Writers will very often tell you that we write, whether we hate it at times or not, because, well, what else would we do? We have things to say, even if it’s to no one in particular. We have words to use, even if no one will praise us for them. So we write. And it’s gratifying in the same way breathing is.
But writing as a career—and being successful at it—would elicit an entirely different response. Many writers might advise younger ones to forget about it, find some other job and save writing for personal time, lest the stress and rejection and make them hate what they once considered an innate part of life (if we’re continuing the writing = breathing metaphor). I have my own advice to share.
The truth is, to be a successful, independent writer these days (i.e. not a full-time staff member at a publication), who is both able to publish his or her work, and be paid well—no, fairly—for it, is an extremely stressful pursuit, fraught with exceedingly unfavorable outcomes. And while my age may prevent me from making too many firsthand comparisons to the way of how things used to be, I can say that several modern-day occurrences have been damaging to a writer’s bottom line.
The rampant culture of shilling—providing coverage, favorable reviews, shout-outs, etc, in exchange for free clothes and gifts, comped dinners, cushy trips, exclusive scoops—has become so commonplace, that many of us don’t question the implications of an editor tweeting about a delicious meal she had with a publicist at a restaurant the publicist happens to represent. Or when another posts a Tumblr photo of the gorgeous new stilettos a designer just messengered over. Being influential has become a commodity, too often traded at shamefully low values.
The second threat to a writer’s bottom line is the mistaken regard for bloggers as journalists. Bloggers have vital roles in media today, but editors and journalists they are not—not most of them, at least. Sure, everyone’s allowed an opinion, but when it comes to well-written criticism, even then, there are standards. Saying you like or don’t like something has little meaning when you have few references to compare it to—the analysis gets lost. While deservedly reputable journalists strive to exhibit responsibility, credibility, and integrity in everything they write, that’s not enough. Once those basic, j-school requisites are met, they still need to know what the hell they’re talking about. Fashion journalists like Robin Givhan, Cathy Horyn and Suzy Menkes didn’t get their job titles because of the number of Twitter followers they have—it’s because they’re learned and well-versed in the fashion industry and its history.
So, my advice to is two-fold:
1. Don’t shill. And to the writers and bloggers who are already doing it (and you know who you are, shill-dren), stop. You’re driving the value of your work down in more ways than one. Not only will the integrity and originality of your writing suffer, but your editors, publishers, and bosses can also justify paying you nothing for it: A) because it is unoriginal and B) because they assume you’re already being compensated well enough in gifts, freebies, meals, and other “perks” that come with the job (which you probably are, but when was the last time an expensed meal at ABC Kitchen paid the rent?).
I should note here that of course it’s hard to avoid certain fringe benefits like giveaways, meals, and even genuinely friendly acquaintances that transpire over time. Sometimes you become friends with people you work with or write about—it happens. But think about the message and the conclusions that can be assumed of your tweets, shout-outs, name checks, etc, when you’re making them from a professional, not a personal, position.
2. Don’t undersell yourself. Writers are being paid less and less these days, largely because of the perceived ways we’re being otherwise compensated, but most of all because we accept such pithy fees. Obviously one wants to see his or her work published, and furthermore, there’s that growing sense of anxiety about staying relevant and on the radar. The fear that an editor will start to overlook you in favor of some other hungry writer should you decline the shoddy payments one too many times is a very real one, but this is where I challenge you to take a stand and try to prompt change. Unless we demand them, baseline wages are only going to lower. Dig your heels in, let the hungry novice take the job instead and deliver lousy copy. Let your editor and the publishers see that you get what you pay for. If this happens one too many times, the tide might just change. In the meantime, never stop trying to be a better writer. Read more. Delve even deeper into subjects you’re interested in. Become someone worth seeking out for your knowledge and your original ideas, as much as the way you structure a sentence.
And to the newer scribes who are willing to work for next to nothing: Your fellow writers are taking stand for the benefit of you all as well. Don’t cross that picket line.
(Image by Spanish Vogue)