Freelance Writers and Getting Paid

Writing is not the same thing as being a writer. Lots of people write. Many do a good job of readable emails, reports, even articles. But not everyone who can manage is keyboard is a writer, no more than anyone who sings in the shower is a musician.

Good writing is clear and direct. Easy to read. Grammatically correct. Written with clear syntax. Bad writing is what you get when you don’t know what good writing is, or don’t want to pay for good writing.

Writing takes training, practice, and a lot of work. I know. I’m a writer. So I get a bit cranky when the art and work of writing is shrugged off as “content providing.” And I get even more cranky when I pitch an idea to a magazine, and the editor writes back and says that they love the idea, but they don’t pay. Because it’s a privilege to appear in their magazine; having my work published is an honor. Yes, thank you, of course it’s an honor, but it is tough to buy gas with honor and privilege. The plumber does not think it is a privilege to fix the water leak, he expects to be paid for his time and expertise, and so do I.

Yes, some beginning writers need to write for very little so they can build a portfolio. I’m past that now. I read a lot of content, and I don’t see very many good writers. I see a lot of writers who don’t understand copyright or plagiarism, who think Google is a research tool, and who don’t understand when to use the nominative or the objective case.

Writing is a profession. It takes training, practice and dedication. And if I agree to work for pennies on the dollar, I am the one to blame for accepting that as a wage. On the other hand, if many writers who can live on pennies a day undercut writers who won’t, the system becomes unbalanced. Writing is devalued.

It’s happened with other professions. The work is outsourced and the value diminishes. It’s easy to settle for content, instead of writing. Cheap, starchy filler will always be easier to get than good, solid, well-crafted writing. Be careful. You are what you read.

-Quinn McDonald is a writer and creativity coach who works with writers.

25 thoughts on “Freelance Writers and Getting Paid

  1. Pingback: Freelance Writing: Should You Specialize? - Alexandra Romanov

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  3. I’ve been working my way through Jaron Lanier’s “You Are Not A Gadget” as an audiobook lately, and he addresses this same thing, less individual and more “internet culture is not gonna work” sorts of terms. Have you read it?

  4. I don´t call myself a writer any more (I did when I was about 12) but I write. I write because I have things to say.
    I have neither formal writing training nor translating training. I´ve been doing both this week for my blogs. A lot was written with you in mind, keeping the structures as close to each other as possible. Hope it´s useful.
    Sometimes we have theories on how we would react to something and then when the time comes, it´s different. It goes both for Hanna´s take on getting published for the thrill of it vs. the need to pay the bills and also for Pete´s take on letting go of the feeling vs. seething (I know, you didn´t say as much but I liked the image).

  5. Meant to mention this before — “outsourcing” started happening in the computer industry decades ago. A funny thing happened: Indian and Chinese programmers got better. In India, which I have more experience with, the quality of their code is probably now better, on the average, than in the US. Another funny thing happened though: if you really want the best quality output, you set up teams in both places and start sending people here from there and vice versa.

  6. Thanks for pointing this out. I know it but I tend to forget, especially when I’m offered to write and get all happy about it (they want me?) and then remember to ask how much they pay and they say: nothing. Happened this week, made me sad. I would love to do it, but probably shouldn’t. :-/

  7. I love words and writing and it really annoys me when bad grammar and “typos” or misuse of homonyms are prevalent in the newspapers or magazines; sometimes in headlines. How will anyone learn if those errors are seemingly okay in formal print venues? I volunteer for a local organization and a man, a former reporter, was producing the newsletter quite carelessly. I sent him the section for my part of the organization and he retyped it for formatting and made several careless mistakes. The next time I sent it to him digitally so that would not happen. He still made changes that were incorrect so I wrote him a nice note asking him not to rewrite my work. He quit the whole newsletter and told me I could do it myself! I ended up producing it for the next 3 years.
    I took a course in writing for children years ago, but never got up the courage to send any of my work to a publisher even though they told me I was ready to do so. I did write a poem called Amazing Grace for UUs and showed it to my friends in my congregation and several of them paid $10 to the church for a copy, and I have taken pictures and written poems about them that my sister (a fairly “picky” person 🙂 ) says I should try to sell at our local artist co-op or on line, so maybe I am better than I think.
    But when I read blogs like this, and essayists like Willem Lange I think better of it.

  8. Greetings from a retired editor. Loved your point about Google not being a research tool! Nor is a spell checker a dictionary. Ever since desktop publishing was invented, everyone and his dog thinks he’s a writer.

    It’s an absolute delight to read your daily posts, not just for your creative thinking, but also for the quality of your writing, which is a rarity on the internet.

  9. Part of what you’re describing is characteristics of last century’s publishing industry. Middle-men took over the business of controlling the relationship between audience and creator. Not entirely egregiously — at that time it took serious money to print, ship, and market those products, and like a lot of endeavors in the old days the “industrial model” of thinking was ascendant. By that I mean thinking of everything in terms of a production line turning out a huge number of identical items that you then send along, again fairly mechanically, to a “mass market” where everybody gets the same stuff.

    The case is altered at every point. It no longer requires large investments to make an item of entertainment or information widely available, it’s no longer required that everyone get exactly the same stuff — assuming an iPhone is a whole system composed of the hardware substrate and the set of software chosen by the user, every single iPhone in the world is quite unique. And the “mass market” is fading as it becomes possible to treat each person more individually — which is only going to accelerate.

    Writing is very much like programming, but the middle-men over the last hundred or so years did their best to obscure the way it actually works. Again not egregiously (which, for example, was not the case in the music industry, where con artists set up shop in the ’40s and ’50s and — I think to their astonishment — became the establishment). The way programming works is:
    1. Come to an understanding of a problem, or part of it.
    2. Formulate a solution.
    3. Improve your solution to be as effective, beautiful, and elegant as you can.
    4. Test your solution to see how well it works.
    5. Loop back to step 3 as many times as you can. Sometimes go back to step 1.
    6. Ship it.

    The publishing industry placed their claim on steps 3 through 6, and obscured the nature of those steps to the extent that (I think) many writers are not even clearly aware of how to do them. That’s what I see missing in the writing field. A core part of any education in programming is “how to test your code”, and by extension “how to stand in relationship to your work”. A programmer will, in my experience, be grateful when a flaw is identified. That doesn’t seem to be something writers are typically taught.

    I’m not going to argue about copyright other than to say that it is another invention of middlemen, and the case is now altered.

    • I see all those steps as part of writing, but I also see writing as a whole separate bunch of steps. Copyright is an issue largely because we sue each other over it–and so have to be careful. But it is also related to plagiarism, which almost no one under the age of 35 cares much about. And, as a writer, I think its important to give credit to root ideas that are not original. And yes, there may be a limited number of truly original ideas. But I still want to get paid for the work of writing, because it is not a skill everyone has equally.

      • There aren’t ANY original ideas that can be attributed to an individual. I would suggest — not “argue”, at least not yet, that there never have been any. As for those under 35, I think collectively there’s a deep trend away from the greedy, entitled egotism that characterized the previous century. I think that mindset is an outcome of poverty and fear, both of which are also — very slowly — changing.

        A thought experiment I run constantly, trying to reevaluate every situation: “what if there is enough for everybody”? Enough food, enough friends, enough satisfaction, enough music, enough love, enough money, enough confirmation that you and what you do are thoroughly okay. What I reevaluate is my own reaction to situations, and I discover, often as not, that the jealousy, protectiveness, agression, and fear in my initial reaction to something I think is “unfair to me” goes away because it’s not sane. (Not “insane” but more like “unsane” in Szasz’s sense).

        One thing that has surprised me by dissolving is my jealous, egotistical celebration of my own cleverness; my nose-in-the-air assurance that as a human my self-aware cognition makes me ever-so-wonderful. Even Neanderthals had bigger brains after all. And processes with no awareness or cognition at all routinely best my self-aware cognition (I have, for example, lost games against computer programs I wrote myself). Every I idea I convince myself that “I have” (some pretty greedy language there) is also “had” by innumerable others, including the expression of the idea.

        Credit? I would as a rule prefer to help someone feel happy about something rather than the alternative, so if giving credit helps with that I’m all for it. But it can be elusive in many areas. If I knew an individual named Smith really believed he had been the first to say “as a rule”, I’d try to say “…as a rule, in Smith’s words…”. That’s true of every combination of words in everything I write and say. This goes deeper than you might think, by the way. Giving credit is in a sense a “message about the message”. In networking theory it’s well known that you have to be very careful about that sort of thing. Even today, when you send some kinds of text messages on your mobile phone, the amount of data traversing the network ABOUT your message — what it is, where it’s from, where it’s intended to go, where that destination is, how to formulate a route to get there — FAR exceeds the message itself.

        Information increases linearly, but information about the information increases geometrically. There’s enough for everyone.

        • I agree with what you wrote when I’m reading it. When I see my blogs hijacked with other people’s names on them, when I see my artwork, exactly as it appeared on my blog, on someone else’s blog, with their name on it, I’m less generous. Not too long ago, I ran across an art instructor who was teaching Monsoon Papers. Now, I don’t for one second think I invented surface decoration, or even surface decoration made with ink, but I did create the name Monsoon Papers attached to those papers, and what roasted my groats was not that she was teaching surface decoration, but that she was too lazy to come up with her own title.

          Here’s the sentence you wrote I admire: “What I reevaluate is my own reaction to situations, and I discover, often as not, that the jealousy, protectiveness, agression, and fear in my initial reaction to something I think is “unfair to me” goes away because it’s not sane. (Not “insane” but more like “unsane” in Szasz’s sense).” Of course, we see our faults more clearly in others. And yes, they are our faults we see. I do get tripped up when it comes to earning a living–dealing with others and getting paid for it. If I am feeling compassionate about people, can see their reluctance to pay, I often think, “Well, I can let it go.” When that is just an avoidance of doing what I have to do–ask for the money I deserve. The life of a freelancer is a little different than a salaried employee.

          • I’ve been both, although I’ve hardly ever worked for individual clients. I think this is mostly because the individuals who find what I make useful typically expect it to be provided as a part or even a characteristic of something they buy, not as a thing that stands alone.

            Things are changing, in any case. Have you seen KickStarter? It’s a reversal of the “work first then hope for money” sequence. Each project is its own Maltese Falcon.

          • Not only have I seen Kickstarter, but one of the projects I funded turned out a product I wanted, and then I got to buy the product! It’s the clamp that holds my iPhone to my tripod at any angle so I can do hands-free videos.

          • The sentence that rang true for me is yours, Quinn. “Of course, we see our faults more clearly in others.” My husband Bob criticized my two sons far more than they deserved. But one night we watched a Billy Jack movie in which the Indian medicine man told Billy,(paraphrase here) “the things we criticize in others are the ones we most dislike in ourselves.” Bob dropped nearly 90 percent of his criticism of them after watching that show. I can’t tell you how that still amazes me that he applied the wisdom and made it work for us. I’m not sure that I have ever measured up to that example.

          • It must have really struck a chord with him. And it is absolutely true. Often, when someone makes me grumpy, I think “how do I do that?” It’s not always fun to see your faults, but it is always MUCH easier to see them in others.

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