Yes, Being a Professional Writer is actually Work

trustrumOn the Job, Rants and Ramblings1 Comment

People Need to Understand a Professional Writer is a Job, Not a Leisure Activity

Steven Trustrum Professional WriterIf you are a professional writer, more likely than not you’ve had someone put forward the opinion that writing is not “real” work. As a professional writer, you sit in a chair at a keyboard all day, after all, comfortable and stress free, so how is that work? (Or at least “work” compared to people with real jobs?)

As I write this, understand I have the benefit of a perspective that comes from being a professional writer in multiple industries: I am a technical writer / general copywriter / marketing writer and a creative professional writer. In my experience (and from talking with others), the many misconceptions regarding what it is to be a professional writer are not as common among the former circles as the latter, but they still happen far too often.

If you are not yourself a professional writer, it’s likely that what I’m going to cover here is entirely new to you. If you are a professional writer, though, I’m going to be covering a lot of familiar ground.

To understand why so many people don’t think being a professional writer counts as a real job, let’s look at some of the more frequent (to me, anyway) misunderstandings people have about the nature of writing as work. These are drawn from my own experiences after nearly a decade of being a professional writer in some capacity or another, as well as those I frequently see other writers talk about.

Misconception 1: It’s Not Work if You Have Fun

The idea that a “job” has to be back-breaking, boring, and unfulfilling — in other words, it cannot be fun — is something just about every creative professional writer has heard before. (Hey, I’m not saying you can’t have fun with other types of writing, but it’s not as inherent to the work’s nature as it is with creative writing.)

Do you enjoy what you write about?

Do you have fun creating new worlds, characters, and stories?

Well then, that’s not work.

That’s a hobby you happen to get paid for.

Many non-writers have the impression that the satisfaction and joy one derives from writing — especially the satisfaction that can only be realized upon completing a project — indicates writing cannot count as work. As a creative writer, I make role-playing games as both a professional writer and small press publisher. I and my peers are very familiar with this perspective within our market. For instance, I’ve been told more than once that I make too much money for “just” creating games, and that I’m “lucky” that people are willing to pay for creativity I derive enjoyment from.

This way of thinking is often also used to justify pirating role-playing games. We’re not “real” writers, so it’s okay to pirate our products. After all, goes the reasoning, if we get fun from creating games, clearly we should be happy that people want to play our games even if the don’t want to pay for it.

Although I enjoy the world-building and other aspects of being a creative writer in the role-playing game industry, I’m still a professional writer. Fun or not, I expect to get paid for the things I create with my writing if someone thinks well enough of it to use it in their games. This is why I write “products” and not “gifts.” Any enjoyment or fun that comes with the job (there’s that word again) is a secondary benefit of the work.

This shouldn’t be a difficult concept to grasp, but it far too often is.

Misconception 2: If You Work from Home, You Have Free Time for Other Things

Since the end of 2014, I’ve split my time working from home for someone else as a marketing writer and working for myself as a freelancer and writer for my role-playing game company, Misfit Studios. There are numerous advantages to this: not having to travel to and from somewhere every day, I get to work in my underwear if I really feel lazy (just kidding … or am I?), onlya small flight of stairs away separates me from a fully stocked kitchen come lunchtime, and I can easily work on my laptop if my kid has to stay home for some reason.

I am often told how lucky I am to get to work from home for these (and more) reasons, but a stay-at-home job like a professional writer is not without its detriments; it certainly isn’t as carefree as everyone seems to think. Many people seem to lose sight of the fact that, when all is said and done, being a professional writer who works out of the home is still a job. There is still work to get done.

If I’m working from home remotely for someone else as a professional writer, I still have a boss to answer to and a timetable I’m responsible for. I ,attend remote meetings via Skype and the like, and my marketing content projects still have deadlines that I have to meet. Those goals are set with the understanding that I’ll be sitting there working on them at my computer for a full eight hour work day (because, yes, I frequently skip lunch because I’m so busy.)

I don’t sleep in.

I don’t go play video games for half the day.

I don’t take a mid-afternoon nap.

I don’t flip on the TV and watch a movie.

I don’t take long soaks in the tub.

I’m a professional writer with stuff to do, and if I goof off my work doesn’t get written. It truly is that simple — kinda like it’s a real job, same as any other, no?

If a professional writer works from home, that doesn’t mean that they should also be spending the day cleaning the house, doing gardening, having the shopping done, or taking care of other household chores that would otherwise need to wait for the weekend. And yet this is a misconception that plagues many people who work from home, not just professional writers.

Again, the belief that being home means you can take time to do other things only arises because there is some part of people who think that working from home is not a real job. If I were to ask a friend working in an office why they didn’t pick up a mop and bucket and go clean the office floors or go out for an hour or more to do some shopping during the workday, they’d look at me like I’m crazy.

Still, being able to take time away from work to go do chores is a common misconception for the professional writer working from home.

Misconception 3: To a Professional Writer, Credit / Exposure is as Good as Cash

I’ve encountered this problem in all aspects of being a professional writer: the belief that exposure (a.k.a. “getting my name out there”) and having my name attached to a “great project” as a credit is just as good as actually being paid. It’s very similar to how corporations ask for people to work as unpaid interns where the only benefits are the supposed on-the-job experience gained and the possibility of maybe getting a paid job later.

This practice is all too common in creative markets, and it needs to stop.

Let’s get real about the good that can come of such an arrangement. The amount of projects where exposure will actually do someone any good is incredibly small and more a fluke than anything else. Any real benefit gained from an exposure-only project is more likely the sort of situation where blind luck has a part to play rather than the project itself having any inherent value in absence of pay. So how do people get away with doing this?

Many companies still dangle this carrot in front of people looking to become professional writers because they are certain of one thing: the pool of people who are desperate to earn money writing is so massive that they’ll get a lot people willing to take a chance and work under those conditions no matter how many people refuse to fall for the scam.

A variation of this practice is asking a professional writer to work without pay as part of an application process — the free work audition, as I call it. This is when a prospective client or employer assigns you something to write about and you are expected to turn it over to them for free so they can use it to determine if you are the right professional writer for their project. This isn’t them asking to see a portfolio of existing work you’ve done for someone else, but new and original work that you’re expected to create for them from scratch.

For free and without any assurance of getting the job once it’s done.

Let’s just call this practice what it is: time thievery.

The free work audition is taking time and resources away from the professional writer they could be spending on paying gigs. It is forcing the professional writer to spend their time writing something for the mere chance of getting more work without a guarantee of ROI. You simply cannot get back any time spent on such a thing.

How many other jobs have an application process that legitimately functions like this?

If you’re applying to be a chef, are you expected to show up at your job interview with a basket of ingredients you paid for yourself and cook for the restaurant manager?

If you are a construction worker, do you show up with lumber, concrete, nails, etc. you’ve paid for yourself to build a house to show what you can do, gratis?

Following this process, more than once I found this audition work has appeared on the prospective employer’s website even though I didn’t get the job. For example, the free audition work required writing a blog entry on a specific topic of their choosing; I was informed they hired someone else, but they still posted my blog submission.

In such instances, I usually contacted them and politely pointed out that they didn’t pay me, so I still own the copyright — they have no right publish it. This tended to get it pulled down, but it also almost surely burned that particular bridge. So, as a professional writer, I’m left with the choice of letting them get away with it and saying nothing or lighting a torch and walking towards that bridge if I’m required to do free work as part of a job application.

What sort of application process forces such a choice on potential employees?

For obvious reasons, I no longer apply for any jobs asking for a free work audition. I’ve long since caught on to just how much of a scam this practice is.

If you’re reading this and are not a professional writer, you may think I’m joking or exaggerating, but I assure you I’m not. Any professional writer (or creative talent, such as an artist, actor, or musician, for that matter) will sadly confirm this for you. So let’s be clear about why this sort of thing is total BS:

If an employer’s need for a professional writer (or any sort of creative talent) is sufficient that they’ve got to go looking for someone to do the work, then it is sufficient for this employer to pay for the results. What these employers are asking for has value to them or they wouldn’t be asking people to do it in the first place. And if a professional writer’s work has value to that company, then they need to pay for it, just like any other resource their operations require.

Because being a professional writer is my job. It is not a charity. But the idea that being a professional writer isn’t a “real” job is a big part of why this kind of thing is still happening.

Misconception 4: Writing is Easy — Anyone Can Do It

Although just about anyone can sit down at a keyboard and type away, even if only one finger at a time, the idea that writing is easy and that any ol’ person can do it is laughable.

Even among people who consider themselves to be a professional writer, there is a surprising lack of polished ability and talent. As an editor, I’ve often looked at something a “professional writer” has handed over as part of a project, fully expecting to get paid for the work, and returned it to them as woefully not up to the task. Whether it simply wasn’t what they were supposed to be doing or was nearly unintelligible, for some reason there are people who work as professional writers who simply cannot write worth a damn in the field they are supposedly qualified for.

They can’t put together a coherent sentence.

They can’t grasp even rudimentary grammar.

They know nothing about search engine optimization.

They can’t identify who their prospective audience is.

The readability rating of their work is astronomically high.

… and so on.

Yet such a person can still find work as a professional writer. How can this be, you ask?

Because writing is difficult. So difficult, that the non-writers paying such people for their work don’t know enough about the process to recognize the problems with the work they are paying for. Indeed, as a writer / editor, I’ve had jobs where I’ve  I’ve actually argued with clients / bosses over basic issues of grammar and the like. I’ve been forced into a position where I’ve had to prove that I know how the English language works because the people paying me lack this skill.

For example, while working as a full-time editor a number of years ago, the company owner called my manager and I into his office. He complained about the call-to-action appearing on many of our landing pages, which would appear as some variation of “complete our website’s contact form to learn more.”

His issue with this?

The apostrophe followed by the “s.” The owner insisted that an apostrophe followed by an “s” is only used as a contraction — “it’s” instead of “it is,”as he pointed out.

What followed was a half hour of me trying to convince the owner that a possessive apostrophe is a real thing. The manager, being the sort not to contradict the owner, no matter how wrong the latter was, sat silently the whole time. Eventually the owner told me that he still didn’t believe me, but had to trust that I knew what I was doing. He sent me back to work while keeping the manager there to talk about something else.

My manager later told me that as soon as I left the office, the owner looked up possessive apostrophes on the Internet to see if they were real. He never apologized to me or otherwise acknowledged his error.

The truly unfortunate fact of this situation is that the company owner in my anecdote was not a stupid man. He was not someone who is new to the English language. He has a university education and English is his native tongue.

But he still didn’t believe me that there is such a thing as a possessive apostrophe.

And I wish I could say such issues are uncommon, but they are not. Especially among non-writers. This being the case, too many people mistake their poor writing abilities for writing being “easy” in general. As a result, they don’t see writing for the specialized skill that it is.

As a result, being a professional writer is something far to many people see as not being difficult or worth paying a respectable, competitive rate for.

Any professional writer will tell you there are certainly plenty of other reasons why what they do is not seen as “real” work by many people, but the ones mentioned here are four I have personally encountered most often. Maybe I’ll address more in a later article, but for now I’ve spent enough time on this piece. I’m writing it on my own time, after all, and am not getting paid for it. So, I think I’ll switch back to some other project I’ll get paid for writing.

Because, as a professional writer, that’s my job.

One Comment on “Yes, Being a Professional Writer is actually Work”

  1. John Kent

    Hey Steve,

    This post can certainly apply to many work-from-home situations. It’s a good article for new professionals to read so they understand what their peers will say and think of them.

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