When Writing Does Not Pay
There’s no shortage of pseudo-inspiring listicles and publications promising riches in exchange for writing on the internet.
Because money is something everyone needs to live and many of us lack, these pieces are insanely popular.
These “Here’s how to Make Megabucks Every Week Writing Online” pieces all have one thing in common: the person they will enrich isn’t you. Instead, you’re the one footing the bill.
Greed leads and grabby fingers aren’t shy about sharing how they make thousands so you give them your money. And people do, time and again.
It’s the greatest con in the business and it props up an entire associated industry, offering anything from coaching to software, paid newsletters, online courses, and webinars.
And a plethora of same-sounding articles tapping into human gullibility and thwarted dreams, day in, day out.
Alas, no piece of software is going to make you write better if you have nothing to say or aren’t willing to put in the work. Neither is there a course that can make up for having nothing of interest to contribute.
Luring people to the craft of writing by telling them that, if you only have the right mindset, it’s easy money, is not only disingenuous but makes a mockery of writing.
Reframing expectations honestly and transparently would be more helpful but also less lucrative than just telling people what they want to hear. And yet, being realistic can prevent the kind of frustration that lead many talented writers to give up too soon.
Writing is a craft.
Craft implies two things: skill and effort. While many have a natural inclination for writing, it won’t be enough if you don’t know how to construct a piece. Some skills are necessary — you can get them through practice, observation, and professional training.
However, curiosity and grit can substitute for the latter so no, you do not have to shell out thousands of dollars or join anyone’s mailing list to become a writer. But the determination and courage to write a lot, until you can produce copy that others want to read, is key.
Another essential is the ability to make a distinction between quality and quantity. Typing out whatever goes through your head is just that — typing on the internet. While you might luck out and end up with a crowd-pleaser once in a blue moon, it isn’t a reliable way of producing quality copy with any consistency.
Writing is people-focused work.
The world’s largest public service broadcaster — Britain’s BBC — has one remit: “to enrich people’s lives with products and services that inform, educate, entertain.” If you produce copy that does one, two, or all three, you can’t go wrong.
Being a human in the world is a tentative pursuit and the ongoing popularity of personal essays shows we still haven’t got a clue how to be. Living is something we all make up as we go along and sharing stories about the various ways we’re winging it is how we learn from one another.
Does this mean you can get paid for navel-gazing? No. Again, writing isn’t about you but about what value you can offer others.
When you frame the personal in universal terms, writing becomes a service. When you frame the personal into personal terms, writing becomes branding. No one wants to read about how you inspire yourself or have become your own superhero. Self-love is attractive, megalomania less so.
It might fascinate readers for a while but they’ll eventually walk away. Supplying schadenfreude can sometimes fare better as it feeds our fascination with failure, but this won’t help you either.
To write well you need self-confidence, so please don’t undermine yourself in print, or pawn your privacy or that of those you write about for clicks and a quick buck.
The only way you might be able to choose your paycheck with writing is when you do it professionally.
Even then, it’s contingent on having repeat clients, being on monthly retainers, and then hustling for ad hoc work on top of that.
Or receiving a set fee per piece and having the freedom — and stamina — to crank out as many of those as possible, as with product reviews or similar commercial work. This kind of writing is generally poorly paid and unlikely to lead to riches. No matter how proficient you might be, there are only 24 hours in a day and you will burn out.
The human brain isn’t a machine and it needs rest to function properly. Writing calls for the ability to organize, sort, and select information. The more tired you are, the harder it gets until you end up producing copy no amount of editing can ever redeem.
Here’s the grim truth: For those of us whose income is mostly based on the audience engagement model, precariousness and an unpredictable paycheck are the norm.
You may chain yourself to your laptop for eight hours or more a day, you may even have years of professional experience, but there are no guarantees that what you write about will resonate or even be seen.
If anything sounds too good to be true then it probably is and the chances are we’re not being told the full story. Rather than enrich those who tell you writing lets you choose your paycheck, focus on earning yours.
Invest your time in your work, instead on squandering it on theirs.
Do this with enough consistency and your efforts will eventually pay off, with human and editorial returns that may change your life.
Financial returns, meanwhile, will probably remain variable.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.