Welcome to our new series, 'Building Blocs'!
Building Blocs aims to create a space you can rely on for sound advice on the business side of writing. It will answer your questions about your rights and potential nasties to look out for. It'll help you get your head around how to be financially responsible and business-savvy. It will help you advance your career as a writer. Feel free to get in touch with any questions you'd like answered or if you'd like to help us investigate a particular topic.
To kick off the series, we have editor and writer Joshua Allen looking out for your rights as an intern and offering some advice on how you can tell if it's just not working.
Image source: Flickr / momento mori
The editor sat at their desk, directly opposite me, with only our computers separating us. My desk wasn’t actually ‘my’ desk; it was just a spot for me to sit at. It was where I worked one day a week for free. This was my first internship that featured an excited call to my Mum to say, “Hi. Yes, I’m not a failure.”
What I didn’t tell her was that I had no idea of what I was going to learn. I knew that I just had to make myself more ‘employable’ somehow and an internship seemed the correct option. I was eager to get involved and absorb as much information as I possibly could. The organisation I was ‘working’ for was an online arts site that publishes arts news, reviews, job openings in the arts and other related content. The internship I was under was advertised as an ‘editorial’ internship and I thought that I would be assisting with editing and commissioning content. Instead, I would be revamping media releases into news stories for three months.
There were times when the editor liked to shake things up a bit. One day I was sent with an iPad to conduct a video interview with Indigenous dancers, which would have been a great task, if only the editor had prepared me correctly. I was unable to do the interview because I was drowning in my nervousness and didn’t want to disrespect the dancers with my minimal knowledge of Indigenous dance. I believed that when I returned the editor would want to discuss with me why I hadn’t been able to complete the task, but instead they simply said something like, “Well, that’s a shame,” and went on with their work. They didn’t care about my progress or professional development at all.
Internships can be really awful experiences when there is a lack of communication between the intern and the employee(s) who are responsible for them. In the case of the internship I’ve just described, there was a barrier between my editor and I—we hardly communicated at all. The editor always seemed too busy and was frustratingly inaccessible and I was too intimidated to express that I wasn’t satisfied with the internship.
This leads on to my first piece of advice: take charge and suck it up. Internships are learning experiences in which you put yourself into a workplace environment so you can get practical skills, make industry contacts and hopefully get an edge over other writers/peeps who are applying for the same jobs as you. There isn’t any point undergoing an internship if you can’t engage with other employees in your workplace and ask for feedback and support. You’ve got to be the likeable, smart and enthusiastic workmate during your stay with the organisation you’re interning for. Ask for more challenging work if you’re not learning anything, tell your editor/boss person that you would like time to chat about the structure of your internship if you’re not happy. You just have to leap over your shyness and put yourself out there. That’s how you will get the most out of the relationships you’ll build in the workplace. Make yourself part of the workplace team.
If you do find yourself in a situation you can’t control, when perhaps the other employees aren’t interested in supporting your learning or don’t have any time to engage with you, consider leaving. It isn’t worth staying if you’re just going to be another intern passing through. This is the case with quite a few organisations, who take on a regular flow of interns who are all willing to work for free - the organisations forget to treat you as an individual. Shared intern email accounts should not be a thing. You’re not going to get a great reference from the organisation if they know nothing about you and what you contributed to their workplace.
Sometimes there are flaws in the organisation that will prevent you from experiencing a positive internship no matter how hard you try to make things work. You’ll need to accept this and make a decision: do you stay or do you go? If you’re stuck in one of those university placements in which you need to fill a certain number of hours, talk to your teachers about your circumstance. And just to interject here, I think university placements are completely unnecessary. Why pay for a placement in which you are working for free? It does not make sense. If you know your university course has a placement component—and they’re usually situated towards the end of your studies—take the initiative and find an internship on your own. Email editors of publications and arts workers in organisations you support and ask them if you can do a placement. Then you can get credit/recognition of prior learning and don’t have to pay for your university placement. Make sure you check everything first with your teachers though.
When looking for an internship, don’t ever pick one if you don’t know what you want to get out of it. It’s okay to make the brief transition in becoming a responsible adult and map out your five-year career plan. What skills do you want to learn that will get you the job you want? What aren’t you learning in your studies that you want to obtain from an internship? Look at the selection criteria of job applications you are interested in and think about what internships could help you meet those criteria. And please, research the organisation you want to intern for before you commit to anything. Does the organisation make a profit? Do they pay their writers? Will the work you’d be doing essential to the running of the organisation? If the answer is yes to that last question, you should be getting paid. Don’t let anyone take advantage of you and if you’re unsure of your workplace rights check out intern advocacy organisations like Interns Australia and the Fair Work Ombudsman.
And if you’re a writer who just wants to get published, why are you reading this article? Internships aren’t for writers to network with editors. By all means do that at launches and writers festivals. Go and pitch your writing already.
Joshua Allen is an editor and writer currently interning for the Emerging Writers' Festival and is the Online Editorial Assistant for Kill Your Darlings. He's also written an article about literary internships for Intern, a UK publication. Tweet him @joshuawords.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.