It takes me a good, hearty exhale to start writing a post like this. I have been thinking about it all day. Ruminating on it over morning emails. Having conversations about it in my head during an afternoon walk. Discussing it with my best friend over text.
In my life, I really have had no choice but to write. Writing is what I have done from the time I can remember. Everyone told me I was a writer. Everyone. And I love writing. It comes to me as naturally as water comes from a spring. I just do it. I once heard Neko Case talk about singing and songwriting as though she felt possessed by some outside force; that music just comes out of her like a firehose. Less violently, this is writing for me.
Choosing to turn a creative art into a career lodged into the capitalist system is, quite frankly, as dumb as fuck. Those who have gone the route of finance, accounting or sales at least have some distance between their emotional lives and their livelihoods.
And writers, perhaps more than any other professional creatives, have to bend their art to the will of those who pay. While musicians may have to conform to a label’s ideals, it’s usually only one label at a time. Artists may sometimes think about which gallery their work is marketable to, but the work is still being bought and sold on its artistic merit alone.
But writers? Writers have to change their voice, style and topic to every different outlet that we write for. Dozens and dozens of different publications, editors, voices, advertising needs, audiences and guidelines. A dizzying array of expectations for word art.
The trajectory that most non-writers think that a writing career goes on is authoring books. Being successful as a book author is tough to do. Even the most successful authors out there generally have to have other sources of income. Probably every author you’ve ever read and loved is also a university lecturer or corporate communicator or spouse to the rich. You would probably be scandalised at what they got paid for their last book, even if it sold gangbusters. So most working writers are not book authors, at least not solely.
Most successful writers work freelance, and we take all sorts of jobs ranging from investigative journalism to travel narrative pieces in daily newspapers to communication, PR and marketing writing that largely happens behind-the-scenes (like newsletters, press releases, website copy and informational material). The written pieces that appear in the news or online with a writer’s byline (that’s your name at the top of the article) are vast and varied. They often do not pay well at all.
To give you an example, the last piece I was commissioned to write was for a major, major, major international news outlet and they offered me $600 for the article. In the world of freelance journalism, this is big money, but you have to keep in mind that I lodged a month’s worth of work into doing interviews, research and writing the piece. I submitted it to deadline in May; it still hasn’t been published and I still haven’t been paid. For other pieces I’ve written in the past year, the pay has ranged from £100-200 per article. It’s no life!
I sat down to write this evening because I was most recently commissioned to write a piece on a topic I’m very passionate about (dark skies) for a prestigious journal associated with a major outdoor sports brand. For me, it was a huge commission. I was thrilled, and to boot, they offered me $2 a word, which is absolutely ridiculous money in a freelance writer’s world.
I submitted a first draft knowing there would likely be a few rounds of back and forth with the editor to hone the piece and make sure that it fit the word count so that it looked pretty on the page of their journal.
Yesterday, I got an email from the editor with revisions, and requesting a second phone call (we already had a 35min call – that’s 35min I could have been writing or working for another client). I’m pretty good at being edited now (we all have a little ego, to be fair), but the suggested revisions were, frankly, heartbreaking. They strayed from the original brief, which was to write about the importance of natural darkness, and instead wanted detailed stories about my personal life. They asked for huge cuts to the length, yet wanted more emotion on display, and emotion I simply do not feel (rage, anger, sorrow). The editor’s exact words were, “I want to see more of your vexed soul.”
To say I found this inappropriate would be an understatement. The ask is impossible – the editor projecting emotions onto the piece that I simply do not feel or experience, and then wanting me to write something about my deeply personal experience. Even worse, the company’s contract takes an exclusive right to all the material in perpetuity. Meaning they keep the copyright. So, if I write about my childhood or a particular experience, the brand has exclusive rights to use my story as they wish forever throughout the universe, in an ad or marketing material whenever they want, and I can never use that story again. Wtaf you might say.
I wish this was uncommon, but it’s very common. Every different outlet I write for expects slave labour. You shall not have your own voice, but should be a chameleon that somehow captures the “brand identity” of the publication you’re writing for. Yes, this includes every major news outlet you think you know, love and trust.
The worst part is that, having sat in the corporate editor’s chair myself for many years, I sent many pieces back to writers with this sort of feedback, and hate myself a little bit more each day for it. Gladly, I never told anyone I wanted to see their vexed soul, at least.
In my vexed wanderings today, I made the choice to pull my piece from this publication. I know my worth, and it goes way beyond the ‘great’ money and byline in a well-known publication. One difficult aspect of this is a creeping guilt that I should exploit every opportunity to educate the world about an environmental issue I’m passionate about (light pollution). Sometimes it’s just not worth it, and that’s ok.
Over the past few years, I have done a lot of inner work on boundaries, self-love and reparenting. Nothing – and I do mean NOTHING – is worth stress, insult, time-suckage and grief like this. In the interest of capturing my advice for other writers, or anyone in the commercial creative arts, here are some reminders:
- Don’t be afraid to pull a piece or walk away from a contract. You don’t need a “good” reason. You just need to feel a bit uneasy about it. Trust your damn self.
- Some people might see you as difficult, picky, sensitive or even arrogant. People will see what they project. Honour what you feel and what’s right for your work and art.
- There will always be more work. You can manifest it. I know that sounds woo-woo, but I had my best-ever financial year as a freelancer in 2020, after losing literally ALL of my work in March 2020. I sat down and said, ok universe, send me work cause I got NOTHING. Then I made a margarita. Work came in spades. I don’t have days off right now.
- Know your worth. You write your unique experience. Your voice is valuable because it is yours. Conformity to a publication’s standards is necessary to a certain extent, and then there is also a point at which you need to say no.
- Read your contract. Read every commissioning note and contributor agreement in detail. Learn legal jargon that might screw you over: in perpetuity, exclusivity and licensing are important. You could be signing away your rights to use your own childhood stories in a future book or screenplay. Red flag!
- Never, ever be afraid to walk away from a commission, no matter how big the publication’s name, no matter how much they are offering you. Trust your own feeling about the work first and foremost.
- Always, always keep a space to write just for you. Whether you share that with the world is your choice. But make sure you have a space (as this blog is for me) that is creative and free, that doesn’t conform to the desires of commissioning editors or commercial schedules or SEO needs or market analysis. Because fuck all that capitalist, patriarchal, slave-labour bullshit.
At the end of the day, write you, for you. Because we are on the verge of the apocalypse everyday now, and we need real people to stand up and speak their own truths. To show beauty in their own unique way. I create for me, for my soul, for my purpose. Not for capitalism or striving or achieving or for meeting the brief of some millionaire’s faceless digital media corporation. Or to sell fancy hiking gear.
Thank you for coming to my TED talk.