It was the wee hours of the morning when I finished writing my first op-ed about another failed Toronto FC campaign and the frustrations of being a season ticket holder. I had no idea how difficult it could be to translate my thoughts to paper.

After reading it for what felt like the thousandth time to check over the grammar, I sent it off to a half-dozen soccer publications and journalists around Toronto before passing out in my bed. Sending those emails was slightly horrifying. I had no idea how to pitch myself. I was worried I didn’t know how to write. I was scared people would think I was an idiot.

When I woke up in the morning I had one response. It was Ian Clarke from Red Nation Online (RNO)—he had posted my piece on the site’s homepage. He asked if I planned on keeping my season’s tickets for next year (I was), then offered me a place on the site’s masthead as a TFC columnist. There was one catch: he couldn’t afford to pay me.

This offer came just after a speech in class from one of my professors, urging us never to give away our work for free. I was conflicted, but the allure of having my name and thoughts in a real online magazine won.

For the past two years I’ve been paying to watch TFC games from the stands, then writing a column for RNO (cue questions about my intelligence) for free. There have been times when I wished I could go out for a drink (or ten) after a game instead of rushing home to write, but other than that, the column has been one of the best professional decisions I’ve made as a young writer.

Mark Twain advised, “Write without pay until someone offers to pay you.” This is obviously easier said than done. The unpaid column for RNO has given me a regular outlet to practice my writing. Reading my old posts now, I can see the progression I’ve made. I’m developing my own voice, I can point out fat in those pieces that would never make it into the final copy today, I’ve stopped trying to throw in words I would never use in speech.

Without being accountable to the editorial team at RNO, there’s a chance I wouldn’t have written at all outside of school over the past two years. I spend enough time crafting pieces throughout the semester—the last thing I want to do on a Saturday night is write something nobody will ever read.

RNO gave me a place to experiment and be judged not only by myself and an editor, but the public. I’ve learned how to deal with malicious comments and felt a great sense of pride when somebody compliments my work. I’ve gained a large editorial portfolio that helps me stand out from many young journalists. I’ve been published dozens of times for writing about something I love. The schooling I’ve gotten by writing this column more than makes up for the fact that I pay to write it.

 

Thanks to Carissa Rogers for the image.