If You Want to Make It As a Writer, For God's Sakes, Be Weird
you're in a market, so sell something other people aren't
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Writing is not a hard profession. Writing is actually an impossibly easy profession. I could sleep until noon every day if my cat didn’t wake me up at 5:30 AM. The act of writing itself is not hard. In fact it’s easy! People pretend that it’s hard but it’s not. What they find hard is keeping their eyes on their work instead of on Instagram. If you are willing to concentrate writing is a stone-cold breeze, and concentrating is something that you, as a literate primate in possession of free will, can choose to do. I think writers have created the impression that writing is hard because they’re afraid someone will find out the truth and pull down our whole house of cards. Don’t let anyone fool you: being a writer is cake. Trust me, if it was hard I’d be like “I don’t want to be a writer, it’s too hard.”
However, getting paid enough money to live as a writer is hard. Very hard, if you do not have the sort of dynastic advantages many of the professionals out there quietly do. And that makes it hard to know how to navigate the intrinsic sense that you must write with integrity even as you do it for a dollar.
They say that as you age you lose your sense of moral clarity. I think instead we gain a greater sense of moral clarity that grows at the same rate as our understanding that the world is impossibly complicated, including morally. You don’t lose passionate moral judgment. You find instead that all of that passion is inevitably refracted into many conflicting directions by the irreducible complexity of ethical life. You accept in exhaustion that your sense of right and wrong is no match for the fractally multiplying array of judgments that life will put in front of you day by day.
Which is just to say that my once iron sense of what is and is not a righteous project for a writer is all but gone now. I am trying hard these days to simply let go of cynical feelings about how writers get paid. I think those kinds of ideals are for rich professions and this one isn’t anymore. But it’s hard to know what lines to draw. There are some specific writers I’m thinking of who got into the Russia Is Bad business. They now sell reassurances that Russia is Bad to BlueAnon. It’s a living! I want to call it cynical, but then I just spent a month throwing chum into the water of Media Twitter to generate buzz. It’s a cynical business. I’d like to think there is a certain kind of integrity in what cynicism you choose, but I would always see my own career in the best light then, wouldn’t I?
I can’t tell you how to judge how a writer makes their bread. (Unless they’re, I don’t know, ghostwriting Ghislaine Maxwell’s cookbook.) But you can always judge on what matters most, the content and the quality. Is what’s being said true? Is it kind? Is it righteous? Most importantly - above all things - is it interesting? Here we can damn the writers who are shaking coins out of Russiagate: they’ve become vastly less interesting writers since they started selling pro-Democrat conspiracy theories to the kind of people who call Andrew Cuomo’s accusers sluts in the comments at DailyKos. That’s the cost, not so much integrity as the lost opportunity to be something else than what everyone else is. And that is the struggle for any writer, the struggle to become the version of yourself that says in words what no one else would ever think to think.
But selling out or not, you have to understand what you’re getting into. I presume you already know that the goal is not (or no longer) a Boerum Hill townhouse. If you must live in the city, it’s more like aspiring to a two bedroom rent stabilized place with in-unit laundry and a 10 minute walk to a park. But that can be a lovely life too. What’s not lovely are the layoffs or the pay freezes or whatever shell company owns your website strangling your union efforts. There are many people better equipped to tell you the financial picture of news and opinion writing in 2021 but whatever the case you’ll have to look at your career as something you grind out until you have a stable economic picture and a job that doesn’t make you hate yourself. After that, you just keep on grinding. And along the way it’s years and years of roommates until you find a partner, preferably not solely because you need someone to split the Optimum bill.
I think you have to get over this big mental hurdle that a lot of young writers have where they associate a vague kind of prestige and visibility with money. The fact that someone has landed at a big-name newspaper or magazine does not at all mean that they have money. The fact that their title is editor does not mean that they have money. (You know how there’s publications out there with like twenty editors and five staff writers? That’s cause they give the honorific “editor” title in lieu of giving money they don’t have.) The fact that someone’s zine gets written up in the Cut does not mean that they have money. The fact that everyone in the industry says “how droll!” before liking a writer’s tweet about the gender pay gap does not mean that writer has money. The fact that someone gave a talk at the Strand does not mean that they have money. The fact that someone has a book out, or even several books out, does not does not does not mean that they have money. The fact that someone’s book got reviewed everywhere, even reviewed well, does not mean that they have money.
Here’s who makes money writing books now:
a. People who were already famous
b. Robin Diangelo
c. Those writers whose books have titles like “You Don’t Give a Fuck, Because You’re a Badass Self-Confident Woman Who Manifests Divine Bitch Energy: A Glow Up”
Nor are there a lot of high salaries in traditional journalism or commentary anymore. People who self-define as writers and journalists make money but they make it in “consulting” or PR or copywriting or ghostwriting for celebs or running vague wellness/self-care/scented candle businesses. Yes, there are those who make Felix Salmon Money, but they’re rare and getting rarer. You’ve got people like David Brooks whose first Times contract was signed like 20 years ago, and you’ve got people who got equity based on overpriced valuations [Original: like Klein and Yglesias Correction: I don’t actually know what deal Klein and Yglesias got when they founded Vox, just rumors, and it was shitty of me to talk as if I did - consider this an apology], and you’ve got a few people whose primary function is really as ambassadors for ambitious publications, spending as much time schmoozing at conferences and going on cable news as they do writing. And you have Felix Salmon, to whom I can only tip my hat. Can there be more than a half dozen journalists/writers/commentators who make $500,000/year from their writing itself? I’m not weeping any tears about the pay at the top, except that pay at the top says something meaningful about pay at the bottom.
Almost nobody is making real money in this. Old school shoe leather reporters, if you can find them, aren’t making money. Idealistic young striving writers who hope their digital-only gifticle publications are just a pit stop aren’t making money. Grumpy old white dude assholes frantically trying to pivot to Professional White Ally, on the theory that this will make them money, aren’t making money. Tweedy party-at-the-Verso-loft n+1 leftists aren’t making money. 33 year olds who follow Tik Tok trends for a living and communicate in slang that’s fifteen years too young for them aren’t making money. Arrogant white nerdoliberals with Warby Parkers and Moleskine collections aren’t making money. Sports bloggers who provide sports news and commentary but with attitude aren’t making money. Softening khaki dads struggling to understand Bitcoin and intersectionality in an effort to survive their next inevitable layoff aren’t making money. Talented and unfulfilled women writers who have learned too late that women’s media is a ghetto they will struggle to escape for the rest of their careers aren’t making money. Aspiring young data scientists who labor over their spreadsheets for hours only to see others copy and past their R graphs without attribution and receive 40x the pageviews aren’t making money. And you won’t either. But you might be able to pay the rent.
In broad strokes: if you want to make it as a writer you will have to differentiate yourself, in text, from the vast rising oceans of texts that surround the digital world. There has never been more text being professionally published in the history of the world, which indicates that the market has never been bigger. But that also means that there has never been more words vying for the attention of a public that also has more and more not-words to pay attention to. So you have to be different. You have to be weird. I think being unclassifiable and difficult and fractious are desirable qualities for a writer in and of themselves. I think writers thrive through the rejection of other people’s writing and I think conflict is the source of all progress. But even aside from that value there’s the simple fact that you are attempting to enter a market at a time when there has never, ever been more conformity and less breadth of ideas. Which means that you have the opportunity to stand out, if you have the courage to take it.
Look. This is not a political post. I don’t want to get on my regular hobbyhorses here. So please accept this as observed purely in market terms. I say this with the dispassion and analytical eye of a surgeon: the opportunity now lies in the fact that every writer who is not unapologetically right-wing has gone woke. Actually, I’m not saying that. The profession is saying that. Writers are either getting funded by the ghost of Ronald Reagan or else they’re constantly tweeting about decolonizing Chucky Cheese or whatever. Those are the choices consumers of political and cultural writing have right now. Many “general interest” pubs seem to have discarded the pretense that they’re interested in publishing conservative voices at all. Completely independent of the principles of broad representation, that’s a market failure. You could, if you were a masochist, go one by one through the Twitter feeds of people at prominent newspapers and magazines, at sites like Vox and Buzzfeed and the Daily Beast, at NPR and the biggest podcasts, at think tanks and nonprofits, at the whole vast constellation of people involved in writing our culture, and you will find almost total unanimity in support of a self-defensive style of social justice politics.
Again, this is has nothing to do with the question of whether the politics media has adopted are correct. The point is simply that it’s not hard to see why many writers can’t get off the landing pad: they’re all saying the exact same things. In a profession where you are what you say, that’s death. I don’t know why people aren’t grasping this.
And the mode of expression, too, is the exact same: for a long time now media has been overtaken by a cult of expression which forbids any style or mode other than contemptuous blank irony. It is remarkable how uniform and homogenous the style of writing is on Twitter, which is where media culture is defined. It seemingly hasn’t evolved in a decade. Condescending, sarcastic, amused that you would think to say something so dumb, endlessly superior, contemptuous of all sincere values except the one being used as a bludgeon in the fight at hand. Absurdist in an entirely prescriptive way, novel in a tired way, funny in a humorless way. All of it is a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy of a strange and highly mannered form of humor that flourished in an obscure offshoot of an internet forum which migrated to a bigger platform and metastasized into something called Weird Twitter, and was subsequently popularized and imitated so frequently it took over the forum completely. For reasons that boggle my mind, it’s been the dominant style on the world’s most influential social network for going on a decade and appears often in published commentary as well.
And so you look out at the landscape and you have an entire profession of people who are saying the exact same thing and saying it the exact same way. They know that everyone else has failed to rise to their impossible moral standards for the oppressed of the world and they will tell you that with tired sarcasm that they reflect back at each other in an infinite regress of sublimated dread and panic. If you’re a consumer of writing, you’re facing a paucity of real choice, and the choices that are before you are all likely quite unappealing. People seek out writers on the margins because they’re tired of pieces telling them that Valentine’s heart candies are rape culture. Throw a rock in the pond of contemporary writing and you will hit someone making an incredibly dubious connection between some new fad in social justice politics and pop culture ephemera. (“Rosey From the Jetsons Really Knew How to Hold Space.”) Writers are forever screaming at you about matters of life-and-death oppression and yet somehow it’s still all frivolous and unserious.
If I was a young writer who wanted to make my mark, I would be serious all the time. I would take myself seriously. I would take my work seriously. I would take my audience seriously. I would not wrap every thought I had in mental air quotes. I would not spend my life in a self-defensive crouch. I would not copy and paste the tired joke formats that were getting passed around. I would not allow my professional and social ambitions to compel me to tell half-hearted obligatory jokes about, for example, a boat stuck in the Suez canal. I wouldn’t pretend that the latest Marvel movie will last in cultural memory as long as King Lear, or that the only reason someone would put on Mahler instead of Taylor Swift is “elitism.” I would not write a novel of the “millennial experience” where on every page I announce to the reader that I take none of it seriously and thus no can get to me, no sir, this is all a big joke and I am laughing too hard to crave your approval. I would understand that others and the world can take me seriously only if I take myself seriously first. I would recognize that all the irony and sarcasm and jokes will not change the fact that I am defenseless, that we are all defenseless. And if the time came when it actually was appropriate to use irony my knife would be sharp.
Your politics are your affair. But fear all political fads, resist all political peer pressure, and be ruthless in asking yourself whether you actually hold a position or if you are just afraid of the consequences of appearing to not hold it. Then express yourself.
In pragmatic terms I don’t know that my advice is different from what I’ve been giving people for a half-decade. Start a website under your own name and your own URL. Not on Medium or Substack but on your own domain. You can call the blog part something fancy but the URL is your name. You have a brief bio on the landing page. You can do the self-deprecating humor thing if you must, but it’s better to go with a minimalist just-the-facts-ma’am “So and so is a writer. She lives in Pittsburgh with her partner and her cat, Colonel Pineapple.” Write stuff in the blog part. Movie reviews. Political commentary. Reflections on the particulars of modern life. Nothing that will get you canceled. (That comes later.) But variety, please. I would much rather you have five B-grade pieces of different genres and modes than three A- pieces that are all the same. Make sure you write good rather than bad. Define your values. Be surprised by them as you write them down. Do not read advice on how to write well; the people who wrote the worst things you’ve ever read in your life read that advice too. Instead resolve to avoid all of the tics and references and clichés that infect contemporary writing. (When you incorporate slang from social media in your writing you don’t sound like “the way people communicate now,” you simultaneously sound like you don’t care and you’re trying too hard.) Choose one piece that you like the very best to show when asked for a representative sample. What comes out of all of this is your quiver.
Yes, share your work on social media, and do not be afraid to ask friends to share it too. Then, pitch. Look on the websites and find the pitching instructions. If you can’t find them they don’t want you. Give the editor the link and invite them to look at your work. Pretend you didn’t already write the piece you’re pitching, you look cooler that way. Expect to hear back from one out of four editors you write and expect to get an offer with money attached from one out of ten. Mentally adjust your expectations about what they’ll pay. (Down, that is. You adjust them down.) When they offer, unless they very explicitly say “we pay X for X,” ask for 25% more than they offer. They will mostly say no, but they will say yes more than you think. If they get offended you asked and pull the offer then you didn’t want to write for them in the first place. (If you’re an editor reading this and you’re grumbling about the idea, then you think it’s unprofessional for writers to ask for a little more than your poverty wages and you can go fuck yourself.)
Get edited. Watch your piece get bent in places you didn’t want it to go. Feel the pain. This will get easier. Witness yourself growing editable. Will they sometimes be wrong? Sure. Concede. Think of it as banking credibility. Develop a reputation as someone who’s easy to edit. (I think it was Neil Gaiman who said you can be an asshole, you can miss deadlines, or your work can be bad, but you can only have one at one time.) And then if you really hate a change, you can push in your chips. I’m not saying I ever deliberately put stuff in a piece to get cut so that I would have a little leverage for the argument about another part I wanted to preserve, but, well…. Learn to love the edited pieces that emerge; they will usually be better than what you put in. Feel accomplished when the piece arrives and share again. Start a page on your website called “Published Work.” Put the piece on the list. It will grow.
Whatever you do, be weird. As a consumer of writing, please, for me, be weird. Whatever this profession needs, it does not need more hall monitors or commissars and it does not need more writers who seem to have nothing to offer beyond looking down their glasses at the world in shrill derision. That territory is covered. That corner has been taken. The whole point of writing, the only reason to have an alphabet, is to say what no one else is saying. To be singular. What is the value of replicating words that have already appeared in the same order? You can’t choose to be good and you can’t choose to be successful. But you can choose to be your own.
Absolutely everyone and everything in the life you are choosing will try to force you to conform. They will hate you if you break ranks, but they’ll hate you if you say something inoffensive but easily misrepresented too. All they want is to root out heretics; it’s the only thing that makes them feel alive. So you may as well not live in fear. If you let them in there will be little of you left when they’re done, so don’t let them in. If you can hold on to some piece of yourself that does not care what they say, you can have the one pure thing left in an industry now made up only of snitches and nuns, that last virtue for a writer, the courage to be human.
So, so many. Writing is precisely the kind of romantic vocation one imagines for themselves while staring out the window of a boarding school with tuition higher than Princeton’s, and so a lot of privileged aspiring writers arrive in New York with the wardrobe of mid-period Joan Didion and the writing skills of… not mid-period Joan Didion. Because they are insulated from financial need they will gladly get paid $12.50 an hour to write 14,000 words a day of viral content, viral in the sense that it will make everyone who reads it feel physically ill. I truly shudder to think of how the wages of experienced and talented writers are driven down by trust funds kids and their willingness to accept poverty wages just to be able to say that they work as a writer in the big city.
Don’t. It’s so expensive. There’s a lot of cool cheap places to live, including urban places. Places that went down and are now on the way back up might be the sweet spot. Cincinnati?
Don’t come at me with the Times please. I’ll give you Brett Stephens. But modern conservatism is about tax cuts and culture war. Ross Douthat doesn’t seem to care about tax cuts and doesn’t do culture war. David Brooks is a sentient Juicero and no conservatives think he’s one of them. (Gail Collins supposedly said “I was looking for a conservative that wouldn't make our readers throw the paper out the window.”) Frank Bruni’s not even conservative, he’s just an asshole.
Some will say that I pay too much attention to Twitter, but a) people who wake up and reach for their phones to tweet and don’t stop until their head hits the pillow at night don’t get to make that complaint, and b) Twitter is where the media writer popularity hierarchy is quantified and literalized and that hierarchy is very important for professional advancement. (For now.) As long as media culture is being defined by that horrible chorus of yelling insecure voices Twitter is relevant to a piece like this.
Immense damage has been done to the public perception of many causes beloved by the social justice set by that set’s dogged insistence on associating those causes with totally frivolous ideas. When a writer says “I’m going to connect the trauma of segregation to the semiotics of breakfast cereal,” it doesn’t make people expand their thinking on the scope of racism. It makes the writer ridiculous and the issue seem trivial. Who is this helping? Why has no one in the profession said “maybe the prevalence of this type of piece is a mistake”?
Big consumer of writing here.
You should include libraries in this discussion. Many consumers of writing access writing through libraries and don't leave a digital footprint.
Getting reviewed in places you may not think about like Booklist or Choice. Pay attention to what librarians do. We read a lot of books and notice books not MSM famous. I served on the Notable Books jury for several years. Most libraries buy the books--few reviewed in the fancy places. https://rusaupdate.org/awards/notable-books-list/
I'd like to see the Public Library Lending Right in the US. The Authors Guild is trying: https://www.authorsguild.org/who-we-are/letter-president/letter-from-the-president-winter-2018-spring-2019-plr/
I wish every famous person would not write children's books. Libraries have to buy them because there is demand, but they are usually dreadful. I wish actors wouldn't voice audiobooks.
I have written three published novels and have never made money at it. I deliver packages for Amazon and have a spouse with a real job. That's the reality of writing- you are using leisure time to produce entertainment instead of consuming it. I'm far too old and don't have the right identity and education to make it as a hot new writer. That's fine. I'll write anyway because that's what I do. I've been writing novels since high school. I'll keep doing it whatever happens. It's not contingent on money.
I don't feel like the world owes me a living as a writer. There's making a living, and there's doing what I want to do. They aren't the same thing, and deBoer makes a convincing case that it isn't worth selling your soul.