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The pros and cons of writing internships

Updated on July 3, 2012

If you're a writer, you will see a lot of writing internships advertised on craigslist and other sites. A bit of further investigation will have told you that there's a lot involved in some of these internships, including some hard work which looks much more like a full-time job in an internship. If you're a bit sceptical about the value of these internships, you're quite right.

I don't want to be totally negative about the value of writing internships or the experience gained from doing the work involved. Some internships are valuable, particularly for those trying to get experience in particular fields and types of writing. That said, there is a big difference between a valuable internship and a slave-driver job.

I need to go off on a tangent for a moment here. If you look at the materials produced in mainstream media, you'll see a lot of garbage produced by supposedly "qualified" journalists and writers and their equally "qualified" editors. The content is appalling, continuity is terrible, and the actual value of the information to readers is highly debatable. The sad truth is that qualifications do not make you a good writer. Only talent can do that, and the effect of bad job experiences on talent can be disastrous.

So with that heavily qualified proviso, let’s move on to debating the merits of writing internships. The real value of a writing internship is to give you valuable exposure to writing in a particular field and/or specific types of writing. For commercial writers, internships are very valuable on principle. Working as a copywriting intern for an agency really is invaluable experience. Many agencies, in fact, demand and require agency experience. Some internships may be a lot better than others, but at least in theory this type of internship will pay off.

Good writing internships always have that in common – They provide portfolio materials of a high standard, very useful experience in the real world environment of writing in their areas, and in many cases good exposure to best practice commercial writing methodologies. (A lot of people don't know that different types of writing require quite different methodologies including such basic things as time management, proofing, research and other fundamentals.)

The truly bad writing internships also have quite a few things in common. You may find yourself doing menial work which is of no value whatsoever to you on a portfolio. This is cookie cutter work, "the market standard", which usually means unbelievably lousy. The only reason this type of work is acceptable is because the standards are extremely low and the materials involved are undistinguished.

The bad writing internships have another nasty trick. Not only are they useless as professional materials at low levels, at their higher levels they can involve you doing good work for peanuts. You are effectively being ripped off, and it's being done on a professional basis. In effect, as an "intern", you are doing professional work at bargain rates making large amounts of money for the providers of the "internship". You may or may not get credit for this work, and you may or may not be able to use some work as portfolio materials. The ability to use your work for portfolio purposes may equate to some obscure intellectual property term in your internship agreement, or outright theft, depending on the dubious standards of the internship provider.

There is also a real-world problem with writing qualifications generally. A level of qualification, unfortunately, doesn't necessarily add up to a level of marketability. A Bachelor of Literature is an accredited standard, but it doesn't necessarily put you in the ball park for required skills. The qualification is used by employers simply to set a standard, and is not necessarily a passport to anywhere in terms of getting writing jobs. You're actually better off with a portfolio of published work in the right areas than you are with a qualification. You should also remember that you are competing with experts in their fields, in areas where track records equate to proof of skills.

The market value of internships is equally hit or miss.The internships do have one redeeming feature as a whole – That invaluable thing, experience. Provided you get fussy and stay fussy about which internships you do, you'll avoid most of the stubbed toes of the bad internships. Just be aware at all times that the market, not the internships providers, set the standards for getting writing jobs.

One very simple way of deciding the real value of an internship is to reverse engineer the selection criteria. If you see an internship, check out the job ads for writers in that field. See how many of them actually require the skills that the internships claim to provide. As a role, the bad internships will fall well short of the mark while the good internships will have obvious and immediate relevance to the advertised jobs.

I hope that's some use to writers looking at internships. Professional writing can be very confusing job market, and the requirements for jobs vary enormously. Be patient, and be careful. There are plenty of good internships, just be sure you know how to spot the bad ones.

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