The reality is that the reality is never the fantasy.
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a kid. I dreamed that I would write in a rickety, old frame house and do my best to put peanut butter and tuna on the table for two kids. I’d bang out great pieces on my typewriter — yes, typewriter, because this was my ’80s fantasy. Somehow in that fantasy I was a struggling, single mom, happy in her writing, even as the personal life was unremarkable. Not sure why I automatically envisioned my writerly self as a single mom — did not even the teenage me see the value of a husband? The only conclusion I can come up with on that part is that not many dads were around, which is weird because I had a dad in the home, although he was rather emotionally unavailable.
But I digress.
In a Media Bistro interview, Antoine Fuqua, director of Olympus Has Fallen, which opened this weekend, said this: “Feed your artist.” I found that an appropriate reminder for us writers. You see, you can’t feed anything if you’re broke.
That’s why I had to rewrite my fantasy. In my fantasy, I was happy enough with writing to be content with being poor. I actually fantasized about being poor. Of living in a rickety house with barely enough means to support myself or my children. Because of love. Of writing. I embraced the starving artist stereotype in my fantasy.
But then reality hit. I realized that in the soft light of a fantasy, a churning belly is romantic. In the harsh light of real life, it’s tragic. I didn’t want to write a tragedy of my life.
So I decided the reality needed to be different from the fantasy. After reading A Day in the Life of a Digital Editor on The Atlantic recently, I knew that the lesson has been lost on way too many writers. Alexis Madrigal made an interesting case for why publications (often) ask writers to work for free. Publications decide some people can be paid decently and others can be asked to do the same work for little or no money. It’s all based on budgets (of course) and whether a writer is lucky enough to land a job as a staff writer, a paid contributor, or an unpaid freelancer who gets compensated with exposure.
I don’t fault the publications for their business models. Publishing is a tough business these days. Print is no longer what it once was and digital is still largely finding its revenue-generating way. Businesses set their rates and they can make offers to people to work. A writer can choose to accept or decline. If you accept a no- or low-paying gig, don’t complain about it. Suck it up and do the work. You agreed to do it. But if you get an offer you feel doesn’t properly compensate you, don’t be afraid to pass. Yep, say no. And move on.
Today’s writer must be something most writers are not interested in being: A business person. If you want to have a successful writing career, you must be a business person first. That’s the only way to “Feed your artist.”
You see, most of us grew up fantasizing about the beauty, grandeur, or, in my case, the romantic sacrifice of a writing career. We focused solely on the writing. Of creating something others would weep over or find hugely funny or marvel at in its eloquence. We thought a successful writing career was about the writing.
A successful writing career, today, is about seeing the return on your investment of time, skill, and expertise. If you’re not getting a return on your effort, then it’s not successful. Period. But only the writer can decide what return is worth it.
I generally advise writers not to write for free. Except when it makes sense to do so. Huh? Yeah. There are certain times when you may decide to write for free. But get this: It’s not for free. It may not be for a dollar amount, but it has to be worth something for you to consider it. If it truly is for free and there is no value or benefit to you, then you would be better off spending that time taking a nap. You’d get more of a benefit. But sometimes — in rare occasions — a writer should consider compensation beyond the dollar, when deciding whether to take on an assignment or project.
Writing for free — or for compensation other than a specific dollar amount — can be a smart career strategy if you are clear about what you are doing. Maybe you write for free as a guest blogger to gain access to a bigger blogger’s audience or to boost your own credibility. Or maybe you write for free to gain exposure in a noted publication because you are promoting a book and believe that publication’s audience would be interested. Or maybe you write for free to solidify a relationship or to parlay that opportunity into a specific benefit later. And get this: Sometimes you write for free just for the heck of it. Maybe it’s an assignment that you have interest in anyway and this publication provides an outlet for a type of work you would normally have no home for.
But writing for compensation other than money should be the exception in your writing career, rather than the rule. Many writers are starving right now because they have mistakenly taken on the belief that they must accept every assignment that comes their way, even if it isn’t all that great. They think building a career on the foundation of no-pay and low-pay assignments will one day pay off and usher them into the “big time.” They get sucked in by all the promises of “exposure” or “future opportunities.” Well, peeps, the future is now. The writing career you have right now is the future you were dreaming about just a short while ago.
Do Something Different to Get Something Different
Well, if you are disappointed with where your writing career is now — that you’re stuck writing for $10 or $20 a post or piece, then stop. Yes, stop. It’s as simple as that. Stop living as a starving artist and decide to be an artist entrepreneur, an ambitious entrepreneur. The shift is in both the mindset and the methodology. The mindset now means that you will seek out work that will pay you decently. You won’t just be grateful for any ol’ thing that comes your way. And the methodology means you will structure your business in a new way. You will set your rate. You will develop a brand. You will settle on a niche or type of work you will focus on now. You will conduct your writing career as a business person, and not as a hapless artist.
If you’ve been toiling away for ridiculous pay, you owe it to your talent, skill, and expertise to do something different. What you have been doing obviously isn’t working. I have a writer friend who writes for ridiculously low-paying assignments. I have talked with her about this, but she thinks this is the way to build a career. And maybe it was, in the beginning as a rank newcomer. But she’s been at this writing game for years now. It’s really time out for pay like that.
But I get why some writers take on such projects. Some don’t want to put the time or effort into developing an actual business. They’d much rather work for sites that will pay them such paltry sums in exchange for spoon-feeding them assignments. Or they would rather work with the few publications they know than take the time and effort to go find new avenues. They prefer starving to the work of making their own way.
I get that. After all, making your own way is tough. I’ve been there. Casting about for clients. Going weeks — months? — with no new money coming in. Feeling unsure about what you should be doing to make this thing work.
And even now, I wouldn’t call it easy. Sure, I have clients and a business that actually supports our family. But it comes with a lot of heavy lifting: I manage client demands, am always in marketing mode to land new business, and have to keep that bottom line in sight. I write for money, and sometimes love has to fall by the wayside: My fiction career doesn’t get as much attention as I’d like, but that is the sacrifice I make to keep the client projects coming and the work going well.
It takes time and effort to figure out your writing business. And you don’t build it overnight. But if you decide to focus on the business of writing, it does come.
You Can Make a Living Writing
Your writing reality can be so much better than some hazy fantasy. I know mine is. I’m not a single mom struggling to feed my kids peanut butter. I’m not a starving artist chasing $10 assignments. Instead, my husband and I run a writing business where we get to work with interesting clients doing significant work. I get to ghostwrite books for business owners and speakers, consultants, and professionals. I don’t bang out assignments, then look for publications that may or may not pay me for them. I decided a long time ago that the sexiest writing life of all was the well-paid one.
This may mean making some tough decisions. One decision I made years ago was to focus on business clients. The idea of writing for magazines sounded fun, but I wasn’t interested in the dismal pay rates many set. And I certainly wasn’t interested in having to wait months to be paid. I did some magazine writing early on, but decided to forgo it as I grew in my career. I could find my own business clients who would live by my terms and pay my rates. I didn’t need to grovel at the pen of some magazine editor. Of course I still fantasize about seeing a byline in some esteemed publication.
But then I realize I like eating better. It does feel good to feed my artist.
And my kid.
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