Wednesday, December 21, 2011

[Wōdnes-dæg] A Lesson from Freelancing

This entry was written up for a Wednesday and so it is an exploratory essay, in the spirit of Odin (Wednesday's namesake) and his own search for knowledge.

For the past few months I've been working as a freelance writer. The income is humble so far, I (thankfully) haven't really needed to make anything comparable to a full time job because I've moved back in with my parents, but I'll be launching much more in the new year. And as my output increases, income is sure to - a truth that seems to be the result of the internet and the constant demand for content rather than an increase in magazines or anthologies hungry for technical articles or reviews.

Of course, as any one who has written internet content for pay before is likely to tell you, most positions pay peanuts. They'll usually pay a small fee per piece that works out to cents on the word, or, in a few cases, they'll pay you based on how many visits your articles get and how long those visits last. So in further explanation of my note above about increasing my output, doing so is a definite way increase my income as a content writer.

In spite of the low pay, content writing is work that I find to be quite fulfilling. Even if I'm writing about something that I haven't studied for months or years on end (building your own tap dance floor, for example). And, although having multiple outlets for my writing can be overwhelming, it is also encouraging - people still read! Writing and writers are still needed! It's not just a handful of people who can appreciate the written word! - but then, it is just internet content. In a way I feel like I am more of a pen for hire in this wired environment than I think I would were I freelancing fifteen or more years ago, when writers were still (almost) entirely print-based.

In spite of the somewhat transient nature of this work (the accounts don't go away but the assignments or titles sometimes do), I also learned that it can be as disheartening to lose a regular source of writing (and of income) as it can be to be called out by a boss or fired completely.

You see, I wrote for Demand Studios for a time. Yes, the pay per piece was not stellar, but the feeling of getting paid to do something that you genuinely enjoy is more exhilarating than hitting a runner's high or enjoying an excellent party. Of course, it is even more exhilarating when that pay is in a tighter proportion to the effort and the time spent creating a piece. I technically still write for DMS, but since they have essentially closed off new titles from all but the top percentile of their writers I've been unable to get any work with them.

This discovery struck a hard blow. I had been relying on DMS for months as a major source of income, and suddenly that source was gone. Of course, in any line of freelance work this is a major mistake. The very nature of freelance work is that there is generally no long-lasting bond between freelancer and employer/client. After the article or profile or essay is written, submitted, and approved, you no longer work for the person or company who requested/accepted it.

So why bother writing about this experience? Well, in the short term, it's a matter of putting to screen what doesn't work so that I can avoid doing it in the future. Of course, I want to be successful in earning a steady income from my writing and to do that I need to maximize my output. When one door closes I need to open another, or at least crack a window. Money can't squeeze through walls, after all.

But, for the long term, I write about this experience because I think that it is something that is now a much more frequent occurrence. In some of the forums that I have visited there are threads that ask just what a "writer" is. And on these threads is the opinion that people who write for sites like DMS are not really writers at all. They are given article titles that they just need to fulfill, they only care about the byline, and they are more than pleased to get peanuts for what they put their mind and their fingers to work on.

And really, what rookie writer wouldn't fall into such a trap? Getting paid to write? Sure! But the thing is there doesn't seem to be an informal screening process for writing anymore - with content farms and article boards anyone can make some money by stringing words together whereas in the past freelance writers needed to come up with ideas, query editors, and hope for the best.

Just as it is with teachers now in Ontario - by most first- and second-hand accounts, you need to substitute teach for five years before a school board will hire you full time - that process of thinking, querying, and hoping would discourage those who weren't really writers to their core. So am I being elitist? Is opening up the possibility of writing for a living to more people a bad thing?

No and no.

First, I fell into that trap - so there's no room for me to be elitist. Second, like any mass movement or shift I don't think that the proliferation of writers online is entirely bad or entirely good.

More writers means that more voices are heard and shared. But having more writers online does also devalue the written word to some extent. If someone who just finished high school but has always had a knack for words can write as well as someone with a BA in English does that BA really mean anything?

If everyone could generate their own gold it would lose its infallible value. But for all of the social and cultural and linguistic trading that goes on because almost anyone can write on the internet, it seems to me that this plethora of styles and views only enriches the English language.

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