Decades Of Wage Stagnation Makes Freelance Writing Worse
April 18, 2018 9:33 AM   Subscribe

“As any owner of a taxi medallion can tell you, reducing the value of a product or service can have serious repercussions — for the workers themselves and for the wider society they help comprise. When it comes to freelance writing, I fear that low prices have already begun to cost us. Talented writers walk away from the industry, plutocrats are free to pick stories and choose writers even when they don’t own the outlets, and the quality of the work declines. All of that looks to worsen over time.“ How Much Is a Word Worth? - Malcolm Harris - Medium Feature Story
posted by The Whelk (61 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
 
This article could be summed up in a sentence. I'm not doing this here, because I get paid...um...$0 a word, but suffice it to say that writers are just one more group of artists who are getting screwed these days. The author seems to think that visual artists are doing well, but maybe he hobnobs with Jeff and Damien.

Musicians are not happy with Spotify, unless they are taking lots of happy pills. Medium is not an example of a viable solution to this problem either. They charge $5 a month to subscribe. How many magazines are you willing to subscribe to for $60 a year? New Yorker and Harper's I subscribe to for far less than that. Aeon I pay $5 monthly for, but I'm stopping there. Anodyne publications like Medium are definitely not going to find enough suckers.

I'm not complaining that Harris doesn't offer a solution. Complaining about a problem is a good thing. Solutions are not necessarily a writer's job.

It's tough all over. Oh, one new thing I learned from the article: New Yorker staff writers don't get health insurance. Never thought about this issue, but thinking about it adds to the Simmering Pot of Anger about Social Injustice I keep stirring in a corner of my brain for some reason.
posted by kozad at 10:01 AM on April 18, 2018 [25 favorites]


I think this is fair. Poststructuralism has accelerated semantic deflation, and a word just doesn't mean what it did in Ring Lardner's day.
posted by thelonius at 10:05 AM on April 18, 2018 [9 favorites]


Look, if we want one of you to write the Great American Novel that you've always been talking about, you've got to have some Great Depression level hardship in your life! All I am saying is: one does not simply write from a place of privilege and be interesting - you need to experience it, be on the tertiary of it... lose it... something...

anyway...

I want to read the article but it seems to be behind a paywall, and I'm not sure if it is really worth it when I can look at cute dog pictures on buzzfeed...


If it makes you feel any better... pretty sure nobody wants to pay for anything quality or do anything that means that they might be held accountable for... We live in a post-integrity world where cronyism is the best way to survive...

Have you authors ever considered sucking up to the rich and writing exactly the sort of story that they tell you? I hear that there's good money in that - no self pride, but good money.
posted by Nanukthedog at 10:07 AM on April 18, 2018 [2 favorites]


I am a professional writer and support a family of four on my income. I don't do as many feature articles as I would like to do, and I typically focus on marketing copywriting and trade publications to pay most of my bills, but I'm making a living as a writer. For now.

I don't really pitch magazines for this very reason:

“I wrote a feature for [a national magazine] in 2014, and I still remember getting the $5,000 check,” one writer told me. “I sent a photo of it to my father, because I wanted him to see you could actually get paid for writing. Now I wonder whether in the back of his mind he was thinking, ‘Five thousand dollars for six months of work?’”
posted by JamesBay at 10:19 AM on April 18, 2018 [20 favorites]


no self pride, but good money.

While I'm not going to write for arms manufacturers or Big Tobacco or whatever (I actually write for an org devoted to freedom of expression and human rights), for me I take a lot of pride in using my keyboard to put my kids through uni. I think it depends what stage one is in in their career.
posted by JamesBay at 10:22 AM on April 18, 2018 [6 favorites]


No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:28 AM on April 18, 2018 [6 favorites]


I'm a freelance writer and I get paid a very decent per word rate. But I've been writing for my primary client since 2014 and the rate has not changed one cent.
posted by 256 at 10:30 AM on April 18, 2018 [6 favorites]


I admittedly don't know much about the economics of freelance writing but I am curious whether this is something where there's a big wage disparity between relative unknowns, and people who have an established presence in the industry or a relationship with a few key clients? Making it very hard and unrewarding to break into but permitting those who do, to make it a reasonable living? That's what you see in a lot of other freelance occupations (e.g. freelance coders / web dev work, etc.).
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:52 AM on April 18, 2018




Unions.
posted by gottabefunky at 10:59 AM on April 18, 2018 [5 favorites]


Kadin2048: There absolutely is.

I get paid between $0.50 and $1.00 per word, depending on which client I am writing for. This is my full time job and I feel like, at the high end, people know they have to pay for quality.

That said, I also served as editor for a science fiction magazine and, because we were so bold as to paid $0.10 per word, we were constantly flooded by submissions. Fiction is obviously different from non-fiction but, in general, everyone thinks they are a writer, so there is never a shortage of amateurs (some of them talented) willing to sell their work for peanuts.

In fact, there is a HUGE market of writers willing to write for rates like $0.01 per word, or even just for "exposure." This is not a very good way to feed your family.

Words are very cheap if you don't care which words you get.
posted by 256 at 10:59 AM on April 18, 2018 [8 favorites]


It can be mindblowing to read about New York in the 1910s and 1920s, when freelance writers and magazine cartoonists could make enough on their trade to afford houses in The Hamptons and Cape Cod in addition to their Manhattan flats, living in the midst of a whirlwind as hosts of weekly parties where the leading lights of the art world hobnobbed with the city’s elite.

Heck, I’m the 60s and early 70s, Hunter S Thompson was able to make enough on his freelancer income to snag a few acres early in the Aspen real estate rush without having to cut back on his steady diet of smokes, booze, and drugs both pharmaceutical and street-sourced. And he didn’t have a trust fund to fall back on while he did it.
posted by ardgedee at 11:03 AM on April 18, 2018 [18 favorites]


Poststructuralism has accelerated semantic deflation, and a word just doesn't mean what it did in Ring Lardner's day.

It ain’t the free play of signifiers fer nothin’
posted by octobersurprise at 11:05 AM on April 18, 2018 [5 favorites]


So I drove a magazine into the ground in Seattle, circa '93, for insisting on paying our writers .25/word (and IIRC, that was an astonishing rate for that time and place). The trouble lay in my assumption that posting a rate like that would attract quality writers, and the magazine simply didn't last long enough to build up the stock of good writing that would demonstrate to the talented and ambitious that they'd find themselves in good company. We paid top-notch rates for work that was decent, at best, and after less than half a year in existence sailed on into that good night.

The thing is that I don't regret a moment of it. I'd rather go out with guns blazing, having tried to live my values and show some got-damn respect for creative labor, than eke out another year or two of existence knowing my writers couldn't feed themselves on what I was willing to pay. (This, of course, is one of the reasons why I lead *ahem* a more modest existence than many of my contemporaries.)

No, that doesn't hurt. What does hurt is knowing that the odds have gotten even longer for writers, especially emerging writers, and that, yeah, perhaps written expression itself doesn't seem valued in quite the same way. For structural and infrastructural reasons, to be sure, but also because somewhere along the way we decided to treat expression as "content" to fill the machine we'd built to serve it, and ads on top of it. I don't know what can be done about it except choosing to support, ourselves and individually, those titles that insist on holding the line.

And damn, but I really wish the New Yorker offered its talent a more robust benefits package. That one really hurts.
posted by adamgreenfield at 11:11 AM on April 18, 2018 [13 favorites]


I write for a local business magazine (print) that pays .50 cents a word. I can crank out a 1000-word profile of a local business with three sources in about 6 hours. I typically will not travel to do interviews in person, and do them over the phone or by Skype. So I save a couple of hours that way. So it's not a bad supplement to my income.

The publisher explained that in Canada, at least, magazines that target a specific geographic location tend to be successful. Which is why they can pay reasonable rates.

>>>I admittedly don't know much about the economics of freelance writing but I am curious whether this is something where there's a big wage disparity between relative unknowns, and people who have an established presence in the industry

I think there is a definite collegial aspect to getting invited to write for top-tier pubs in the States, which pay the best rates. There are school connections (the Ivy Leagues) and professional connections, and some other stuff.

But if you target industry publications (I write for a publication run by a GE business unit that targets a specific industry) there are really good rates to be found.

The challenge is finding a mix of client publications that provide enough revenue from month to month that provide me with some personal and professional satisfaction . For example, one client markets drywall tools. It's not a subject I could write about full-time, but it does allow me to work on lower-paying projects that are more in line with my interest.

It's a bit of a hustle.
posted by JamesBay at 11:25 AM on April 18, 2018 [5 favorites]


I didn't have the hustle, so I couldn't freelance for a living, but I did parlay my freelancing portfolio into a tech writing career that DOES pay well. I still write "real" things by night, but I guess I have to admit Elizabeth Gilbert was right: my art can't be burdened with pressures like "feed my kids" or even "feed my self worth" in order for it to happen like it wants to happen.
posted by MiraK at 11:40 AM on April 18, 2018 [2 favorites]


BTW:

I admittedly don't know much about the economics of freelance writing but I am curious whether this is something where there's a big wage disparity between relative unknowns, and people who have an established presence in the industry or a relationship with a few key clients?

I can't speak for anyone else, but I'm relatively well-established, and I couldn't come anywhere close to paying all our bills on what I make from placing pieces here and there. It's probably true that I'm slower than your average bear, do not do hot takes, and simply lack hustle, but by the same token, "hustle" doesn't even capture the hyperefficiency and market-friendliness you'd need to make it at the rates on offer. (At London prices, for example, you'd have to be shipping feature-length pieces on a more or less weekly basis to pull down a middle-class living.)

The gig is the same as it ever was: your bylines are simply calling cards for your consulting or public-speaking practice. (And this goes double and triple for writing books, which, unless you're Alain de Botton or something, are truly a first-class, one-way ticket on the train to penury.) I leave unpacking the effects of this redirection of energy and emphasis on the quality of thought and prose as an exercise for the reader.
posted by adamgreenfield at 12:06 PM on April 18, 2018 [6 favorites]


It's a simple supply and demand situation Which means if you think it's bad now, wait until the glorious post-work future people here keep talking about. In a world where one of the only ways to gain more recognition is to be a creative, there'll be a hundred times as many artists competing for attention. A successful writer will be someone who has a hundred people read their stuff in a career. It will be like webcomics, except moreso.
posted by happyroach at 12:07 PM on April 18, 2018 [3 favorites]


You know what I blame this on the breakdown of? Pre-internet press exclusivity.

The ease of broadcasting to a wide audience on the internet makes scabs of us all. Used to be that the only people writing for any sizable audience were professional writers; now, not so much. Supply has vastly outstripped demand, and that’s not so great if you’re trying to write for a living.

But also!

Clickbait farms are big business, and so is that thing where 99% of articles on any given site are just summaries of things written elsewhere. Devaluing writers is one thing, but this shit devalues the written word. Any writer who participates in either is their own worst enemy.

Long and short of it: There are too many writers. Please eliminate three million.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:10 PM on April 18, 2018 [13 favorites]




This is because publishing has become ad-tech, and writing and design has become content-creation.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 12:55 PM on April 18, 2018 [7 favorites]


Long and short of it: There are too many writers. Please eliminate three million.

The great promise of the internet : anyone can become a journalist, writer, publisher.

The great failure of the internet : they actually did.
posted by theorique at 12:56 PM on April 18, 2018 [10 favorites]


the game Gone Home is supposed to be totally suffused with retro 90s nostalgia, but the most 90s thing of all was not the cassette tapes with riot grrrl music, or Street Fighter or anything like that, it was that the protagonist's father wrote reviews of stereo equipment for a magazine, and this was a decent full-time career.
posted by vogon_poet at 1:12 PM on April 18, 2018 [15 favorites]


I spent 20 years in the advertising/marketing world. All of this is true. But really? It's the MBA corporate world that's to blame. Writers and designers used to be considered skilled craftspeople whose opinions and decisions were valued.

OK, this is an oversimplification: but now? There's so many layers of approvals/editors/account execs, brand police, etc., that the creative attitude is more like "I have almost no time, so I will make an attempt at something that I think will fly, and the dozen layers of internal folks and clients will tell me how they want/need it then I will fix it when I have another 10 minutes to follow their orders"

This goes beyond headlines/taglines. There's all kinds of writing and promotional stuff these days that goes through this exact process. Of course we all need editors/proofreaders and constructive criticism! But the MBA culture has ensured that EVERY one of the 2 dozen person approval process must leave at least a fingerprint on the work, lest they be seen as not doing their jobs.

Silly anecdote, but I was on a phone meeting with a bunch of agency people and the 3-4 clients. After the presentation, one of the clients hemmed and hawed a bit then said "I can't think of anything bad to say right now, so I will need some time and will get back to you later today"
posted by jeff-o-matic at 1:16 PM on April 18, 2018 [18 favorites]


What's amazing is the way that so many people have been introduced into the approvals chains and yet nobody is actually responsible for anything when there's a fuckup.
posted by tobascodagama at 1:25 PM on April 18, 2018 [7 favorites]


plutocrats are free to pick stories and choose writers even when they don’t own the outlets, and the quality of the work declines.

Listening to Mozart today. Back in his day, you did art music, you found yourself a rich patron or ten for commissions. Usually royalty or titled. Beethoven, likewise ... lots of Counts. (Schubert, less conventional, had a fanbase, but few commissions. He died shortly after achieving immortality; much of his greatness sat in drawers for decades. Saved by other musicians.)

So, for -art- at least, the plutocrat thing ain't new. Get a commish, because writing on spec bites. Dickens, Conan Doyle, wrote series for magazines. They're immortals now, but ... Who reads magazines any more?

Medium has nothing of that order (that I've seen), so where's all the great writing? Weiss nichts. Spotify:Amazon: throwing yourself into a corral with a herd of competitors is a good way to catch the train to Render City.

Seems like the musicians (writers??) doing all right today have a fan base. Yer crowd-sourced Good Housekeeping Seal. If ya ain't got that, yer toast. It's hard to get a crowd together for virtuoso recitals any more.
posted by Twang at 1:32 PM on April 18, 2018 [2 favorites]


The gig is the same as it ever was

New Grub Street has always been one of my favorite novels. Not countenancing any of this, but circumstances then and now do seem very similar, only more so. In retrospect, it looks like much of the 20th century was the aberration: a brief period in the industrialized West where the level of education, and the desire for reading material outran the technological means to provide those reading materials, thus working to the favor of writers.

The great promise of the internet : anyone can become a journalist, writer, publisher. The great failure of the internet : they actually did.

Submitted for your approval ...

On a similar topic, Damon Krukowski's The New Analog : Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World is an examination of musical culture as it moved from analog to digital to streaming.
posted by octobersurprise at 1:42 PM on April 18, 2018 [3 favorites]


"I can't think of anything bad to say right now, so I will need some time and will get back to you later today"

I forget it's proper term, and not to derail, but I sometimes intentionally include blatant "errors" in reviewed work just so that clients and higher-ups can remove them. For example, we may include a picture of a rubber duck on a report cover, or a garish color choice. "Looks great, but lose the duck!" The trick of course is finding something bad enough that they'll want to change it, but inoffensive enough that we can live with it on the off chance the client actually likes it.
posted by matrixclown at 1:42 PM on April 18, 2018 [16 favorites]


The author seems to think that visual artists are doing well, but maybe he hobnobs with Jeff and Damien.

Heh. My wife is taking classes to brush-up her MS Office skills. This week is Word. In last night’s class, the instructor ran them through skills to create brochures and other such materials. Then, he explained that no one needs graphic designers anymore. That any secretary can create marketing materials for a lot cheaper. As the spouse of a struggling graphic designer, all my wife could do is, sadly, nod in agreement.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:46 PM on April 18, 2018 [8 favorites]


What's amazing is the way that so many people have been introduced into the approvals chains and yet nobody is actually responsible for anything when there's a fuckup

Oh, child. It’s the artist. It’s always the artist.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:50 PM on April 18, 2018 [6 favorites]


I made a living, of sorts, as a freelance writer between roughly 2001-2003, during which time the amount I got paid for a typical job rapidly went from $1/word to fifty cents to a quarter, and really the only thing that kept me afloat was a couple of lucrative jobs friends got me writing internal training material for a bank and stuff for a Blockbuster Canada database. At least I got out before anyone paid me in "exposure."
posted by The Card Cheat at 2:08 PM on April 18, 2018 [2 favorites]


Not-so-tangentially-related pet peeve: I cannot count the number of occasions, during my sojourns in the corporate and military worlds, on which some higher-up insisted on delivering some text I was working on half-baked, with the admonishment not to spend so much time “wordsmithing.”

I’m sorry, what? Words have meanings. And even more troublingly, different words actually mean different things. Surely, surely you want me to spend time duly ensuring that these words we are about to release over our name commit us to a course of action we’re comfortable with, no? No? OK then. We deserve everything we’re about to get.

I have to believe that the massive lack of interest in maintaining any kind of connection between a word and its generally accepting meaning that I observed over the course of many years in these domains of power has something to do with the epistemic fog we’ve all grown so accustomed to in contemporary public life. But as with the general devaluation of the craft of writing we’ve been discussing, outside of a few exception cases like contract law our culture just doesn’t value precision in expression: it’s something for milquetoasts, also-rans and nerdlings. Somewhere Saussure is laughing ‘til he pisses his pants.
posted by adamgreenfield at 2:41 PM on April 18, 2018 [14 favorites]


...our culture just doesn’t value precision in expression: it’s something for milquetoasts, also-rans and nerdlings.

The mainstreaming and normalization of there, their, they’re.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:50 PM on April 18, 2018 [2 favorites]


Lose the duck.
posted by jenkinsEar at 2:57 PM on April 18, 2018 [4 favorites]


> As the spouse of a struggling graphic designer, all my wife could do is, sadly, nod in agreement

I briefly was a freelance indexer. My kid's preschool was putting out a cookbook, and I offered to do the index. The people putting it together declined my offer, because the publishing software did it automatically.
posted by The corpse in the library at 3:10 PM on April 18, 2018 [2 favorites]


...ONE MORE THING: As an art director, this is all worse. Again, you have your two dozen levels of marketing managers, account execs, junior account execs, planners, UX people etc ad infinitum.

And guess what? When it comes own to (especially) a photo or film shoot... EVERYONE wants a stab at art directing. Wardrobe, props, styling—you name it. Because all these MBA types took a class in "advertising" or maybe even "design" or even worse—are HGTV addicts.

Thing is? So much of this is subjective. SO MUCH. So it's not even as if they have bad taste, or bad ideas, or are silly or stupid or smell funny... it's when creative control starts getting passed around and made into something "fun!" for the clients, etc., at the shoot is when my job, my career is getting pissed on. I get it: most corporate types have boring jobs and these little punctuations are interesting high points for them. But just let me do the job you and your bosses are literally paying me to do!

It's great to have more eyes on things so mistakes are avoided. But desktop publishing, phone cameras and WYSIWYG world has turned everyone into part time artists and creative writers.

Again: that's an extreme example. But this pertains to all matter of "creative content" these days. Print layouts, mission statements, catalog copy. I once saw 2 clients/account reps get into a little hissy over the use of the word "sofa" vs. "couch" in a storyboard DESCRIPTION! The word was only a name for a piece of furniture, and was not going to appear on screen or spoken by anyone. But "their brand" didn't say "sofa", that's too fancy pants/airy-fairy or something.

I am desperately trying to change career right now.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 3:12 PM on April 18, 2018 [9 favorites]


After lurking for years and year I actually created an account to address this article.

I am a freelance writer, and I've been one for a decade. I make six figures a year, and have almost every single year since I quit my pharma/IT position to freelance full-time. That's just writing - no consulting, no anything else. All I do is write.

I wish I had done it sooner.

Listening to the business model described in the Medium piece was baffling to me. 8 to 10 pieces a year? Six months to write an article? I understand that long-form investigative journalism is time-consuming and expensive, but the focus of this piece was ostensibly freelance writing, not a very particular subset of freelance writing that is clearly unsustainable from a business perspective (a subject that has been exhaustively explored by a number of outlets over the past several years).

Reading this was mildly infuriating. The complaint is about wage stagnation, when really, the problem is being completely unwilling to pivot to types of writing that remain profitable, or business models that are not nearly as time-consuming as long-form journalism.

Throughout the piece, I kept hearing the familiar tone of 'the universe owes me a living for doing the very specific thing I want to do, even though it has become increasingly less viable due to the changing nature of the marketplace.' Which is fine, were it not also claiming to speak for freelancing as a whole, which is something that I feel very strongly about, and clearly, have had radically different experiences with.

I write for magazines, newspapers, websites, and corporations. I travel, interview, photograph, and pitch. The vast majority of that - 80% - is on topics I am passionate about. 5,000 words a month? I average 50,000. This is not a boast - this is a description of an alternate business model that works in the modern freelance landscape.

There is a THRIVING market for freelance writing, but it means being willing to constantly re-evaluate your position and take action to tailor and expand your client base to meet your expectations of income, and the topics you enjoy writing about.

My experience is not an outlier. I have many successful colleagues who are in similar positions. Reading this Medium piece simply reminds me of all the people who told me as a teenager that writing was never going to be a viable career, and how foolish I was for believing them for as long as I did.
posted by jordantwodelta at 3:49 PM on April 18, 2018 [26 favorites]


Lose the duck.

perhaps explaining this masterpiece, though I hope not.
posted by philip-random at 3:53 PM on April 18, 2018


I once saw 2 clients/account reps get into a little hissy over the use of the word "sofa" vs. "couch"

Should have suggested "chesterfield" just to complicate things...
posted by Secret Sparrow at 4:01 PM on April 18, 2018 [2 favorites]


Art is always expendable.
posted by jenfullmoon at 4:09 PM on April 18, 2018 [1 favorite]


The ease of broadcasting to a wide audience on the internet makes scabs of us all.

But it's actually a lot harder for an unknown writer to reach an audience on the Internet now than it was 10 years ago in the golden age of blogging, before the writing of outsiders was herded into locked-down Facebook pages and 140-character blurbs.
posted by Ralston McTodd at 4:09 PM on April 18, 2018 [1 favorite]


There is a THRIVING market for freelance writing, but it means being willing to constantly re-evaluate your position and take action to tailor and expand your client base to meet your expectations of income, and the topics you enjoy writing about.

I tend to agree. What I wish I would do more often, if I had the time and energy, would be to take a month off and just do business development -- research publications to pitch to, create pitches, update my personal website, etc.

There's interesting and lucrative work out there, that's for sure.

Unfortunately, it's hard to find outlets that pay for public-interest journalism, or local journalism. With local journalism, though, there seems to be a market for entrepreneurs to start their own news sites. Canadaland is a good example of this, and also regularly features entrepreneurial local news sites who are filling a niche as incumbents fail (due to mismanagement by vampire capitalists like PostMedia).
posted by JamesBay at 4:50 PM on April 18, 2018 [2 favorites]


The complaint is about wage stagnation, when really, the problem is being completely unwilling to pivot to types of writing that remain profitable, or business models that are not nearly as time-consuming as long-form journalism.

Most of what I've found, when seeking that kind of work, has been vaguely scammy in a way I've been personally unwilling to tolerate. I'm pleased to know that's not the experience everyone is having! But most of the opportunities I've found are for either highly targeted content-mill-style clickbait or self-help/self-improvement eBooks mostly targeted toward the holy grail of The Passive Income Stream, real-estate flipping, succeeding as an entrepreneur, or, ironically enough, how-to guides oriented at other suckers content creators, selling them strategies on How To Make A Living As A Writer. It all feels rather like a text-based version of this hell-of-sunk-costs Reply All episode.

It's been disheartening.
posted by halation at 5:03 PM on April 18, 2018 [6 favorites]


It's a simple supply and demand situation

Which means if you think it's bad now, wait until the glorious post-work future people here keep talking about. In a world where one of the only ways to gain more recognition is to be a creative, there'll be a hundred times as many artists competing for attention. A successful writer will be someone who has a hundred people read their stuff in a career. It will be like webcomics, except moreso.


Man, this sounds like a hell of a dreamy utopia. A world in which I can set out my writing, know that only the people for whom it resonates will bother to follow me, and a world in which my food isn't tied to my status?

Oh, bliss.

Look, I'm as competitive and status-driven as the next chick, but a world in which the only currency we compete for is attention sounds like so much less pressure and so much more relaxation than I could possibly imagine. I love drawing very specific corners of attention for the work I produce; too much, and it's nerve-wracking. The situation you describe I suspect is not likely to exist--content aggregators provide their own value, for one, and I imagine that taste-curators would quickly gain followings of their own, which results in increased exposure for featured artists.

It reminds me of the best aspects of media fandom, which is traditionally so demonetized that yes, attention is the primary currency at hand. It's wonderful.
posted by sciatrix at 7:50 PM on April 18, 2018 [3 favorites]


I tend to agree with jordantwodelta. The article critiques freelance writing for a very narrow value of "freelance writing" and I think there are niches out there that continue to pay well and can develop into a stable employment relationship. Full disclosure/ anecdata I am editor at a company that regularly gives returning writers raises, and I'm also close to 50K words/month during peak season. You can write proficiently at that scale, even if it's not "publish on medium and use as a writing sample" quality.
posted by ahundredjarsofsky at 9:34 PM on April 18, 2018 [3 favorites]


it means being willing to constantly re-evaluate your position

This may work for you if you’re literally freelance, i.e. a gun for hire, or not to put too fine a point on it, a mercenary. Some of us have an identifiable and consistent politics, though, and while there’s always such a thing as modifying your beliefs should new, contradictory and credible information come to light, being ideologically flexible is more generally understood as a species of hypocrisy.

You’re right: there will always be rewards, and occasionally rich ones, for those who are willing to do whatever the market requires of them. I could make a fucking fortune, for example, were I only willing to go out there and tell my audience that smart cities will solve all the knotted problems the urban condition confronts us with – “six figures” doesn’t even begin to describe the payday that’d await me if only I could bring myself to do that in print or from the stage.

The trouble is that it’s a lie. I don’t want to enrich myself by deceiving an audience, propping up an illegitimate discourse and helping funnel money toward institutions and individuals I have little to no respect for. Is this a privileged position? Maybe it is. Maybe I’d think differently in extremis, if selling my integrity was what I needed to do to put food on the table. Short of that, though? No and hell no. There are some positions you don’t reëvaluate for the sake of a paycheck.
posted by adamgreenfield at 1:21 AM on April 19, 2018 [9 favorites]


I've been writing professionally since 1998. I do okay (I mean this sincerely. I do merely "okay," but I can pay rent and travel occasionally and buy records). But to be clear: the writing that pays my bills/rent/health insurance is 100% not the long-form feature articles, clever essays and literary short stories I once imagined would constitute the bulk of my professional life as "writer." I mean, I spent yesterday writing press releases and editing Instagram posts about bluegrass. Today, I will write a travel newsletter. Tomorrow, I'll write a Seller's Guide for a realtor. And maybe over the weekend, I'll copy-edit a master's thesis from an ESL student for extra $$.
posted by thivaia at 5:02 AM on April 19, 2018 [5 favorites]


tell my audience that smart cities will solve all the knotted problems the urban condition confronts us with – “six figures” doesn’t even begin to describe the payday that’d await me if only I could bring myself to do that in print or from the stage.

What are smart cities, and why can a person be paid so well writing in favor of them?

Is the idea that you would be arguing in service of surveillance infrastructure? That's what the wikipedia article seems to suggest...
posted by theorique at 5:54 AM on April 19, 2018


I don’t want to enrich myself by deceiving an audience, propping up an illegitimate discourse and helping funnel money toward institutions and individuals I have little to no respect for.

I certainly don't do this, and don't appreciate the insinuation that I do. I really don't understand how your comment relates in any way to what I wrote. You don't have to become a villain to make a good living as a writer. I find your association between profit and dishonesty insulting, frankly, not to mention bizarre.

Politics don't enter into any of my writing, ever. I am not sure we're even talking about the same thing, here.
posted by jordantwodelta at 8:54 AM on April 19, 2018 [1 favorite]


I don’t want to enrich myself by deceiving an audience, propping up an illegitimate discourse and helping funnel money toward institutions and individuals I have little to no respect for.

I think people tend to conceive of "freelance writing" as consisting solely of "pure" journalistic and artistic features-type writing on the one hand, and straight-up propaganda machines/Faux News press releases on the other.

There is a vast amount of simply extremely practical, sometimes dull, businesslike but not monstrous writing to be done in the world still. (on preview I see thivaia has also made this point already)

I make my living (and a decent one, most years) doing that kind of writing. If the institutions and individuals for which you personally have no respect are, you know, ALL OF THEM, then that's fine and no, this kind of writing will not be for you. If you find schools and hospitals and clinics to be part of an "illegitimate discourse" then yeah, I'm a propaganda monster I guess, because that's who pays my bills.

I am not a "writer," in the artistic sense. I do no creative writing of my own, I have no creative authorial ambitions. And maybe that's the only reason I'm able to do this; many of my more artistically-minded brethren have fled my field because it's "too corporate," because we have to write what clients tell us, and because sometimes the clients are idiots. And that's a shame, because it's a field that needs more progressive, thoughtful, inclusive voices in it, particularly when the client is the non-malicious variety of idiot -- a variety far more common than the actively malicious one.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 9:46 AM on April 19, 2018 [3 favorites]


I tend to agree with jordantwodelta. I work in digital marketing for non-profits and used to be the digital director for the US branch of a large international NGO. It was really, really, really freaking hard to find people who could do the kind of writing we needed them to do, which is essentially writing for a specific purpose (in our case, that purpose was fundraising and advocacy for environmental causes, so not exactly evil and soulless).

This was especially maddening because there are conventions to this kind of writing and it's not hard to figure out what they are if you subscribe to the email lists of half a dozen similar orgs, and/or spend like 20 minutes on our blog. And yet, when we asked people to do a short writing assignment, or to send us relevant writing samples, I'd say only about 10% of people would hit the mark. And by "hit the mark" I don't mean "write in our exact voice, in the exact structure I like" but "write in the generally accepted conventions of this form" - these are things like making sure a fundraising email has links to the donation form, and having paragraphs that are not walls of text.

When I was hiring staff members, I was a little more lax because I figured if they could write, I could train them on the job (though honestly I was always a little annoyed about this because no one gave me that training! I figured it out from reading other orgs' materials!).

But when it came to hiring freelancers, well, we paid and treated freelancers really well, so I kind of expected them to come in knowing the conventions. And it was honestly shocking to me how few of them actually did. It really made me realize that if you can actually write well to the specifications of what a client wants, you can still do quite well as a freelance writer (at least until the AI fundraising bots get wind of this).

So now I'm a freelancer myself, and I'm only four months in but, knock on wood, it's going really well both financially and personally. I think next year I will probably make significantly more than I did as a senior manager at the international NGO, while working less. I have a lot of advantages, like having worked in the nonprofit world for a long time, and thus having personal connections and brand-name-bestowed legitimacy, so I don't want to say just anyone could jump right in and freelance and have success right away. BUT I will say, that if you can find your niche and make a name for yourself as someone who can write quickly and well and without a lot of hand-holding for the kind of work your client needs, you can do well freelancing.

No, it's not writing 5,000 word personal essays for the New Yorker, or important investigative journalism. But I remember when I was coming out of college, everyone, just everyone, told me there was no way I'd ever make a living off my writing skills, and I wish I'd known how wrong they were.
posted by lunasol at 10:59 AM on April 19, 2018 [6 favorites]


In general, I don't work for people I hate or have no respect for. Again, the vast majority of people I write for are small businesses and non-profits, mostly on the arts/education end. I've also written case statements and grants and fundraising materials for a lot of clients I actually believe are doing good work and trying to make the world (or more accurately, some small, often local part of it) not so shitty all the time. When you tell people you write advertising or PR, they tend to immediate jump to that worst case "You write Coke jingles and sell cigarettes to kids*, so not today, Satan." When the work I do (and much of the work that anyone does outside of giant agencies) is more like "write in this Annual Report what local Arts Council monies support" or "do a website for a local green builder" or "manage the press for a youth summer music festival."
posted by thivaia at 12:43 PM on April 19, 2018 [3 favorites]


I find your association between profit and dishonesty insulting, frankly, not to mention bizarre.

Be insulted if you like, but I'm only responding to your words. You said, "There is a THRIVING market for freelance writing, but it means being willing to constantly re-evaluate your position and take action to tailor and expand your client base to meet your expectations of income, and the topics you enjoy writing about." How am I to interpret that, if not to mean that you are counseling writers to modify their positions based on what the market is willing to pay for?

"Dishonesty" is a strong word — and, note, not one that I suggested applied to you — but is that not precisely the connection you're making, between success as a freelancer and a certain ideological flexibility, or willingness to dance to the piper's tune? I apologize if I've misunderstood you, but I don't think I have. I think you've made yourself clear, and that your counsel is one I don't wish to accept, because whatever money there is to be made, it simply isn't worth enough to me.

What are smart cities, and why can a person be paid so well writing in favor of them? Is the idea that you would be arguing in service of surveillance infrastructure? That's what the wikipedia article seems to suggest...

Yes — more or less this precisely, albeit dressed up in assurances about optimized efficiency, enhanced sustainability and maximized convenience. I'm sorry to have chosen such an obscure example, but this happens to be the domain I operate in, and therefore the "market" for expression that I'm personally most familiar with. As with most technology-adjacent fields, the money is in either breezily optimistic promotion or, somewhat more palatably, trends analysis. If you're willing to go with the flow of any given moment, and invest your credibility in telling your audiences that the next big thing is AR, or IoT, or machine learning, or blockchain, it is true that you will never lack for opportunities. I'm sure you can think of parallel examples in your own field.

I can't imagine that it's much different in any other field, though, which is why I make the point that jordantwodelta found so offensive: you'll never want for anything if you're moderately talented, discreet, a hard worker, and willing to push the party line, whatever it should happen to be at present. It's such a trivial observation that I'm kinda surprised anyone would take umbrage at it, isn't it? I mean, we know this.
posted by adamgreenfield at 2:02 PM on April 19, 2018 [2 favorites]


You said, "There is a THRIVING market for freelance writing, but it means being willing to constantly re-evaluate your position and take action to tailor and expand your client base to meet your expectations of income, and the topics you enjoy writing about." How am I to interpret that, if not to mean that you are counseling writers to modify their positions based on what the market is willing to pay for?

Not jordantwodelta, but I interpreted this not in terms of "political positions" but in terms of "business position," ie, how you position yourself in the market.

I know not everyone is going to be comfortable with that, either (and I myself have some mixed feelings about the role of consultants in the non-profit sector), but something we're all forced to do on some level in a capitalist system (ie, if you want a professional job, you have to have the right kind of resume and maybe be on LinkedIn, if you want a retail job, you have to "position" yourself as being customer-friendly and willing to work whatever hours they throw at you).
posted by lunasol at 2:26 PM on April 19, 2018 [2 favorites]


Be insulted if you like, but I'm only responding to your words. You said, "There is a THRIVING market for freelance writing, but it means being willing to constantly re-evaluate your position and take action to tailor and expand your client base to meet your expectations of income, and the topics you enjoy writing about." How am I to interpret that, if not to mean that you are counseling writers to modify their positions based on what the market is willing to pay for?

I think that the word 'market' makes it clear that I am talking about business position. Not ideology. That's a huge stretch to make, and I don't really understand how that could have been misinterpreted. I don't appreciate you putting words in my mouth by describing your own perspective on freelancing, and then saying 'I think you've made yourself clear,' and labeling your position as my 'counsel.'

As a freelancer, I run my own business. I stay on top of trends in the industries I write about or cover. I don't understand what 'party line' you are talking about. I only write about topics that I am passionate about, I love what I do, and you don't seem to understand how that's possible. You're talking like I am lashed to some nefarious corporate agenda that controls my writing decisions, or that I am chasing dollars over everything else. Nothing could be further from the truth.
posted by jordantwodelta at 4:50 PM on April 19, 2018 [2 favorites]


Income and an ethical position are not incompatible. Not all industries have a party line, or require writers to produce material with a "stand." I mean, yes, any kind of writing-for-hire is ethically suspect insofar as you are selling your voice to fuel capitalism etc etc etc but I don't see any inherent ideological conflict in, say, writing technical manuals or textbooks. I can think of parallel examples to IoT or AR in my field - but I *don't* need to go after them in order to earn my keep.
posted by ahundredjarsofsky at 6:54 PM on April 19, 2018 [2 favorites]


If you're willing to go with the flow of any given moment, and invest your credibility in telling your audiences that the next big thing is AR, or IoT, or machine learning, or blockchain, it is true that you will never lack for opportunities. I'm sure you can think of parallel examples in your own field.

Thanks for the detailed explanation - that makes sense.

Does your objection come from thinking that:
  • "smart cities" (or these other highly hyped examples you mentioned) are bad or toxic ideas?
  • they have some promise, but to make good money as a writer, you have to overhype/oversell them?
  • there's no demand for nuance, criticism, analysis, or considering both sides?
  • or something that I haven't mentioned here?
At least in the smart cities example, I'd think there would be some interest in analyzing privacy considerations, the implications of surveillance, and so forth, but maybe paid articles just want to create a market for widgets and/or sell them, and don't want to mention or acknowledge the downstream implications of widgets.posted by theorique at 4:57 AM on April 20, 2018


Well, shit. For a long time, I very much wanted to be a writer, whatever the hell that meant. As adulthood encroached, I realized I didn't really have anything to say, or at least anything that people would find worth reading, and so I sort of gave up, and set it aside. For the most part, the "writing" I've done over the past decade has been here, or very rarely, as inappropriately long screeds on Facebook that no one probably ever reads.

But the thing is, I've finally got a topic, an intimately lived personal experience that might possibly be a valuable lesson for others contemplating the very-not-good chain of decisions I made, and seeing this, among other things, it seems I've managed to miss by decades any chance of turning any of that into a book that would be anything other than a vanity publication.

If you don't mind, I'm going to go home and engage in that age old struggle between drinking myself senseless to forget all of this and just going to bed because I have to be up in the morning to go to work because the world long since ceased to care how I pay my bills, just that they're paid on time and in full.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:53 AM on April 20, 2018 [1 favorite]


willingness to dance to the piper's tune?

Oh please. Do you have ANY job? Have you ever had any job? Do you wear clothing when you leave the house and fundamentally obey laws and participate in capitalism to acquire your food and shelter? Then you are just as willing to "dance to the piper's tune" as anyone else. Like all of us, you just picked your piper and now you work to convince yourself and everyone else it's the best possible piper.

But I mean whatever, if pure-hearted artists like you won't stoop to the menial, sellout sheeple work of writing the textbooks that teach your kids reading and history and science then I guess that's just more paying work for me.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 7:59 AM on April 20, 2018 [5 favorites]


I've been a professional writer since 1992, when I won my first AP award. I miss being able to pay freelance writers $1600 per article, but those days are gone.

I make a decent enough living as a writer and editor, but the stuff I write about wasn't ever political. Unless online dating articles that explore in-depth what couple's fMRI brain scans look like when they hear their partner's name is somehow political...

Or writing website content for roboticists, or historical review comparisons of 50-year Broadway revivals, or being an SEO consultant for a national bank chain, or helping a friend re-edit her first novel to be gender-neutral...

A friend of mine asked what the difference was between a writer and a copywriter. The first one gets a byline, the second gets a paycheck.

If you want to earn a living wage writing/editing, leave your name off it. If your ego won't let you, write a book. That's my advice, and I've helped a lot of writers get published/have book deals/break records. THEM, not me. ;) I find it more sustainable.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 10:34 PM on April 20, 2018


Not-so-tangentially-related pet peeve: I cannot count the number of occasions, during my sojourns in the corporate and military worlds, on which some higher-up insisted on delivering some text I was working on half-baked, with the admonishment not to spend so much time “wordsmithing.”
I work in education, primarily as an editor but now also as a writer of short scripts and educational games; you really don't want to hear my stories - bullshit hackwork of the most craven, detestable kind runs fucking rampant. My current department/university is obsessed with "innovation" and we hitch our cart to whatever trend looks to be fastest moving at a given time, rigor be damned. That's a business position, and it's the "market" at work, but it absolutely is political and ideological, too. It just likes to pretend it isn't. How I long for the days when "innovation" still meant "change for its own sake, without purpose or utility."

Most of my editing work is cleaning up materials by well-meaning academics who can teach but can't write, though we get the same proportion of cheats, frauds, and scammers as any other field.

The writing they have me do is mostly related to things like gamification and corporate-training models of education, which are things I find abhorrent, for the most part (there are some valuable things in the gamification space, but whooooaa you need to be careful with it). I am not in a position, financially, to refuse such work, the contract environment being what it is. Reminds me of a friend who loathes the beauty industry and the burden it so often places on women, but who makes a lot of her money writing upbeat fluff pieces about the joys of makeup, because she's also not in a position to say "no". It's hypocrisy, sure, but for both of us it beats what we did before. The key thing for both of us, I think, is not pretending it's not political/ideological work, and not pretending we aren't hypocrites--part of why I prefer to stay on the editing side, mostly, if it has to be mercenary labour. In the meantime, we look for something more.

The only real leeway I get as a writer is when I review books, for which I get about $0.30 a word (Canadian), and for which 10-12 hours of work usually winds up netting me about $150. Editors in that space generally keep out of my hair, although unless it's for a venue like Brick they make whatever change they like to my copy without consultation (I've only ever been dissatisfied with one such change, though--adding the phrase "for my money" to a review--I mean, fuck off, that's not even remotely my voice).

(I've read all of Adam's books; "pure-hearted artist" and "ego" are not the first places I'd jump to--perhaps "reluctant Cassandra"?)
posted by Fish Sauce at 1:13 PM on May 16, 2018


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