I’ve seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by clickbait, starving hysterical looking for healthcare and benefits, dragging themselves through Indeed and LinkedIn, searching for something to pay the bills and make them happy, ambitious writers burning for a decent wage, respect, and a normal life, a future illuminated by checks that arrive on time …
I don’t know when it happened, exactly, when I finally decided that I had had enough. Maybe it was the 50th e-mail to editors that went unanswered. Maybe it was when an editor tried to shame me on social media by posting one of my e-mails to him. Maybe it was when I didn’t have enough money in my bank account to cover the monthly fee. Maybe it was right around the time that “writing” became “content,” when quantity became more important than quality, when everything went to hell.
Whenever that final straw came, I have to say I’m done. I’m just…done. Done with freelancing and everything that goes with it.
A little background: I’ve been a writer and editor since the mid-1980’s. Like most writers I first wrote columns and features for small, local publications for very little pay. I published a music zine in the early 90’s that didn’t make a lot of money but it got me and my friends a lot of free CDs from record companies that we sold for beer and rent money. I did a monthly TV newsletter too, which led to a nice gig at AOL, all the while freelancing for other online and print publications. I’ve written columns, reviews, recaps, interviews, features, blog posts, and everything else you could possibly think of. I’ve been doing it for 35 years.
There are several reasons why I’ve reached the point where I don’t want to – and simply can’t, financially, mentally, even physically – do it anymore.
The pay is terrible. I’m still getting paid the same amount of money I was getting paid when Reagan was in his second term. This may sound bizarre to people who aren’t writers, but writing isn’t a profession where average pay increases over the years. And while web sites – where a lot of writing takes place now – will give reasons why pay is low that involve traffic and clickthrough rates and all that (side note: a lot of that is bullshit, but we also need a better way to do web publishing that doesn’t involve clicks and eyeballs and “metrics”), it doesn’t mean that writers can live off of it. If I can somehow get $250 for a piece, I consider that a massive amount of money, and I’m giddy all day. And that’s sad.
There’s a math that freelancers do: “If I can work for a certain number of outlets every week and each one pays me _____, that’s ______ a week. Not bad!” But for the past several years the math hasn’t been working out for me.
I’m sick of hearing people say that this is the best time to be a writer. No, it’s the best time to be a reader, a consumer of writing. Making a living writing has always been hard, but somehow, even in this multi-platform world, it’s just as hard today.
I’ve had terrific years as a writer and really bad years. There’s been too much of the latter recently. My income last year was below poverty level. When people just starting out ask me for advice, more and more I find myself telling them, don’t become a journalist or freelancer. Be a writer, and either have a job that pays the bills or marry someone with a great job and money.
Good editors are a joy, but there are a lot of bad editors. I’m not sure why these editors a.) keep their jobs, and b.) forget what it was like to be freelancers.
I’ve worked with some terrific editors, but a lot of sites are run by editors who are overwhelmed, are more “webmasters” than actual editors, and they just don’t know what they’re doing. Editors that never answer your pitches because they’ve been “buried in e-mails” and “busy” (though apparently not too busy that they can’t post 20 times a day on Twitter). Editors that get irritated when you contact them to inquire about why your pay is late. Half of the time it’s because they forgot to submit the invoice. When you want them to speed up the payment because of their mistake, they say they can’t do it until the next pay period, which is unacceptable. I’m sure they wouldn’t stand for not being paid. Many writers live paycheck to late paycheck.
There are the editors that were born around the time I was already an adult and well into my career and they’re not familiar with anything that happened in pop culture before the first season of Saved by the Bell. In one article I mentioned Asta the dog, from the Thin Man movies. The editor changed the line to “a dog,” not knowing that Asta is pretty famous. Practically the Lassie of dogs. Of course, the people in the comment section dumped on me for not knowing who Asta was.
The same editor told me that I couldn’t include Lethal Weapon in my list of favorite Christmas movies because Mel Gibson was in it and they couldn’t include him in the article “in this climate” (her exact words). I’ve had an editor turn down my idea only to see her assign the exact same idea to another, more in-favor writer two weeks later.
(I won’t mention the name of the site that did each of these things, but here’s a hint: it’s a well-known pop culture site named after a bird that waits until an animal dies before it feasts on the remains.)
I had the payroll department of one of the nation’s largest newspapers tell me that I wasn’t going to get paid for the week I wrote for them, even if the editor had told me I was going to be paid, because it was “just a fun assignment.” After I showed her the email promising me I’d get paid and how much, they changed their minds.
I had one editor tell me he wouldn’t hire me because I “wasn’t in touch with the zeitgeist,” which surprised me, because I thought I was up on my zeitgeist touching.
I had one of the web’s most well-known pop culture sites dump me after I wrote two features because I “wasn’t pitching the right kind of stories,” after pitching them the type of stories they wanted me to pitch. (I won’t name that site either, but I’ll give you a hint: it’s The A.V. Club.)
And then there was the editor at Esquire that not only didn’t answer my pitches – even though I had written for the site for six years – he posted on Twitter the e-mail I sent him saying I was withdrawing the pitch after a month and didn’t want to work with him anymore, because it was just a waste of his time and mine. This is a well-known editor some of you may follow on Twitter, where he frequently posts when he’s not ignoring emails from writers. He posted the email – where I was very cordial and calm – and wrote “don’t do this,” using me as an example to other writers as how not to pitch an editor. He suggested that maybe he was too busy right now, and maybe he was just about to answer me. And of course, all of his Twitter sycophants, dying to get their opinions in and dying for him to “like” one of their tweets, chimed in with their support of him. One guy made a comment along the lines of “these millennials really should learn how the writing business works.” I appreciate that he assumes I’m young, but I was born when The Dick Van Dyke Show was still on and I currently take two high blood pressure medications.
(Again, I wrote for them for six years.)
These types of editors will eventually reply with a “no” after you follow up with them once or twice, which is how most editors reply now, especially if they just don’t want to bother with you anymore. That’s particularly frustrating.
I still have editors saying that they can’t pay me, but their site gets “a lot of traffic” and I’ll be “seen by a lot of people.” Jesus Christ. So they’re offering nothing. At least 30 years ago when I wrote for the exposure it was a print publication and they’d send me a couple of free copies.
I’ve seen a lot of articles and Twitter threads where editors give advice on how writers should pitch them and how writers should treat them. Someone needs to write a tweetstorm on how editors should treat writers.
Here’s the thing: it’s not that I don’t understand. I’ve been an editor for over two decades, for several publications and sites. I’ve managed a staff, hired freelancers, dealt with queries and invoices and pressure and dozens of e-mails a day. I know what editors go through. It’s because I know what they go through that I know how it should be done. I’m not a twentysomething just starting out, naive, not knowing how the industry works. I’ve been on both sides. Which leads me to…
Maybe, like Danny Glover in that movie I wasn’t allowed to write about, I’m too old for this shit. What I mean by that is, I don’t want to write about the things editors are looking for. I see so many ads where a publication is looking for writers to cover celebrity gossip or reality shows. I see so many pop culture sites just trying to get up as much “stuff” as quickly as possible, because readers really need to see that recap of Floribama Shore four minutes after the episode ends (side note: I have no idea what Floribama Shore even is). Do we need to read the reviews of every single episode of a show just because they premiere all at once on Netflix? We have binge watching, a practice and a term I hate with the heat of a thousand suns, do we also need binge reviewing? And do we really need the 150th “25 Greatest Sci-Fi Shows of All-Time!” list? (We’re drowning in lists – they’re meaningless now.)
You just had a brain-numbing “Nine Times This Is Us Gave Me All The Feels” listicle published for $35, devaluing the profession and embarrassing myself at the same time? Congratulations!
I’m sick of everyone covering everything, writing about everything, thinking about everything, in the same exact way.
This isn’t just the fault of the publications. There’s an audience for this stuff. This is a personal thing. You reach an age when what you want to write about changes, and I’ve reached that point. I want to write about different things now.
Social media is everything. I’m just not a Twitter and Facebook person. I was for years, but I gave them up a long time ago because they’re too distracting, irritating, and exhausting. But that’s where everyone seems to live now, to the point that they’ve completely given up their own sites and blogs (people can complain about how Facebook has eaten publishing but they’re the ones giving Facebook all that content and time). I’m sick of the hot take economy, a media world where people spend all day on Twitter and get their editorial guidance from it, chasing the trends, the retweets, the adrenaline rush of getting attention. Don’t writers and editors know that social media has changed the world forever, changed the way we view each other and treat each other, and not in a good way? Is it too much to ask that, if writers and editors and journalists have to be on social media, it be just a place they visit, a side thing, and not the main thing? Apparently it is (many publications now insist that their writers and editors be on social media).
Maybe being off Twitter and Facebook means I’m off of everyone’s radar. Oh well. I haven’t gone anywhere! (You can even follow this site.)
2020 threw us all a knuckleball and actually changed my mind about some of the above. When you’re in the midst of a pandemic and you need to stay home more and don’t want to take public transportation to a job (if that publication is even hiring during a pandemic) and the world has been turned upside down, freelancing seems like the most logical, most effective way of doing things as a writer. But I recently had a change of heart again and realized that, while I certainly want to keep working for myself and work from home, I don’t want to go back to the daily grind of a daily job search. Pandemic or not, I just can’t do it.
If anything, the past year has given me a clearer picture of what’s important, what I really want to do with my writing.
So what’s next? No, I’m not going to give up writing, In fact, my writing is going to increase. I’m just going to change the way I do things and what I concentrate on. At some point you have to decide whether you’re just going to be someone who only writes about the art of others or creates your own. I’m working on another book. Two, actually, one non-fiction, one a novel. More books, more essays, more creative work (less service journalism, newsy articles, and bullshit). I have a regular column I do every week, and I’ll still write for publications if it’s something I deeply want to write about. It’s not that I’m against “freelancing” in the most general definition of the word, writing for various publications, but daily freelancing, the constant searching for jobs and keeping track of that search, taking even the worst gigs because “at least it pays,” is depressing. It’s a daily job search (unless you’re fortunate enough to have regular, well-paying gigs). You have to hustle hustle hustle, query query query, wait wait wait, repeat repeat repeat. I’ve been doing it for over three decades, and I don’t want to do it anymore. It’s a young(er) person’s game. I shouldn’t have to do it anymore. I’d love it if editors approached me about writing for them. (I’m available!)
I thought when I reached my 50s things would be….different. But they aren’t. I just have less hair.
I’m looking for a regular staff job, something I can do remotely (or locally). I’ve been offered editorial positions in New York but I don’t see myself moving there at this point in my life (hey, what happened to that incredible new world where we’d all be working from anywhere we wanted, with so much freedom and flexibility, making so much money?). Dreams of skyscrapers and cocktails in an old literary New York are something I gave up a long time ago (we have tall buildings and drinks in Boston too). Maybe I’ll do a Patreon or a newsletter (which have made a comeback!) or go back to selling CDs, something to pay the bills while I work on books and longer features. (In the meantime, you may have noticed that Donate button over on the right – every little bit helps.) Can you get money for giving blood?
It’s time to say goodbye to freelancing and hello again to writing.