Stop underpaying writers

Feb 27, 2015

Yes, I am looking at you, $10/hour Craigslist offering.

Yes, I am looking at you, paltry pay-per-word gigs.

I know that writing – unlike, say, tightrope-walking – does not seem like a unique or particularly showy skill. It is, perhaps, easy to undervalue. After all, most literate adults can write a little bit. It is also true that everywhere you look, you are surrounded, like Hamlet, by “words, words, words.”

Can I blame you for assuming that because writing is ubiquitous, it should automatically be cheap?

Why, yes! Yes, I can.

Stop trying to underpay your writers.

Writing itself may be common, but good writing is uncommon. Decent writers don’t just hatch from eggs, their little newly-formed fingers twitching

When you shell out for a decent writer, you’re paying for years of education: for the knowledge gained from every book we’ve read since we lisped out our first little childhood lessons. You’re paying for experience: for self-editors who are able to turn cruddy first drafts into perfectly readable fifteenth drafts. You’re paying for training: for laser-eyed word nerds who can catch a misplaced comma. You’re paying for resilience: for people who can overcome writer’s block and blank minds and crushing boredom to make your copy sing.

You’re paying for a craftsperson, not a drudge.

There are cases when one may choose to write for free: for love, for passion projects, to give back to a community you value, for a “dream” venue, for proven exposure and publicity. Those cases are selected – writers can’t afford to only write for free – and writing lame content-mill catalogue copy doesn’t qualify. If you pay, pay decently.

I’m lucky enough to have a stable of great clients who pay well, but many of my colleagues aren’t so fortunate. In the last few years, I’ve seen freelance writers’ hourly rates – never exactly exorbitant – get consistently lowered by would-be clients.

I’ve heard horror stories of fellow writers getting paid absolutely negligible amounts to ghostwrite entire books. I’ve watched as writers turned out thoughtful, carefully-researched pieces for less-than-minimum-wage. It’s pervasive, this trend – and the pressure to lower one’s rates is constant. The excuses for this wage depression are manifold: the economy! The death of print! The explosion of online content! Self-publishing!

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But then, there will always be excuses.

Here’s the problem: when you consistently pay absurdly low rates to your writers, you just ensure that you won’t get very good content.

Good writing – the kind of writing that engages your target audiences, that’s shareable, that catches the eye and sticks in the mind– often isn’t cheap. It takes time to craft; it takes time to edit. Exhausted, overworked, underpaid writers don’t perform especially well; they’re too busy trying to pump out content so they don’t starve. Underpaid writers make silly mistakes and don’t do their best work. How can you expect anything else?

Bad writing – the kind that almost anybody can do, the misspelled and clunky and rambling kind – is deservedly cheap. Unfortunately, it won’t do much for your bottom line; at best, your content will be forgettable. At worst, it will be mocked – and in this snark-loving Internet age, is that worth the expense?

Stop trying to underpay writers; or write your content yourself. You’ll soon be reaping the benefits – or lack thereof.

Kate Hamill lives and works in New York City, where she consumes an inordinate amount of Sriracha daily. You can catch up with her on Twitter at @katerone.