Writing for free, but not as a Writer

I can write, but I am not a Writer. Not only am I not a Writer, but the conditions for Writers today are simply not that good, in part because there are people like me who write, but are not Writers.

Razib Khan

I didn’t think the Nate Thayer hooha had any relevance to my life until I read Razib’s post and realized that I, too, am not a Writer, but someone who can write. Once I wrote a political website that started from scratch six weeks before an election and was selected for the Library of Congress Web Archive; not only wasn’t I paid, I actually forked out some funds for the domain name. I didn’t expect even a token payment when my two op-eds were published in top-ten circulation newspapers, so I wasn’t disappointed. I’ve spent hundreds of hours over the past year writing two essays, which both got a nice reception, for free. I was filling out an application today and was surprised to see how often I mentioned an unpaid writing project as an achievement worth mentioning on my resume.

I didn’t accept non-payment to build up my reputation as a Writer, so that some day I’ll be able to charge for my work, but because I want the validation that comes from a reputable source publishing my ideas, and I want an audience, whatever audience exists to read my ideas. Writing is just the means of creation of a package of ideas, and the ideas are what drive me to write.

Take this blog, which represents hundreds, and eventually thousands, of hours of unpaid writing time. Ideally, it will never be publicly linked to the person who wrote those op-eds and essays for free. It will not be picked up by Education Week and provide me an additional paycheck. I can’t use it on my resume, either. Yet this blog represents my greatest writing achievement and a source of considerable pride, a package of information and ideas validated by the growing audience and the recognition by advocates and reporters. Not in the slightest does it matter whether people know it’s me.

I like to think I write well. But I could never be a Writer. Never mind that I’m too slow, and too long, to do this for pay. Never mind that I love teaching and wouldn’t want to give it up. I don’t want to be a Writer because I’m not interested in telling someone else’s story. Advocacy groups would want me to support one particular position. News sites would want me to offer neutral analysis—except, of course, most education reporters are anything but neutral. Straight reporting would require too many tradeoffs in story selection and that I keep my opinions out of the story. Columnists (at least these days) have to find their place on the political spectrum and get a following, or they won’t be columnists. None of these functions sound appealing—assuming anyone would want me in a paid position in the first place, or that I could convince anyone to pay me to write for them.

So for someone like me, publication at a reputable, critically-acclaimed outlet offers exposure to a larger, or different, audience. The more that people read my work and realize that education is complicated, that pretty much every advocacy position is flawed, and that there aren’t any easy answers, the more I have achieved my goal—with or without money. The only payment that would further my goals would be, say, a book deal, and even then, it wouldn’t be the advance or the status of Writer that mattered, but the validation and the audience that comes with it.

None of this is to say I don’t sympathize with the Nate Thayers, the Writers who are seeing a near cataclysmic decline in income. The Atlantic is seeing record profits, a rare happy tale in a the recent publishing landscape. What does it mean if a publication can only achieve record profits by refusing to pay for the manufacture of its product? It’s one thing to occasionally pick up a well-written piece by an amateur who wants the audience. It’s quite another to just survey the landscape of written work and scavenge the pickings for the article that has the potential to increase their click—wait, we’re calling it “hits” now—count with an author who’ll value the exposure over cash. Is that the future of magazines without a deep pockets dilettante? Editorial vision and quality control secondary to manufacture?

If so, that will ultimately redound to people like me, who write but aren’t Writers, and who have done their bit to contribute to this situation, because one key aspect of our goal is “reputable outlet validating our work”. We’ll just have “hit”-whoring publications who will only care about quality after traffic, and billionaire mouthpieces that pay well, but require a certain viewpoint. And of course, to a certain extent, what else is new?—but really, it’s worse. The market is fragmenting even further, and the disintegration of another gold standard is nigh.

I find it increasingly difficult to get excited about technological innovations any more.

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5 responses to “Writing for free, but not as a Writer

  • Seguine

    “The market is fragmenting even further, and the disintegration of another gold standard is nigh.”

    Well, yeah.

    Some of us saw it coming 20 years ago and got out of writing for paid publication, and into writing for industry or nonprofits. That kind of work isn’t about ideas (much), but it pays a living wage. If we merely want our ideas and opinions out there, we are freer to publish now than we ever have been.

    The greater danger to publicly available information, and the fourth estate overall, is the failure of once-important publications to sustain budgets for investigative and foreign reporting. Interestingly, National Public Radio and WNYC have been doing a pretty decent job of that in the last two or three years–more so than before, in fact, when they relied far more heavily on the Beeb.

    Are writers so different from everyone else? I have begun to wonder whether the “end of work” crowd is right on some level about the long-term future of employment (only an elite, and not even necessarily the most meritorious, will be able to prosper; for everyone else, the employment landscape will look like Spain or Greece). If so, then perhaps that future may also be about substantially increased non-profit enterprise, with or without government support.

    • educationrealist

      That’s a pretty depressing future, isn’t it?

      “If we merely want our ideas and opinions out there, we are freer to publish now than we ever have been.”

      Yep.

      “The greater danger to publicly available information, and the fourth estate overall, is the failure of once-important publications to sustain budgets for investigative and foreign reporting. ”

      And of course, their original dedication to this came from the market inefficiency of advertisers not being able to target their message as directly as they’d like.

  • Jokah Macpherson

    I definitely sympathize. I was furious last month when a bunch of mediocre manosphere bloggers started criticizing Chuck at Gucci Little Piggy for not making money off his blog, never mind that GLP is 100 times better than most other stuff on the internet.

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