Writers Choose Wisely

A couple of months ago, I received 4 emails from aspiring writers who wanted to know how to make a living as a freelance writer. I answered them individually, but I thought what I had to say might be of interest to others too.

I'm presenting it here, combined with a post I published last year on my "commercial" blog which has a different reading audience than SlingWords.

The Trick Is To Get Paid

Most of the so-called freelance writing jobs advertised online are for what are called content mills. There are real freelance jobs posted, but you have to know how to separate the wheat from the chaff.

The never ending controversy over the pay offered to freelance writers is often played out in forums and on subscription based writers' email lists. I've been in the writing business a long time, and the one unchanging trend I've noticed is that writers' compensation has steadily decreased in the last 20 years.

This is true for book-length work from royalty-paying publishers to freelance writing for print and electronic media and to the prices for popular ebooks. The only saving grace with ebooks is that volume selling can actually generate a living wage.

Be Forewarned

This blog post is aimed at those who aspire to be professional writers, not at someone who has a full-time job and dabbles in writing as a way to earn a few extra bucks. There's a vast difference between the expectations of a professional and an amateur.

I think a rift has arisen because many who started out as dabblers now consider themselves professional, but they don't have the same professional expectations of writers who have been in the trenches for years. This may be one reason people write for writer mills and are happy to receive the small fees paid.

Old School

For those of us who have been around a long time, we feel forced to tilt at the windmill of better pay for writers. As professionals, we know how hard it is to craft an educational and entertaining article and present it articulately and compellingly to an audience whose attention is sought by Internet, TV, video games, books, periodicals, and more.

We know that if we sell an article that it may well be viewed millions of times. Why should we accept a hundred bucks for a well-researched article that will be published on a website and might well be read until long past our deaths?

Professional writers believe they should receive proper compensation that takes those facts into consideration. They believe their time in research, in writing, and their honed skills should be respected and remunerated. The problem is that in today's world the skill of writing isn't respected. Every blog owner considers himself a writer now. Too many people think a monkey could do what we pro writers do.

The Situation

Virtually no entertainment, from greeting cards to movies to websites to video games, would exist without writers yet we are the ones who end up with the smallest piece of the pie. Witness the Hollywood writers' strike a couple of years ago. It was all about writers trying to get compensation for new media rights. What they wanted amounted to about a nickel from a DVD sale. A lousy nickel.

Be Wary

For all of you who are trying to carve out a niche as a freelance writer, here's a little advice that might help you understand the rift between freelance writers and companies who chew up hundreds of writers and then leave those writers poorer for the experience and usually with no "clips" to show for their labor.

Writers like Angela Hoy of Booklocker and many others have done exposes about these content mills as they're called. Don't take my word for it. Do your own research which is easy with Google.

1. Don't kill the messenger.

When someone critiques a company such as Demand or any of the other content mills, don't feel compelled to launch an offensive on the person making the report.

2. Do feel compelled to read and analyze.

If your own experience is dissimilar, do your own fact checking to see if your experience is unique or the report is false. This is easy to do by creating a keyword phrase like "complaints about XYZ" and entering it in the search engine of your choice. It's easy to find information if you truly want to discover the truth or falseness of a claim.

3. Don't fail to read the Terms of Service.

No exceptions. For any business for whom you intend to write, know exactly to what you are agreeing, how it will be used, how and when you will be compensated, what rights you are selling, and how your private information will be used.

4. Do know what remedies are available to you if things go badly and always have a plan B.

5. Don't accept rudeness from anyone.

Rudeness should not be tolerated, on either side, in professional writing relationships. A true professional knows how to critique in a way that helps the writer produce better copy. A pro editor wants to build a solid relationship with writers where respect is given on both sides of the desk. No editor should insult a writer for any reason.

6. Do meet rudeness, if you get it, with calm professionalism.

Every person, even freelance copy editors, have someone to whom they answer. Find out who that someone is and file a complaint about the person if they are treating you badly, but be sure you can back up your complaint with evidence other than hearsay. Keep a paper trail of correspondence and be ready to produce it.

7. Don't let others make your decisions.

Read, research, and reflect. Draw your own conclusions. If Ima Writer says the company you write for sucks, don't feel bad even if you personally agree. You have your own reasons for staying with them. If Ima Writer says they're wonderful, but you don't think so, don't feel as if you have to persuade her to avoid them. She probably has her reasons too.

8. Do make conscious choices about the clients for whom you'll write.

If you choose to write for low pay, then acknowledge that it's low pay and that you have valid reasons for doing it, but don't try to convince others that it's not low pay. Don't deny the facts of the situation. Suck it up, do the best work you can, and look for better jobs.

Occasionally, there are times when all writers knowingly write for less than they should. They do this for many reasons from economic necessity to hoping it paves the way to a bigger job.

If your spouse is out of work, and you're scrambling to just create some income, then you may take any job that comes along. Why? Because earning bucks is the priority, not receiving proper compensation for your time and skills.

You may write for low pay because the client promises you a brass ring if you do X number of jobs at a low rate. Of course, we all know from experience that sometimes the client makes good on his promise, but sometimes he doesn't. It's a crap shoot. I know a lot of writers who have been disappointed with this scenario.

9. Don't take it personally.

Life is too short to get bent out of shape over what other people say. Sticks and stones. When you read something that questions the integrity of a website or client for whom you're writing, don't take it as a personal insult to you and your decision to write for them. Again, your decisions are your own. The writing business is hard and competitive, and it can grind your soul to dust if you let it. Don't let it.

10. Do learn how to write excellently.

On the Internet, writers in North America compete with writers from India and the Philippines where a buck an article for 100 articles is considered good pay. That writing though is sometimes not very good because idiomatic English is a skill not usually possessed by those who learn English as a second language.

For us in the U. S., compensation like that is not something we can live on, and I don't truly believe anyone can turn out 100 well-written, researched articles in a week or less. You have to know from the get-go that you're going to lose a lot of jobs to writers whose first language is not English because they'll work for pennies an hour.

The answer is not for you to revile those working for such low pay nor is it for you to attempt to do the same. Instead, polish your skills and become a consummate professional. You'll get the higher paying jobs from clients who want excellent writing and who will respect your ability.

If you want to call yourself a professional writer, use every writing job as a stepping stone to something better. To do this, you must be able to claim your writing. That means you need a byline on everything you write that's published. In print writing, samples of work are "clips." Use your clips or published work to create a portfolio to show prospective clients in order to get better jobs.

Takeaway Truth

Always remember that you deserve adequate compensation and make everything you do a step in that direction.

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