entirely too many pieces of unsolicited advice to young writer types
This is a modestly updated and revised version of a post once published on my old, now-defunct blog. I was inspired to renew it by this essay of writing advice, which I agree with 90% of. Here goes.
The money was bad when I started. It’s gotten better for me but for the industry has gotten worse since, or so it seems.
If you can get into print, the money can be good, but the print world is shrinking. The kind of web-only places where you have the best shot of making real money are the places where you’ll be writing undisclosed advertising copy for Goldman Sachs. If you want to write for places that have higher ambitions the money is always going to be tight.
Still, have a rate, have a goal, and have a floor. Think of it kind of like applying to college, that kind of strategic self-negotiation. At some point, pick a minimum to print your stuff, regardless of publication. It should change, over time. (I mean, hopefully, by growing.) Last couple years I’ve said $250 is the bare minimum to get my stuff. Why $250? Because $100 was too little and $500 was too much and, crucially, because that’s what people would pay me.
I think I first got paid for my writing in 2009. $50. Since then I have gotten paid in the 4 figures, let’s see, 9 times. Most things have been news cycle web bangers, few hundred bucks a pop. Sometimes it’s $250. Sometimes it’s $750. Sometimes I ask for more and they say no. More often than you’d think, I ask for more and they say yes.
Worrying that other people are getting more than you is probably one of the worst wastes of your mental energy in this. If you think you’re worth more, ask for more, and don’t write if they won’t pay. But don’t worry what anybody else is making. They probably aren’t making much either.
Should you write for free? You should not. If you do, do it on your own site. Start a simple WordPress (Tumblr if you must) and write a few posts — a movie review, a piece of political commentary on a hot topic, and a more personalautobiographical musing that you connect to the broader culture, say. That’s a good start. Then pitch.
If you feel you absolutely must get published someplace “real” to have samples for editors and the only way to do it is to write for free (which is almost certainly not the case), then do it a couple times and no more. Be adamant with yourself.
Once you have a portfolio you will be approached by for-profit types looking to get your work for free, and you are entitled to get mad about this. I would even recommend it. Textbook companies are forever trying to republish my stuff for free, and I always tell them that I can look up their profit margins easily, so fuck you, pay me. The trickier part is the sweet and passionate young kids who have just started their own web magazine and would be honored if you would write something for their first issue etc. etc. only they of course have no money. With them you don’t get mad. But if you have been paid more than a few times, you still don’t say yes. Pay the writer. Don’t contribute to the deprofessionalization of your profession.
If you pitch, you will get rejected. A lot. But if you write for awhile you will start getting editors soliciting you. I have to pitch infrequently these days, which is nice. But there’s no getting around the period of asking and being told no.
Here’s a good example of how it feels to be a writer: last year I got an email from an established print journal telling me, very apologetically and politely, that they were unable to include a piece I had written for them in an upcoming printed collection. This was interesting because this was the very first communication I had received about such a collection — I didn’t even know it existed until they got around to telling me I wasn’t good enough to be in it. It was like when you get rejected by someone you weren’t even interested in to begin with. That’s what writing for money feels like, so get used to it.
If you pitch an editor and she commissions a piece and money just doesn’t come up because you feel awkward (and what if they change their mind because you asked about money!), there’s a pretty good chance they will just happily not pay you when they would have. No editor worth working with will suddenly decline to publish something they wanted to publish because you asked about money. It’s your job to be a grownup and break the ice by asking “what can you pay me?”; it’s their job to tell you and not be a jerk about it. Do not wait until the last round of edits to say “oh by the way, money would be nice.”
The pitch is the prequel; writing the piece is the original; The Quest to Get Paid the Money You Are Already Owed is the sequel, and that one’s the 3 hour epic.
You will likely have one contact person. That person is almost certainly not the money person. However, if that’s the one person you know, that’s the one person you know, so it’s part of their job (no matter how awkward this makes you feel) to field your questions related to The Quest to Get Paid the Money You Are Already Owed. Again, you’ve got to be a grownup: “Hey, So and So, respectfully, where’s my money?” It is never, ever unprofessional of you to inquire about the status of the money. Don’t contribute to your own exploitation by refusing to ask after the money because it makes you feel awkward. Not getting paid what you’re owed is worse than feeling awkward.
If you aren’t ready to undertake The Quest to Get Paid the Money You Are Already Owed, don’t pitch.
This may be a roundabout way of telling you that freelancing kind of sucks and that what you probably want to do is to get a few pieces under your belt and then get a staff writer job someplace, where you will get a regular paycheck and health benefits. This has it’s own set of headaches like having to go someplace every morning and finding your per-word rate is even less than as a freelancer and having to do daily news cycle-related #content generation that gradually leeches all of the interest you ever had in writing out of your very soul. This is still better than freelancing because you know, more or less, what your take home pay is going to be. Last year I had a miraculous year freelancing, in terms of the frequency and places I published. If I hadn’t taught classes and edited textbooks and tutored and ghost written, I wouldn’t have paid the rent.
Some people will tell you they live comfortably just freelancing. Mostly (not always) they do PR or “consulting” on the side. Which is entirely fine. Get that money. But let’s not bullshit each other, OK?
Think tanks pay very well, give you lots of time, usually involves sympathetic and light editing, and provide real marketing for your work towards receptive audiences. However, you have to actually, like, know stuff to get those gigs.
Knowing stuff, in general, is good. Going to school helps, no matter how much the autodidact fantasy is part of writing culture. You have to know things.
Read books. You can’t be smart if you don’t read books, real books, regularly. You can’t be a good writer if you don’t read books, real books, regularly. There are many things that cannot be learned from short form pieces. Sorry. It’s probably the only rule I really think of as a rule: to write well you must read books, a lot of books.
A subject is good — it’s good to have a subject or several that you really consider your jam(s). You can cultivate a reputation in those subjects if you want. This is one of the things that it’s hard to do when you’re in an entry-level daily blogging gig and you have to find a fresh angle on the latest child-animal encounter.
That said, a method is even better than a subject. A subject is an area of interest, a thing you look at and write about. A method is a way you write about the things you write about. Ta-Nehisi Coates didn’t become one of the most successful writers of his generation by having history as a subject but by using history as a methodology, as a way of knowing and looking at the world. It’s a lens he can apply to a variety of situations, and he can lay his stuff down with it over and over again, and he’s very good at it. I think that’s a real key.
Should you get an MFA? Probably not. If you’re going because you want to get a book deal, no. If you’re going because you want to get a good permanent teaching gig with benefits, certainly no. If you’re going unfunded, absolutely no. If you’re funded and you’re going because you need time to write, to devote yourself to that — yeah. That’s worked for a lot of people. There are worse things in life.
Love editors the way you loved a good college professor whose class you still were constantly tempted to skip.
Be editable without being a pushover. Accept edits but ask why. It’s their dime — because you are getting paid, remember — so they get to say “we need to change this.” But you are under no obligation to accept horseshit shorthand like “avoid cliche.” Fuck you, “avoid cliche” is a cliche, tell me why, specifically, to change what you want to change. If you resist, be prepared to offer an explanation of exactly as much sense and detail as the one you are asking the editor to provide. Once they tell you why, unless you feel you cannot live with the change, roll over and thank them.
It is terribly uncool to complain about editing. Being enthusiastic about editing is a big part of showing that you’re a Professional Who Gets It. And indeed editing is an essential part of the process that we can’t live without, blah blah blah, no argument from me. But look: sometimes getting edited sucks. Sometimes it just does. Even the people who wax poetic about the gentle telepathy between writer and editor often hate the process. Editing’s a good and necessary thing, but you don’t have to pretend you enjoy being edited. Because it sucks. It sometimes sucks for good reasons and sometimes for bad reasons. You are obligated to be edited, and you are entitled to not enjoy it. Get me?
Two great sins in editing, in my experience: the editor that knows too well what she wants and the editor who has no idea what she wants. The former will always fail because it’s not the piece they’re imagining in their head, in which case they should have just written it themselves. The latter will always fail because nothing you actually come up with can be as good as the limitless possibilities out there. The good ones (and most are at least pretty good) will have a shape, an angle, a story, an idea, without knowing too well how it turns out. They should always leave room for a twist, a direction they weren’t expecting.
Younger editors sometimes have trouble because they feel compelled to make a certain volume of changes, as they’re trying to justify their job. That can be frustrating. Give them a little sugar. Be sympathetic. The industry is not set up to properly mentor and support young editors.
I’m not saying that it’s a good idea to preemptively include intentionally-superfluous sections or to make questionable format decisions, simply to be able to accede to the inevitable editing changes and thus have a bargaining chip for preserving what you really want to keep in. I just can’t say that I’ve never done that, or that it’s ineffective.
Look, editors are great. There’s too little editing, not too much. Most editors you interact with will be talented, conscientious, and hard-working. (Most will also be harried, overworked, and compelled by entirely unhealthy incentives.) Everyone who has ever read me will tell you I need an editor. I’m not disputing any of that. I am saying that it’s sometimes a painful and annoying process. “Sometimes painful and annoying” is a good description of life in general though so be subject to editing.
When you meet the editor in person, buy them a beer. Unless the publication is paying. Then order shots.
Nothing you can learn from a list of writing tips can help you. Everyone has the same list. Everyone is hearing the same advice. They’re all earnestly applying that advice. The problems that advice is meant to solve endure. That’s because you can’t actually solve those problems with static advice. I’m sorry to say that your problems can’t be solved by getting rid of adverbs, avoiding the passive tense, or getting rid of “ten cent words.” Everybody’s trying that. It isn’t helping. Those things are identified as problems precisely because they’re easy to spot and easy to fix. Bad writing is not easy to fix.
The single greatest orthodoxy in writing advice is that most people are writing too much, that we need more minimalism, more concision, and less of everything else. This has been the default philosophy in American nonfiction prose for 50 years. It’s bunkum. No one knows what it means. Strunk & White is awful and produces awful writers. That George Orwell essay has been read by all of the writers you’ve ever read, and by the laws of the universe that means mostly by not-very-good writers. Concision is not an unerring instrument for achieving clarity. Whatever problems you may have, the hoary old ghost of American minimalism can’t scare them away.
To develop style, write obsessively. Publish obsessively. Solicit feedback obsessively. Over and over again. Like playing a musical instrument, it’s an iterative process: performance, self- and external evaluation, adjustment, repetition. You must practice. You must practice.
No rules, no rules, no rules. (Except reading books.)
Write a lot.
Repetition, small adjustments, over and over.
I say without snark or pleasure that there’s a good chance you aren’t very good at this. I’m not saying this with an assumption that I’m any good myself. I’m just saying this as someone who has read, a lot, to the point of obsession and pathology, for his entire adult life. And talent in writing (as in so many other things) is real, it is unevenly distributed, and that distribution is not fair. People will tell you that talent isn’t real, that there’s just hard work. Those people are selling books.
Write your age. Are you 13? Then don’t write about how a politician is like a character from a TV show. Are you 13? Then don’t awkwardly use slang that is common to a high school cafeteria. Write your age.
What’s the end goal? If you want to be a novelist, daily news blogging isn’t going to help much, but you do have to pay the rent. I do think you should have some sort of idea of the arc of how you get from one thing to another. And if your ambitions are less grand than best-selling novelist, that’s great too, but you also have to have an idea of an arc in your life. The thing about this kind of writing, professionally, is that few people have a clear idea about what career progress really looks like, through no fault of their own. I think this is part of why people switch jobs so much; where is up, so to speak, at a certain point? So I do think you should have a plan even if it’s vague and unsettled. Where are you trying to go?
TV recaps: not even once.
I don’t need to bash on gif listicles and meme-peddling as such; there’s plenty of that out there. But it’s worth saying that such things are probably useless for actually improving your writing. It’s entirely unclear to me if some people who identify as Buzzfeed writers actually want to write. Which is OK! Seriously. Look there’s a long history of writing being a means through which people gain entrance into a certain kind of social and professional milieu, with the writing itself being merely a means to that end. Right now writing, for a lot of people, seems like a way to get your foot in the door to podcasting. There’s nothing wrong with that. I like podcasts a lot! But if you know that you actually want to be a writer, and you treating writing as a craft that you take pride in and want to improve, podcasting is orthogonal to that goal. So is throwing up 75 words along with some gifs. You can’t possibly get better at your prose by doing that. Maybe, though, you just want the money and the exposure. And it’s your career, so you get to decide.
Sometimes you really will have to choose between people and principle, even though people, unsurprisingly, will tell you that you don’t.
You set the level of seriousness of your own work and of yourself. If you write about stuff that you find trivial, you’ll find your own writing trivial and other people will too. And there’s a real culture of triviality, you know? Not because people want to be trivial but because the economic problems are really bleak, and what’s rewarded economically is viral Facebook bilge. And so people start to self-defensively trivialize their own work and their own industry. And then in turn that creates resentment towards the seriousness that people want to engage in but can’t, thanks to structural conditions they can’t control. And so the next thing you know there’s a culture that rejects work that takes itself seriously and that has higher ambitions than click through rate. Before long the whole professional attitude is one of enforced, perpetual jokiness, a reflexive, unthinking rejection of that which presumes that depth is the destination. But you still get to decide if your work is serious or not. They’re going to call you pretentious anyway, so you might as well take yourself and your work seriously even while everything seems to tell you not to.
Have fun. Tell the truth. Have integrity. Have guts. Be cranky. Remain independent. Be right rather than nice. Be committed to ideas rather than to people. Cultivate a studied indifference to the petty indignities that will attend every step of your way. Stay human. Tell the truth. Tell the truth. Tell the truth.
If you’re freelancing full time, have a beer with lunch. Just one.