A few months ago, a friend considering a freelance writing career asked me how much money I make as a writer. I wanted to say, “You mean, what’s the going rate for a human soul?” But I wasn’t close enough to this friend to be certain she’d realize I was mostly kidding. Instead I said, “This month, I made between $25 and $2,000 for individual stories that were about the same length,” to indicate how unpredictable rates are in an industry that is hemorrhaging money while flooded with qualified candidates.
The more true answer, or at least the more complete one, would have included the $0 that I earn laboring on job applications that have come to include more and more elaborate homework assignments which candidates under consideration are asked to complete. I feign enthusiasm when asked to write strategies, pitches, entire stories, and in some especially despairing moments, sample tweets as I seek to be liberated from the freedom of freelancing. Mysteriously, it is always the gainfully employed who suggest that I refuse to submit to these exercises as an act of righteous solidarity with my fellow job seekers.
Having applied to more than 700 jobs in the last year, I am accustomed to these demands. Over 700 times, I have made the vulnerable claim that my labor and skills are valuable. I use that term often in my cover letters: “valuable.” It has definitions relating to both monetary worth and to utility, and I mean it in both ways because I have produced value in both ways for employers before. I have a digital paper trail and a collection of references that corroborates my claims.
"You mean, what’s the going rate for a human soul?"
But I am a job candidate in a buyer’s market, where the buyers are far less interested in what I’ve produced for others than in what I can produce for them. And so I’ve produced more than 30,000 words of original and highly job-specific material without pay in an effort to prove myself a capable and good sport to the handful of companies that have reached back out to me from the black hole of resume inboxes to give me a chance.
I've read extensively on the ethics of the unpaid internship but can find very little on what constitutes a reasonable request for work from job candidates. The Editorial Freelancers Association suggested no more than five 250-word pages in a set of guidelines from 2011 (which I found in a PDF document buried on their website), but my experience suggests that this was not adopted as an industry standard. When I relay my experience to people in my social circle that hire for their companies, reactions range from righteous indignation to thoughtful defenses that these assignments weed out unserious or clearly untalented applicants.
The Copyright Act is fairly clear about ownership of what most of these samples include. It reads: “In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated or embodied in such work.” There are sound reasons for why copyright cannot extend to these areas, like preventing dystopian hellscapes of idea policing, for instance, but it leaves a large volume of creative labor vulnerable to misuse. Even if there were recourse for a hiring manager adopting a proposed strategy or an editor assigning a story to another writer based on a pitch idea without compensation, it would require a level of monitoring to which only the truly conspiratorial could commit the time and energy. And job seekers require that time and energy to seek jobs.
SINCE I BELIEVE THE only dirty money is the filth-encrusted currency that changes hands in all of the medieval businesses that still insist on transacting in cash, I am willing to work at almost any sort of business. I apply to work for consumer brands with the same frequency that I apply to half-starve for media ones. My agnosticism about the craft of writing receives scorn primarily from people tinkering with a novel rather than toiling over real deadlines or facing New York rental prices.
A zany office products company requests a funny instructional guide to making scrambled eggs prior to an interview. I momentarily push how absurd the concept of zany office products is to the back of my mind and write instructions littered with Instagram and Lion King references, figuring that’s reasonably zany. They pass muster, and the HR manager asks for three-five descriptions of IKEA products of my choice in their brand voice. They too pass muster, and I’m invited in for an interview. It goes well, and I am sent home with an assignment to write copy explaining to consumers how the products will help them achieve their New Year’s resolutions as if I am a zany office product. Despite my general commitment to empathy,I am apparently unconvincing as a zany office product and do not get the job.
A women’s magazine hiring a sex and relationships editor for their website asks that I complete an edit test that I soon learn requires no editing. Candidates are instead asked to produce three sex tips, five “observant” listicle ideas, five news stories I would blog about, two ideas for trend pieces or “newsy reported features,” two personal essays ideas, two ideas that “lend themselves to visual treatments,” five sex or relationship experts I’d use as sources, two new franchises for the brand, three one-three paragraph blogs about news articles from that day, and a complete listicle about sex problems faced by women. I refrain from buying their print magazine to confirm with certainty that they are actually requesting that I write them a full magazine before I even interview. I also refrain from making a joke about how I thought they got all of their sex tips from playing with magnetic poetry and waiting for something pornographic to sort of make sense. Instead I torment the man I’m dating with a series of “Weird, hot, or both?” text queries about the tips I dream up. I deliver the 31 items in the 72-hour window I’m given, with more exclamation points than is typical. I never hear back, but feel slightly vindicated when a series of experiments reveals that “both” is the best answer to describe my sex tips.
Despite my general commitment to empathy, I am apparently unconvincing as a zany office product and do not get the job.
A prestigious non-profit seeks a content strategist for their website which promotes their commitment to, among other things, workers’ rights and an accountable media. The job title is a clever new way of packing the demands of multiple editorial jobs into one and calling the frantic juggling that person is forced to do across channels “strategy.” I have one night to substantively edit an article, write notes for its author, craft a pitching plan for the piece, write a fundraising email with the article as a focal point, write three SEO-rich headlines for the article, three tweets promoting it, and a “compelling” short description of the article to be displayed in a preview on the homepage (a clarification needed just in case I was considering a drab one). The recruitment specialist, another title I am certain is a concoction born of squeezed budgets, does not ultimately extend an offer.
Some samples I produce lead to offers that I ultimately declined. Some are re-purposed into pieces for publications where they better fit. In cases where they feel I have sufficient moxie to contribute from home, others lead to freelance opportunities but no staff role.
I’ve been grateful in many cases to have an opportunity to share ideas that indicate my fit for a role better than a cover letter could. But I am also fairly confident that I could demonstrate that fit with less labor than that required by elaborate projects that take several hours and come with no protections against use without compensation. Most of the 30,000 words sit idly in a folder on my desktop deceptively titled “Cover Letters” and will never amount to anything more than the time and creative energy lost to the asymmetrical power dynamic between the hiring and the hopeful.
I recently caught up with the friend considering freelancing and let her know I’ve accepted a full-time job offer. It turns out we’re both submitting articles to the same magazine, one that—despite its prestige—pays $0. Mysteriously, an appreciation for the craft itself has suddenly materialized.