On paying writers for their work

Stuart Dredge has written about the recent online row about paying journalists. The short of the story is Nate Thayer was asked to repurpose an article for The Atlantic for no money, and countless toys were rapidly thrown out of countless prams by countless writers, bloggers and people who just really like throwing toys out of prams.

Dredge is calmer than most, and argues against the commonplace default position these days that people should always be paid for writing.

My wife and I have a site called Apps Playground, about children’s apps, which is profitable (to the tune of £20-£30 of App Store affiliate fees a month, once hosting costs are deducted) as long as you don’t factor in the time we spend writing it. So we’re writing for free, but it’s our own thing.

If someone – say a big technology site like TechCrunch or Mashable – asked me to write the kind of stuff I do for The Guardian for them for free, would I? Obviously no. If they asked me to do a guest piece for free in my role as Apps Playground co-founder, with a link to the site? Obviously yes. Different hats.

On the surface, this looks similar to the regular ‘write for us in return for exposure’ offer every seasoned writer I know gets from publications on a fairly regular basis. As Dredge notes, writing for free is about the trade-off—whether or not you will potentially see more overall long-term value/income in return for giving away some of your time.

That said, this is looking at things from an individual’s viewpoint rather than a wider context. When publications—especially online—trend towards unsustainable rates (or in many cases, no rates), everyone’s individual one-off potentially leads to a situation where no-one gets paid. As someone who’s almost entirely a professional writer these days, that scares the shit out of me. Having been doing this gig for well over a decade now, with (so far) precisely no editors hunting me down and repeatedly punching me in the face while yelling about inaccurate use of interrobangs, I like to think I’m doing a pretty good job of things. But even so, it’s hard to see how it’s possible in the long term to compete against free, if that’s the way things go.

Dredge notes:

Perhaps, too, there are simply too many journalists, and new digital economics mean we’ll have to work harder and scrap smarter to stay in the game. There’s an interesting parallel with musicians here, I think, which is probably a separate article in itself.

He may well be right. Perhaps the entire creative sector is moving towards an end point where the vast majority of those within it—even those who’d previously had long and healthy careers—simply won’t be able to survive. Writing, music, and other creative endeavours could become little more than hobbyist pastimes, filling an hour in an evening before the creator goes to bed, ready for another day doing a ‘proper’ job, whatever that might be. That doesn’t so much horrify me as make me incredibly sad. If we cannot find a place and see value in creative tasks, I think we’ll be poorer for it and publications/other outlets will increasingly become unfocussed; however, perhaps with more people having a voice, diversity will flourish, great new creators will break through, and people will start once again thinking about paying directly to read, watch or hear more work from them, rather than waiting until they’ve a spare evening to craft something new.

Update: Gary Marshall adds his thoughts.

March 7, 2013. Read more in: Opinions, Writing

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The future of long-form writing on the internet

PandoDaily’s Sarah Lacy has an interesting piece up about long-form online content. The short of it is that readers seemingly flock to longer pieces online, and they have a greater shelf-life, too. The problem: industry conditions (i.e. churn-oriented writing) have ‘trained’ newcomers to prioritise speed over quality. Editors are therefore finding it increasingly tough to find new talent, and tend to use freelancers they already know well; additionally, newcomers aren’t being trained in how to write and research.

This more or less matches what I’ve heard from editors, but Lacy leaves out some important points. First, money is almost glossed over in her article, and that’s the main thing that’s impacted on quality writing. I’ve been writing professionally since the late 1990s, and in all that time magazine rates have only risen in a few cases; more often, rates have dropped or ‘transferred’ over to internet rates that are lower than print ones for essentially the same content. This situation forces even seasoned writers to speed up, or to work extra hours and reduce their quality of life.

Secondly, there’s the issue of a support network. Although I pride myself on rigorously editing and proofing copy before I file it (something that, I’m told, is surprisingly not ubiquitous among freelancers), I’m overjoyed when my work is filtered through the lens of a great sub-editor. There’s always a slight jolt on reading something and thinking “that’s not what I wrote”, and then a warm glow when I realise what the sub’s created is better. Usually, the changes are subtle, but when subbing is done well I hugely appreciate it. But subbing costs money, and support networks have in recent years been obliterated, especially online. In part, speed is to blame: getting things online quickly has been more important than accuracy or finely honed writing. But also there’s the problem that good subs cost money and are wrongly often considered unimportant in the scheme of things.

Thirdly, some writers don’t realise that long-form writing isn’t about churning out thousands of words. Every sentence—if possible, every word—should matter. If something’s superfluous, get rid of it. That doesn’t mean removing character from writing (humorous asides, for example, can be wonderful when used sparingly and with care), but nonetheless recognising when it wouldn’t be detrimental if a paragraph or two happened to be removed. So often, I read long-form articles online that could have easily been written in a third of the space. There’s a lack of discipline evident in the industry, and although that in part comes from the things Lacy mentions—an emphasis on speed; a lack of mentoring—it’s also down to a lack of money and a reduction in the support network for writers. Until all of these things change, I don’t see a rosy future for widespread long-form writing online, only for those publications and writers already making a good job of it.

October 23, 2012. Read more in: Writing

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On building an internet presence and not being a dick about it

Matt Gemmell, writing SEO for Non-dicks:

I’m asked sometimes for advice on building an internet presence, and I usually have to fumble for an answer – because I haven’t pursued any particular strategy beyond the glaringly obvious: create original, relevant content repeatedly.

He’s right, of course, but it’s not quite that easy. The stats in Gemmell’s post that he says aren’t massive nonetheless dwarf those I get, and, from what I hear, my stats are larger than some people I know who are writing great stuff. I’d argue the same sort of effect we see in the App Store is just as rampant on the internet in general, in that big brands (and people can be brands in this context) get lodged in people’s heads, regardless of whether they’re writing great content or utter bollocks. It’s also well known that sites that update more often get more hits, even if the content is churn-based tat that you can read on a million other sites. Now and again, you get a ‘breakout indie’, which is where I’d place Gemmell—smart, intelligent writing that bucks the trend of ‘churnalism’ that’s depressingly common these days.

The thing is, content is all that should matter for most writers at the personal level, unless they’re naïve enough to think their blog is the road to riches. Revert to Saved bumbled about in various forms for a bit, before settling in its current incarnation—largely tech-oriented bitching from a largely tech-oriented writer. It was never meant to be anything massive, although I am hugely grateful when people read my stuff and it sparks discussion, either online on other blogs, or directly with me in the comments or on Twitter. And then there is always that possibility that audience and traffic will grow, The Deck will come knocking and you’ll be able to make something of a living off of your own project’s writing, rather than solely writing for others.

Of course, traffic tends to only grow if you’re a dick (write often, rip-off others, use dodgy SEO) or a talented non-dick who perhaps gets a bit lucky (or makes their own luck). I’d certainly rather be the latter than the former.

September 22, 2011. Read more in: Opinions, Writing

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How freelancers should pitch articles to editors

My editor at .net, Dan Oliver, has just written 10 ways to pitch articles. His points are extremely useful and should be printed out and stapled to the noggins of many newbie writers; hell, from what I hear from editors, even seasoned writers could do with brushing up on their pitching skills.

In short, his arguments come down to:

  • Know your target;
  • Prove your worth;
  • Don’t be a dick;
  • Actually pitch.

You’d be amazed how often people ignore one or more of those things. Hell, I’m guilty of the last one on an ongoing basis, leading to editors occasionally wondering if I’ve been kidnapped by killer bees or emigrated to Saturn (my editors, clearly, being a somewhat imaginative and slightly unhinged lot). So, that link again: 10 ways to pitch articles. If you’re a freelance hack, read Dan’s advice and do some pitching. Or, you know, don’t, and then bitch about never getting any work.

August 30, 2011. Read more in: Opinions, Writing

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Caroline Rose on the economic climate affecting great copy

These days, I’m mostly a writer, typically for magazines. Now and again, I also write copy for websites, but that work ebbs and flows with the economic climate. As soon as funds are tight, the copywriter’s the first to be thrown out of the window.

This happens to the best of us. Caroline Rose was recently interviewed at Stories of Apple. She is an accomplished technical writer and was responsible for the initial volumes of Inside Macintosh, official guides for third-party developers. Her comment on the current climate and her surprise at how companies react regarding getting their words right, echoes my feelings entirely:

I’d actually like to have more work. I’ve been affected by the downturn in the economy; when companies need to reduce their expenses, one of the first things to go is their concern for the quality of their written word. They don’t seem to realize that even a little bit of ‘polish’ will make them look more professional and help them in the long run.

January 12, 2011. Read more in: Opinions, Writing

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