How bad can writing jobs get?

Now for the million-dollar question: What should excellent, creative, deadline-driven, ambitious, quick, detail-oriented, prolific, and skillful writers expect to be paid if this pain-in-the-ass content farm hires them? Why, \”between .009 and .02 per word,\” of course. Literally fractions of pennies. In Portland, where the living hourly wage is $9.42, according to MIT\’s living wage calculator, that would mean low-end earners would need to write about 1,047 words per hour to keep their head above water. That\’s easy, right, professional writers?

Gawker is getting all upset about this: but that isn\’t, actually, all that appallingly bad.

Well, actually, it is, but not for the pay rate it isn\’t.

The problem would be that they are trying to work to the incredibly anal US editing requirements while also paying those wages.

If you do want to make a living as a writer then it really should be possible for you to turn out 1,000 words an hour of publishable prose. But not if you\’re having to research the matter at the same time. Either something you know about, or rewriting pieces from elsewhere (\”cookie cutting\” in the American parlance). And you need to have a large hopper full of whatever it is you\’re supposed to be writing about right there and available.

It really isn\’t that 1,000 words per hour which is the problem. Nor is it 2 cents a word. $20 an hour is regarded as pretty good money by a lot of those who actually need to work for a living. No, the problem is that they are asking for the research costs to be built into that price. You\’ve got to find your own subject, come up with your own line, your own argument and check your own sources.

As an example, NUJ rate for a local newspaper (from memory) is 6.6 p a word, call it 0.10 in American. And for that you do indeed have to do all your own research etc.

Two further problems: the first being that you cannot really do this sort of work for 8 hours a day. Cranking out 1,000 an hour for that stretch of time is exhausting (I have indeed done it). The other is that in certain parts of the world that\’s not just a good wage that\’s an extremely good wage. They tend not to be the English speaking parts of the world, that\’s true. But someone who was fluent in English (or American) and living in say, rural India but with broadband, would find $20 an hour a terribly tempting sum of money. Actually, the World Bank regards $20 a day of disposable income as being middle class.

Welcome to globalisation arts graduates!

19 thoughts on “How bad can writing jobs get?”

  1. So it is actually appallingly bad pay, Tim. Working to those anal US editing requirements and doing the research as well.

    Welcome to the impending hollowing-out of your side-job by cheap and crap providers in India. Once the price gets low enough the quality end dies off as well. The minimum expected standard drops and we all have to follow. It’s long-since happened in translation, is happening in journalism (witness the charge led by the DM to get everything written by nameless interns with the result that a majority of “articles” contain multiple inconsistencies and basic factual errors, repetition and broken sentences, grammar and spelling mistakes and so on), and no doubt technical writers will be next.

    And somehow it makes us all richer because, apparently, huge volumes of sub-mediocre content are what the consumer wants.

  2. “apparently, huge volumes of sub-mediocre content are what the consumer wants.”

    The test is not whether you’re incredulous at the thought, or have different preferences yourself, but rather what consumers actually consume, by choice. The Mail does well on this count.

  3. Now that the different packages in which you once sold words is disappearing, maybe the value of the intellectual content will grow, and the ability to produce many words will be replaced by the ability to be succinct? I actually have a lot of unread books with a lot of words that are just between book covers filling; if someone would boil it all down to only the truly useful ideas they contain and that can easily be remembered, or at least remove the purely decorative stuff and halve the repetitions, then I would be willing to pay them for that.

    Admittedly neither The Reader’s Digest nor diverse short histories of ideas have impressed me, but I can imagine star condensers in the future: people who can get the different great books down to a couple of lines you can easily remember and can enjoy chewing on, perhaps something shaped a bit like the Heraclitus fragments?

    But then, how to effectively copyright it? Maybe speeches will have to produce the income, and the writing be given away? (I have noted J. P. O’Rourke, George Will and Hans-Werner Sinn on YouTube giving the very same speech over and over… considering the people in the audience, it looks lucrative too.) Anyway: good luck to all you professional writers, may you find some income to help you produce – the true horror would be to have all text replaced by television!

  4. I agree entirely with both of you. I’m merely observing that – in quality terms – races to the bottom can and do happen.

    There is a school of thought that races to the bottom never happen – that competition only ever makes things better. But “better” depends on your perspective. So once something becomes a minority-enough interest, provision will simply dry up completely, which is bad news for that now nonprovisioned group of customers. Witness the current complete absence of quality newspapers in the UK.

  5. This can only be superb news for the reading public & good writers.
    A race to the bottom there may well be. With predictable consequences. Other side of that, writing will be valued by whether the public want to read it, not judged by quantity or whether the author is a pal of the editor or offspring/wife/bed companion thereof.
    I predict a thinning in Telegraph columnists.

  6. JamesV,

    Welcome to the impending hollowing-out of your side-job by cheap and crap providers in India. Once the price gets low enough the quality end dies off as well. The minimum expected standard drops and we all have to follow. It’s long-since happened in translation, is happening in journalism (witness the charge led by the DM to get everything written by nameless interns with the result that a majority of “articles” contain multiple inconsistencies and basic factual errors, repetition and broken sentences, grammar and spelling mistakes and so on), and no doubt technical writers will be next.

    People reading articles about the Kardasians don’t care about facts, spelling, or any of that. If it’s moderately entertaining and kills the 10 minutes waiting for the bus, that’s good enough.

  7. @Tim Almond

    Who is serving the market for those who want well-spelled facts? No one.

    This is both good (efficient use of resources) and bad (some consumers not getting what they want).

  8. This is pretty much standard market economics. Too much supply, price falls, least efficient producers get knocked out of the market and go produce something else of higher value.

  9. JamesV,

    Who is serving the market for those who want well-spelled facts? No one.

    Because very few people find this sort of thing important, or at least to the point where they’ll go elsewhere. Harry Knowles’ Ain’t It Cool News website is huge amongst movie nerds, despite the fact that he has no sense of colour or typography and overuses ALL CAPS and exclamation marks. What he does do, more than probably anyone else, is to break exclusive news about movies in production, and that is the meat.

  10. My wife recently met a writer who was getting paid a penny a word, and was pleased as punch because he was actually Getting Published. Mind you, that was the vast British penny, not the diminutive American penny.

  11. JV: there’s no race to the bottom occurring here. The New Yorker, FT, WSJ and Economist are thriving. Even the likes of New Statesman and Private Eye are doing pretty well. Broadly, the crass crap that previously had to be done by people within a closed shop can now be done by people without it.

  12. JamesV // Oct 10, 2012 at 8:56 am

    And somehow it makes us all richer because, apparently, huge volumes of sub-mediocre content are what the consumer wants for free.

    FYP

    John B beat me to it. I’m quite happy to pay for the Economist but not the DM, DT etc. (Mind you the way the Economist is going that might change when my subs are due next year).

  13. JamesV…it’s not that the consumer necessarily wants this. The race to the bottom isn’t driven by the consumers; they left the stage long ago. The consumer, the general public, aren’t interested in the bulk of what’s produced; and truth to tell it isn’t written for them, a lot of what passes for journalism is in-house stuff. Tim would probably and quite rightly talk about supply v demand. There are a lot of bright people out there who are capable of churning out reasonable copy. Unfortunately the consumer will only pay for stars; the middle-ground is fast disappearing. You get to perform in the Premier League and earn a lot of money, or you are relegated to semi-pro/amateur status.

  14. JV

    It’s long-since happened in translation…

    Not really, there’s still considerable demand for good technical translators, who earn accordingly.

  15. What a lot of writers offering opinions for free.
    A bit like Amazon or the HuffPo.

    People have a need for gossip, assertion… and a few get paid for it. What’s new since 200,000 years ago?

  16. @JamesV #2: “And somehow it makes us all richer because, apparently, huge volumes of sub-mediocre content are what the consumer wants.”

    Worked for Microsoft…

  17. There are millions of people who go to work, sit behind a computer, and have little to do all day.

    For them, even less than minimum wage is a great deal to supplement their pay during their unoccupied working day.

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