Who’s a Hack? I Am! By Charles Wesley Orton

No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money. –Samuel Johnson, 1776

The responses to “How much (or, really, how little) money will you accept for writing” recently published in WritersWeekly made my teeth grind. From these respondents, it seems that the charge for a writing assignment depends on where one lives and whether one is a (heaven forbid!) “hack” writer.

First, when it comes to geographical location, I’d like to find a truly cheap place in the United States to live. I thought I’d found it when I recently moved from a small town in southern California to a small town in Texas. Wrongo!

The only things cheaper in Texas are real estate, vehicle registration, and (not by much) gasoline. Groceries are more expensive, as are electricity and natural gas. Local auto mechanics charge $75 an hour, just as in California. A local plumber charged me $2,600 to run 40 feet of plastic pipe for my cold water. My doctor in California charged me $50 for an office visit; a similar doctor here charges $300 for the initial visit and more than $100 for each visit thereafter. So much for geography.

Second, about that pimple on the arts called a “hack” writer. I’m a hack, and I make no apology for it. A hack is a person who can, and will, write anything for anyone so long as the money is right. I have good company. William Shakespeare was a hack. So were Charles Dickens and William Blake and Ernest Hemingway. They all wrote for money, not caring whether their works were “artistic,” and the more the better. They had bills to pay.

I’ve been a hack for 30 years and I’ve made a good living at it. Magazine articles, newspaper articles, books, film scripts, audio scripts, direct-mail pieces, even envelope copy. One nice thing about being a hack is that you don’t get into a rut and you learn a lot. Because of my assignments I’ve learned about various aspects of retailing, business practices, law, ethics, sales, manufacturing, wholesaling, history, economics, international trade, and much more that I wouldn’t have learned about in any other way. I paid for my college years out of my own pocket, but magazine publishers have paid for my real education. As my hero H. Allen Smith once said, “You don’t have to know nuthin’ to be a writer.” You just have to ask the right questions (and there’s no shame in admitting ignorance when talking to an interview subject).

What do I charge and what will I accept? From experience, I know how long any given assignment will take to complete–whether it’s couched in number of words or number of pages or type of project (e.g., book or script). I translate that to an hourly rate of $60.00. Minimum. That’s still less than my mechanic or my accountant ($150) or my attorney ($360) charges me. If I feel the market will bear more, I charge more.

That’s hours actually working on the phone or at the keyboard, not hours thinking (which I do during most of my waking hours, especially while sipping beer at my favorite tavern [My wife, like James Thurber’s wife, will see that 500-yard stare and say, “Charles! Stop working!”]).

Writing is my calling, not a hobby or a route to catharsis, so I have to treat it like a business. I have expenses: the mortgage, the water and sewer and gas and electricity, the groceries and gasoline and car insurance and toothpaste and deodorant and cigarettes and beer. Not to mention the twice-daily gourmet wieners for my dogs.

That makes me a hack. And I’m proud of it.

Charles Wesley Orton and his wife Ramona live in Texarkana, Texas, with their two dogs Maxine and Pearl. When he’s not writing, Charles likes to spend time in his wood shop making wooden toys for children and otherwise turning big boards into small ones.