I stared at the screen in disbelief. I was being offered five bucks per news article? My fingers flew as I typed out a response.
You would not offer your plumber or your mechanic a measly five bucks for doing their job – and you would distrust the quality of work of any plumber or mechanic who would work for so little. Why you think writers should be any different is beyond me.
A few minutes later I had my answer: This is a part-time job with further opportunities for those who want to write, not make lots of money.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have goaded him with my email, but I don’t always make the wisest decisions when someone insults me like that. Sometimes I think I have my cues all wrong: I run my mouth when I could simply walk away from the situation, and acquiesce when I should stand up and fight. This time, however, being accused of not being a real writer & simply because getting paid for my work was at least as important to me as writing & got me to thinking.
Almost as far back as I can remember, I have wanted to be a writer. In fact, even when as a child I lacked the self-confidence to make friends or stand up for myself, I still knew that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. I remember one incident in particular: one of the guidance counselors came to my eleventh-grade English class to administer an aptitude test. Suddenly she noticed that I was not taking the test, and asked why.
I already know what I want to do. I want to be a writer.
Flustered, she stammered something about how I should have a backup plan, in case writing didn’t work out for me. She made it clear that I was expected to take that test. And so I played the game, but my fragile confidence in my dreams had already suffered a major blow.
This incident was hardly the only one of its kind. Even while I aced essays with only a fraction of the effort others made and passed copies of my stories around to my eager peers, the message from the adults was constant and clear: no matter how good I was at writing, wanting to be a writer when I grew up was no different than another child saying they wanted to be Superman or Wonder Woman.
Many adults who are writers today & and even some of those who aren’t, yet wanted to be at one time & have similar stories. Some, like me, eventually decided to become writers anyway, while others relegated their passion to a hobby. But I believe there is another casualty here & as if the loss of every budding writer’s dreams isn’t enough. I believe that this oft-repeated truth is in part responsible for the reality that well-paid writing jobs are becoming harder and harder to find.
The message that you can’t earn a living by writing is not just heard by young hopefuls, after all. It is like chain mail, repeated to twenty other people for each time it is heard. So while some of us are protesting, pointing out that we have and do make our living by writing, editors, publishers, and get-rich-quick schemers are taking it to heart that they don’t really have to pay their writers very much. After all, no one expects them to.
And they are right. Expectations of a writer’s pay are going down all the time. As society continues to repeat its mantra, new writers enter the field with ever-lower expectations of pay. Worse yet, employers have catered to the constantly diminishing expectations, until they have come to see anyone who wants to be well-paid as being traitorous to the starving artist ideal. Ultimately, by warning young people that they can’t make their living as a writer, these well-intentioned adults have set us up for being underpaid in our profession.
So the next time you hear a young person say they want to be a writer someday, don’t tell them there’s no money to be made that way. They might believe you.
As a child, Katharine Swan always knew she wanted to be a writer when she grew up. Discouraged by well-intentioned adults who tried to make her see reality, she lost her way for a while. Her dream was finally realized after she earned her B.A. in English and got a job as a technical writer, which she left a year later to pursue a career as a freelancer. Her progress can be tracked at https://www.katharineswan.com.