“Why I Write in the Digital Age”

Every day I find reasons not to be a writer. I’m not talking about doubts spurred by my inconsistent income or a string of failed pitches or even the burn of envy I feel when one of my writer friends publishes something exceptional. I mean tangible reasons to abandon my chosen profession.

Here is one, which I discovered on a freelance job board this morning:

 

Get $70 per published article!

I’m looking for a writer who is knowledgeable about health and fitness to assist with guest posting on behalf of my website. 

This will consist of you doing the following:

1. Locating high quality websites which accept guest posts and pitching them your topic.
2. Writing up the accepted topics, submitting them, and ensuring they get published.

 

The employer describes the position in greater detail, outlining his or her need for someone who can handle “the whole process,” preferably publishing articles in bulk (“3 websites at a time!”). Never mind that duplicate content is a killer for search algorithms, or that this person is seeking a freelance writer willing to do what she does every single day, but for less money. Did you see the exclamation point?

Here is another, which arrived in my inbox:
How To Tech Writer Wanted

We are looking for a person with strong technical experience. The work required will be similar in content as the content posted to howtogeek.com 

An instructional how-to article would be created, screenshots taken, and the content posted to WordPress. We are looking for someone who can post 5x a week 500-750 word how to articles for $15 per article.

 

This posting comes from Disruptive Media, a company name that says, “We’re paradoxically edgy and outdated.” Is it necessary, now, to say that any grammatical errors found in the italicized text are the responsibilities of those who posted these positions? Just in case.

If the market for freelance writing is modeled as a pyramid, these positions exist at the ground level. They are the aspiring actor’s equivalent of “$25 per day; partial nudity.” No modestly experienced writer would consider taking either of them. They are problematic, though, because they skew the marketplace. As positions like these proliferate, the ground level of our pyramid grows cathedral ceilings, and all that space becomes appealing. In the name of expanding its “digital footprint,” a valid outlet that once paid fair wages to writers (and photographers and videographers and graphic designers) can venture down to this saturated bottom and pluck half-baked “content” from an inexperienced writer in exchange for $50 and a byline (as in the case of the now-shuttered Hearst operation, The Mix).

Mine is not a new complaint. My situation is similar to that of many writers: I get paid less for my work and watch my cost of living increase between one and three percent each year. I play on a digital field, which demands increasingly far-out story ideas with short shelf lives—basically, weird shit that doesn’t matter. And who’s going to pay a reasonable wage for weird shit that doesn’t matter, particularly when producers of said shit are in ample supply?

My value changed when writing became content. When substance and critical discourse became secondary to clickbait, I lost negotiating power. My recent conversation with the editor of a digital culture magazine went like this:

 

Editor: Should be 1,200 words; strong lede graf to set the scene; fee: $120; we will need legal photography . . . about five to seven images. Make sense?

Me: I’ve not taken less than $450 for a [story] like this, and I get that that is way out of the bounds of your standard fee. Shall we both move on?

Editor: . . . yes.

 

In the end, I took a similar assignment for $120. I know. I’m perpetuating my own problem.

When I tell people I’m a writer, I like to be working on something—or, at least, I like to have a recently published piece to reference. This is less about validating my career to another person than it is about defining it for myself. I’m often unsure of what it means to be a writer anymore. Writers produce newsy listicles and slideshows of beauty products. They take editorial jobs at content marketing companies, where they write email subject lines and leverage their journalism training to teach incurious baby editors that facts matter. They accept exposure as payment and cultivate social media personas at the behest of their editors.

Amid all of this non-writing activity that goes into building a career as a writer, enrollment in creative writing programs has exploded. (Guess who’s pursuing her MFA?) This is puzzling, considering the democratization of the field. (Think about Medium, a space that is simultaneously awesome and maddening for the very fact that my mom could post her grocery lists there and declare herself a published writer.) Yes, a piqued interest in technique and form could be an artist’s distraction from the chaos and economic climate of the career she hopes to pursue; but I also think it’s a tactical rebellion. I study the craft of writing because I want my work to be worth more than ten cents a word. I want to elevate my writing beyond the ever-expanding ground floor of “content.” I resist all the reasons not to be a writer by doing one thing every day: I write.

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