The Truth About Freelance Writing


macbookairThe Internet has gone haywire (Laura at Apt. 11D has gathered the links) over the past few days, over a critical blog post by a well-known, extremely talented writer named Nate Thayer, republishing his conversation with a new editor at The Atlantic, over an offer of non-payment for a revision of an already-published article of his.

I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years and am not in the habit of giving my services for free to for profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children. I know several people who write for the Atlantic who of course get paid. I appreciate your interest, but, while I respect the Atlantic, and have several friends who write for it, I have bills to pay and cannot expect to do so by giving my work away for free to a for profit company so they can make money off of my efforts.

Various media outlets have weighed in, taken sides, and even hailed the benefits of “free writing.” There’s been at least some truth to every piece I’ve read, but it all boils down to this– you can’t make a living, or even some semblance of a career as a freelance writer in the digital age.

The posts are equal parts depressing (should all knowledge be free?) and discouraging (I am in the midst of a graduate degree in writing, after all) but they all ask one, crucial question– can the industry assign value to words on the Internet? Or is there enough free content online to reduce the value of even the most seasoned, award-winning writer?

Will there every be a working business model for online writing?

I don’t know the answer. I have only my own, individual experience. Which is to say that ten years ago I wrote for free, regional parenting magazines and was paid more than The Atlantic appears to pay for a typical, online article. For many years in between, I did write for free– essays for online literary magazines and unpaid anthologies– but ultimately decided that I wasn’t getting the exposure (a divisive, often-used term in the above articles). In other words, because I wasn’t writing for “big” publications, editors couldn’t care less about my bylines.

macbookairDuring this time, I ultimately concluded that if I wasn’t going to be paid for writing, I might as well start writing novels and chain-smoking. (But because smoking is disgusting, I decided against it.) Then, when I least expected, I did end up with a paying, regular freelance writing job.

What’s difficult to swallow, isn’t the fact that I can’t make a living as a freelance writer– I learned this lesson a long time ago. It’s the fact that not even the Big Guys– the international, mega-circulation publications– pay enough for a writer to make a living. That really, there’s no upward mobility for a freelance writer. There’s nothing to reach for the stars for. There’s nowhere to go but down.

That a writer like myself has to pin her hopes on something so astronomically unlikely, the odds similar are to winning the lottery– the sale of her debut novel.

How crazy is that?

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25 thoughts on “The Truth About Freelance Writing

  1. You’ve given me a lot to think about today. I had somehow missed Nate’s piece until now. And now I have a lot of links to read before I can come back and sum up my thoughts 🙂

  2. Excellent post, Anjali, and a subject I’ve also been following for awhile. Personally, I think it’s one thing for a writer to provide writing at no cost to organizations that are NON-PROFIT … but for an organization that makes a profit (especially large, extremely profitable organizations), there is no excuse NOT to pay the writer for their work – especially for an article that has already been published. That’s just my opinion, but I have difficulty with those who live by a sense of ‘entitlement’ …. lol.

  3. Okay, I’m back after doing a lot of reading. It’s hard because as a writer, I obviously agree somewhat with Nate. But then I can also see a much larger picture. It has ALWAYS been difficult to get paid to write. He makes it sound as if money was just pouring from the sky onto writers in the past, but the truth was like acting, painting, singing — any of the fine arts — writing is also a field that has a lot of people who want to be paid to do the work but not that many get one of those coveted positions.

    That said, I have a deep respect for BlogHer. They just looked back at how much they paid out to bloggers from 2009 until now — $25 million (http://www.blogher.com/blogher-economy-2013-25-million-55-million-women-monthand-growing). They pay for posts. They also curate and send traffic out to blogs. Their ad network pays by page views and not click throughs. It’s a big reason why I took an editing position there: because I like the way they treat writers.

    There are few novelists who can support themselves entirely on their writing. There are fewer and fewer journalism positions, especially ones that pay a full salary. I think people need to be realistic about the amount of money they can make from writing. But I also think that work should be compensated. It’s a really fine line.

  4. I agree, Mel. Perhaps The Atlantic, et al, should take some time to examine BlogHer’s business model. Some of the most intellectually-stimulating pieces I have read were published online in The Atlantic. Their writers do real work that makes a difference, and they should be adequately compensated.

  5. Businesses will always behave like businesses. They are looking to maximize their profits while reducing their costs. As long as they can find talented writers willing to work for free they will continue to take advantage of writers who simply wish to be read vs. those that intend to make a living at it. If we writers truly wish to increase our wages and certainty of getting paid then we need to work together and refuse the jobs where the pay is less than the minimum wage. Only when we are willing to fight for our rights as a group will this change. We cannot hope that a business or magazine will behave in a responsible way, we must demand it. Obviously, blogs are out of the realm of previous writing and it is hard to determine what the paycheck for those could potentially be; however, online magazines or newspapers should be required to at least pay writers as they once did when it was simply put into print.

  6. I think he makes an interesting point in that there used to be more of a “ladder” in freelancing, a reasonable expectation that as you built your portfolio of clips and got more and more impressive bylines, your fees would also increase. If that’s not true anymore, then it really does change the landscape.

  7. It does change the landscape. Completely. And I don’t know that it can ever go back now to a paying model.

  8. Hi! I wanted to let you know that I’m nominating your blog for The Liebster Award. I’ll be posting my article about it soon with a link to your blog and it should help you also get more followers.

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  12. I have been researching writing online as a way to make a living. A lot of the articles I am finding have seemed really positive so I am wondering if a lot of writers are just being motivational to get more views? You seem very down to earth so I am wondering what you think of sites like elance or odesk for freelance writing a career. Is it still doable not to get rich but simply to make a living?

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  14. I make my living as a freelancer; I write non-fiction and for newspapers (NYT) and magazines, both trade and consumer. My income is lower than it was, at its peak, in 2000 and my living costs rising astronomically.

    One thing I avoid doing — unless it’s an ongoing revenue stream — is writing for on-line sites. They pay crap. I recently judged journalism awards in NYC and sat with two men, both 10 years my junior. One is a staff editor at cbs.com offering (sit down for this) $150 per post, and wants hours of original reporting for each one. He tells me he has writers lined up to do it (living on air?) The other made sure to tell me he has $16,000 (two $8,000 assigments) lined up in the next two months. Nice, but his boasting didn’t do a thing for me. Lucky him!

    You can give up or adapt or leave the business. There are not many alluring choices left. I supplemented my 2012 income with my final book advance payment (the one that arrived 12 months [yes] after publication) and two nice payments for public speaking to business audiences as a result of my new book.

    You can make a living; define “living.” It depends how much you need or want to earn and how many twists and turns look like they’re worth making.

  15. Thanks for such an informative comment, Caitlin! I think you’re right…Online just doesn’t pay! Hopefully there will be enough print venues in the future for those of us still trying to make it.

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  19. A Comment from author/poet Anis Shivani, who was unable to post it here:

    Terrific article Anjali. My thoughts exactly. I think writers should band together to stop writing for free for venues that make a great deal of money off of their backs. Part of the problem is the oversupply of labor, particularly because of the proliferation of MFA graduates, who’re willing to write for free because their remuneration doesn’t come from the marketplace. They’ve messed up the whole financial relationship between writer and editor. This whole idea of, we’re giving you a platform, is oversold, bullshit.

  20. Thanks for the comment, Anis. Though I’m not convinced that MFA graduates write for free any more often than non MFA graduates. (In fact, most of the writers I personally know who write for free do not have MFAs, nor do they intend to pursue them.) Nevertheless, I totally agree that the idea of the platform is oversold bullshit. Well said.

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