Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Guide to Writing in the Real World

Being a "successful" writer really sucks sometimes. I mean, sure, being a writer in today's world means you wear Ray Bans and have a Luddite affinity for typewriters and that you read Raymond Carver stories. But if you're trying to actually be paid, no one cares how fabulous you look or how diverse your reading tastes are. I'm thinking this after I've looked at my depressing bank account, which I'm still thinking about as I make my lunch of Ramen, carrots, and chopped celery -not just any celery, but the left over, tiny celery hearts that are so un-green that they have got to be devoid of all vitamins.

This is the writing life, my friends.

After spending all morning typing out 1000-word articles about cloning, poisonous plants of North America, and how to prepare for a flood, I have made a grand total of $15.76. For a different freelancing firm, I wrote an article about the meaning of a babushka for $7.50. No, not every day is like this (last week I wrote fun articles about sight-seeing in London, and about Russian authors). But as a writer getting started in the freelancing world, you would be wise not to expect grander days than this. So here is my encouragement to all of you starting out writers: know what you're looking for.

Kristen Kauffman's Guide to Writing in the Real World

(And, yes, I realize that's the title of my blog and that it's taken a few months to actually write about it.)

1. Beware of the word "hardworking." 

If you're looking around on Craigslist or other great contracting opportunities such as oDesk.com or eLance.com, beware of this word. Example: "Looking for hardworking, reliable, ambitious writer to blog 7 days a week." Translation: "You'll work like a dog and get paid CRAP. If you don't log in daily, you'll have a lovely little 'where were you' message when you do."

2. Ghostwriting: know what you're getting into.

 Whether you're going to be blogging, writing freelance, or creative writing, ghostwriting is waiting in the wings for you -but they call it something else. The actual term ghostwriting may be used for creative writing, but when it comes to blogging or writing articles, you may be ghostwriting and not knowing it. After all, you're writing articles for a client who works with your editor, and afterward you may not even know where your article is going. It's kind of cool to think that your article could show up in Archaeology Today or The Washington Times, but you'll never know. Your editor will say something like "the client wants full anonymity." If you're getting paid for it, you don't really have the option of being picky about this, but just be aware that this happens in the real world.

3. Be realistic about compensation.

Okay, adjust your expectations. Stephen King makes the big bucks, but if you're doing freelance work, you probably won't. Revised: you won't make the big bucks unless you work really flippin hard. When I stopped teaching English at the high school last semester, I did a little math (yes, I did math) and tried to figure out how many articles I would have to write weekly to make up for the lost income. Let's do a little math here: if I get paid $.50 per 100 words as I am for one company, then to supplement that lost income, I would have to write, hmm, oh, 80,000 words a week. If I give myself no days off, that would be 11,000 words daily. If I get paid $7.50 per article as I am for a different company, I would have to write 40 articles a week. That number doesn't seem so scary. But in all of this, there is no accommodation for time spent researching. I wrote 5 articles on Saturday about tax codes for heavy highway vehicles, and because it was about as interesting as sitting in traffic during rush hour, it took me about 5 hours to complete 2557 words. Make no mistake: this isn't meant to discourage you. If you have found a gig that pays per article, that's fabulous. If you've found a gig that pays well per article, even better. My goal is only to make sure you have realistic expectations of the market. Just consider that all of these equations I've just detailed are what I need to equate a part-time teacher's salary.

4. Be choosy about what topics you're writing on.

Yep, I spent a good 5 hours writing about tax codes. Not interesting. And I know nothing about tax codes, so it felt like April, if you know what I mean. This is only one of the many examples when research took much longer than expected. Case in point, cloning. I know nothing about cloning or about cognitive computer manipulation of avatars (true story), so there was definitely more research today than I expected, research that if I was paid hourly would be compensated. Oh, but wait, writers are artists and often not treated as human beings. So here is my encouragement to you: if you can, select articles that interest you, and preferably articles that you have some area of expertise with. I have never been to London, but I am interested in London, therefore last week's articles were fun to write and went by quickly. (I could write about 1000 words in 20 minutes.) The article about Russian authors took a little more research, but I'm interested in these guys, so this 1000 word article took about 30 minutes. These are the moments that freelance writers live for: you love the topic and you're getting paid to write about it. Um, what's the downside? (Oh, right, the compensation isn't much.)

5. Be thankful

I know it comes off as complaining, but my beef is with the expectations I had set up for myself. These article writing companies never promised me something that they didn't deliver. Bottom line: I'm really glad that I can daily make the same amount of money that I did serving tables, except I don't have to come home smelling like refried beans or have to sacrifice exercise or sanity to do it. My goal (and I hope your goal) is to achieve enough experience with these low-paying gigs that I can get a better-paying gig. (Lie: high-paying gig.) And after having read Bitter is the New Black by Jen Lancaster, I realize that rewarding work-from-home jobs (or any jobs, honestly) have been hard to get for the last ten or more years. There are people standing on street corners or taking really degrading food service and retail jobs, and here I am complaining about my meager writing compensation. I am happy to get money for writing -but I just wish I could pay my bills.

6. Use your experience and chase something better

Goal: to get a better-paying gig. That means that you should take crappy $.50 per 100 word jobs because it gives you experience. Keep in mind that you don't have to stay at this freelance firm forever -they're not paying you retirement, are they? Stay with them as long as you want, learn the value of SEOs and keywords, and then move on to a more rewarding position. Often the good-paying gigs go fast, so when you see a listing on Craigslist or on another job-posting opportunity, reply immediately. There's no need to do more -don't be a cyber-stalker, don't be annoying- just reply immediately with a friendly message about your qualifications, experience, and enthusiasm. If you don't get the job, keep telling yourself that another position will open up soon.

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