Writers Are Not a Dime a Dozen

Originally posted March 2013

I can’t perform heart surgery. And if I needed a heart surgeon, I wouldn’t ask him or her to do my surgery for free.

And maybe if I tried really hard, I could do my taxes. But should I take them to an accountant, I wouldn’t ask him or her do complete my forms for free.

I got to thinking about this after I saw a link to this article posted on my friend’s Facebook page. A highly respected writer being asked by a highly respected magazine if he would like to re-purpose a previously published piece for that publication—for FREE. This irks me to no end.

A professional writer is just that—a professional. We’ve already done our “free” work, usually in the form of internships. And a bunch of us have already performed slave labor. In fact, my first job as the sole reporter for a weekly paper paid me less than I would have made working the register at my local Burger King.

And let’s be honest—writers don’t go into the profession because it promises champagne dreams. The very, very lucky few actually land jobs that pay in the six-figure range, and in many cases, those involve either a) super heavy duty technical writing; b) experience that has led to a syndicated column and book advances; or c) having the goods on your boss that will put them behind bars for 15 – 20.

But we do want to make a decent living. I (my parents) paid handsomely for my college degree. I went to school to learn how to write. I knew how to put a sentence together prior to college, but yes—journalism is in fact a skill. Like math. Like science. Can it be creative? Sure. And maybe that’s why writers tend to be treated more and more like the starving actor making ends meet by waiting tables in between acting gigs. But it’s no less comforting. Great—we’re creative. We still want money. (And so do those actors. And no, I’m not willing to show my boobs.)

This is why I hate the Internet. (Just kidding. I love it and lose my shit if I lose my connection for more than 30 seconds. Really. I have a problem.) Thanks to the WWW, anyone who deems themselves the next F. Scott Freakin’ Fitzgerald can put it out there for the world to see. They can blog, they can journal, they can post stream-of-consciousness blathering about chickens and cats mating to create a super species that takes over Mars. They can upload videos of their acting auditions that had them kicked out of community theater tryouts, but they were convinced could become the next Oscar-nominated short film. Don’t get me wrong—the upside of the web is that there are talented people out there who may not have had an outlet to write, sing or act, but can now be discovered—like the bloggers I share web real estate with—without having to sell their soul. It’s just that there’s no filter on the Web, just a counter for clicks. And there are some dunderheads on the business side of the profession that think a high number of clicks equates with high quality. (Case in point? Justin Bieber.)

And what’s become truly unfortunate in this is that previously paid creative types—whether it be acting, singing, or writing—are also being forced in the direction of the web and into competition with everyone’s favorite cat video. And God forbid if you actually want to try to make a living on the web. I recently had coffee with an actress and comedienne who shared her frustration that after a couple of years’ effort at getting her work off YouTube and onto her own site where she could recoup the cost of that work, she had people commenting on her site that she was essentially bad for wanting money for her work. (And people still have to ask bloggers how much money they make …. hahahahahaha.)

What’s particularly disconcerting with the aforementioned piece is that the magazine asking for a free submission was The Atlantic. Really? I worry that good—really good—journalism is going to continue to be forced underground and on to obscure websites by larger corporations looking to make the biggest bang for the buck. Why send a seasoned journalist to a local school board or city council meeting when you can just summarize the minutes without any context? Why employ a copy editor when the CEO thinks that the spell check function in Word suffices? Why hire a competent, proven writer that can get the job done when you can post a job opening on Craigslist that promises $20 for 400 words?

Is there a point to this? Not really—this isn’t a new concern for anyone who is or ever was a journalist or a writer. We’ve all watched the downward trend the last 20-plus years. And I’m just as guilty—I still owe my deliriously talented designer friend a box of wine for the logo she made for me. I’m just ranting a bit, and now I’m done. Just remember, the next time you see a guy or gal with a cardboard sign that says, “Will Write for Food?” I’m happy with a PB and J.

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