that they say oh you got to work here 3 months for free before we will even consider you working here. Guess what? A lot of times you don’t work there at the end. They are using that exploitative stuff to gain profits and not pay someone. It is modern slave labour and this and what John says has to stop.

  • Rowan Davies

    Oddly, this debate has exploded within a month of me having taken on a volunteer position at DIY Gamer, so it means a great deal for me to remain content with my own work in that respect.

    As it has been said here, it’s hard to get a complete grasp on the argument by sifting through Twitter comments one by one (particularly when so many contain inaccurate and unhelpful analogies of the situation). I’ve had a hard time collecting my thoughts on the matter.

    My view is that I would love to write for money, of course, but the opportunity has never materialised. I’ve tried for four years to construct a personal platform by way of a blog, but I find confidence and drive incredibly tricky to sustain in the face of consistent rejection and lack of readership.

    So, I haven’t been offered a paying position but I have now been given the chance to form part of a team, to contribute to a site that doesn’t see less than thirty views a day from people who may have only mistakenly clicked on a link to begin with. It gives me satisfaction that readers now benefit from my work and keeps me writing routinely in a way that I never have before.

    Is the intention of the site at which I volunteer to exploit me? I can’t say, but without writing for someone else – without that dependence – I would find it extremely hard to continue doing what I do in the hope that other, better compensated opportunities arise.

    I won’t go into further detail on my own situation because I’ve published a lengthy article on my own blog, here: