“Creative work is undervalued. Clients underpay, customers pirate, tax systems are poorly structured – capitalism all around is mostly shitty to all but the most successful creative artists. And you shouldn’t work for free as often as people want you to. But you will have to do some work for free… this is the work you do to get known.”
– Nick Douglas, comedy writer (Hustle Economy, p. 14)
Near the end of 2016, I finally dove headfirst into a book that had been sitting untouched on my shelf since August – a book that completely renewed my faith in the possibility that creative people really can “make it.”
I read The Hustle Economy of my own desire, after Mike Rugnetta recommended it on IDEA CHANNEL. I’m not being paid to talk about or promote it – I just really freaking loved this book. So over the next six months or so, I’m going to pull a quote from each of its essays once a week and apply it to a concept I like to call, “how to succeed in writing without going broke, getting sad or obliterating all your hopes and dreams.” Or, for space’s sake, “how to earn a career in writing.”
First on the agenda is, of course, everyone’s favorite topic – writing for free. That thing everyone wants you to do, and you keep doing, even though you’re 95 percent sure you’re being taken advantage of.
As we’ve discussed before, writing for free, when you’re first starting out as a writer, is essential. There’s no way around it. It’s going to be very difficult for you to find someone who will pay you to write when you have no experience. Meaning, you have to write for free before you can make a career out of it.
Why is this a thing? Because you’re trained to think about money pretty much before anything else. You’re taught that if you work hard and get a quality education, you can graduate and land a job, continue to work hard and eventually make good money doing whatever it is you do.
You just can’t assume that you’re going to get all your training as a writer while in school. Maybe, MAYBE, if you get a degree specifically focused in writing, but many of you won’t. I spent all of high school telling people I was going to major in creative writing in college. I now have bachelor’s degrees in nutrition and English and an MS in health comm. Many people don’t major in writing because they’re afraid they’ll get sick of it. I would have.
That’s actually a very logical fear. I think people are much better off majoring in a specific subject or discipline while getting writing experience elsewhere. It keeps them well-rounded and, usually, grounded. But this does, of course, mean you have to get writing experience outside of more traditional coursework. How you get this experience, I’ve learned, depends on many different factors.
It matters who you know. As the essay this week’s post is based on urges, who you know is everything. I landed my first unpaid writing internship in college because one of my dietetics professors received a virtual flyer in an email. Writers are dependent on the relationships they have with other people. A simple, “Hey, I’m looking for opportunities, if you see anything, let me know” can make all the difference. Believe it or not, people remember.
It matters where you live. I went to college at a university in the Midwestern U.S., in the middle of nowhere (north – corn; south – corn). Opportunities like local writing internships just weren’t available. I also got to know students in my online writing internship who went to school close to New York City – close enough that they could commute to dozens of different internships, so that by the time they were ready to graduate, some of them had over three years’ worth of real-world writing experience. It’s possible to get experience online – often, you have to rely on it. But location is much more of an advantage than you think.
It matters how good you are at time management. Thomas Frank (College Info Geek) did a podcast interview awhile ago featuring someone who managed to, or was about to, graduate college without any student loans – all from starting a freelance writing career while also earning a full-time undergraduate degree. Admittedly, I was pretty jealous when I heard that. That’s something that never even crossed my mind. Looking back, though, I never could have managed to do that – I am a time management disaster. Just think of all the experience you could get, though, if you trained yourself to be better at not wasting time. Something to think about, if you need experience but don’t feel like you have the time for it.
Writing for free sucks. I did it for three years before I earned my first paid freelance job – seven, if you count all the blogging I did before I started interning for a magazine. No one wants to do it – everyone thinks because they blog and write stories on their own time, they deserve paid work.
Nah – you have to earn that. You have to build up your credibility and form relationships and prove that you’re good enough to get paid. And even then, people are going to try to pay you much less than you’re worth, or not at all. It’s the least fun part of the business. That’s not to say you can’t make a good living as a writer. You just can’t do it if you’re not willing to “write for exposure” – a lot, and then less, and then only every once in awhile.
Life isn’t like the movies. You know the ones – a talent kept secret turned into a breakout career no one expected. You have to “get known” before you have a good chance of making it. I know that’s not what you want to hear. I know just the idea of sitting alone with your laptop, struggling to build up an audience, feeling like no one hears you makes you feel nauseous. Reality check: WE ALL HAVE TO START HERE.
Sometimes it takes a long time to figure out what works and build a following and get confident. That’s called earning your right to succeed as a creator. Start from the bottom, working for free. Work your way up. Take your time. Let yourself get frustrated. Question your motives. Keep writing, even if you don’t make any money doing it. The longer you do it, the greater your chances are of earning the paychecks you deserve.
You like to create things. So create things. It starts here, where your name is unrecognizable and everything you publish gets only a few hits every two weeks and you’re not earning even a cent. It starts now, when you know this is what you want to do but you can’t see two feet in front of you because you’re so worried about things out of your control. Writing for free is temporary. You don’t know its worth now, and won’t for months, maybe even years down the road. That’s why you can’t just wait for success to find you. You have to move. You have to do. The money comes later. Shift your focus; make a plan. Write like no one’s watching – because, right now, it’s likely nobody is. Yet.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and a nine-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.