The New Hack Writers

In bygone days pulp writers would churn out stories and articles by the bundle for magazines that would pay a fraction of a cent per word.  The only alternative to starvation was to write fast and furiously and pay more attention to quantity than quality.  Still, some excellent writers emerged from that era, and some truly great work was done.  After all, it is a myth that speed and quality are anathema to each other.  Consider “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac, which was written in a tremendous burst of spontaneous prose as fast as he could type on a large roll of teletype paper.  Of course, the germination process was lengthy – he had to live it and mull over his experiences first; and the editing process was doubtlessly equally lengthy.  This is not what I am speaking of when I talk about hack work.  Hack work is done for no other motivation than money; if it were not for the money the work would not be done.  Literary work, no matter how speedily written, is a calling, a vocation, a necessity.  The two analogies I come up with for literary work are greatly diverse from one another but give an impression of the urgency involved:  a good bowel movement, and a mother giving birth.  A writer must write.

Hack work is when a writer uses his talent to produce something saleable, but the compulsion to create is lacking.  When I moved back to the States after thirty-five years abroad I had thought to get a regular job with a salary, but as I searched and searched I realized the proposition was much tougher than I had supposed.  In desperation I began to look for online writing jobs to bring in a few bucks.  This article is not an extensive analysis of the online writing scene, but a recounting of my own experiences.  I found a number of opportunities to make money writing online, some of which were outright scams and some of which offered a trickle of income.  Few paid anything other than poverty-level wages.

I’m writing here about purely freelance work.  I came very close to snagging a few regular salaried content provider jobs with fairly large online companies.  They liked me; they liked my work; we made it as far as second interviews.  Inevitably, though, they got down to the random, ridiculous criterion of the missing piece of paper:  I lack a college degree.

To search for online freelance writing work I looked on a number of sites.  It was meticulous and exhausting, as many advertisements turned out to be absurd timewasters.  Many expected quality writing for no pay but intern experience or exposure – deceptive terms to mask the fact that they wanted to profit from your work but did not want to allow you to do so.

The first promising web content job I found turned out to be little better than a scam, but I didn’t realize it at the time.  It was advertised on a job site.  The article site was attractive, and on the home page there were testimonies of writers who supposedly made hundreds of dollars a month in royalties.  They wanted writers to deliver good quality articles, and promised a share of ad revenue calculated on the number of times people clicked on your article.  I became all enthused about it and wrote articles on travel, parenting, teaching, writing, and other subjects with which I was familiar.  I proofread them to be sure they were perfect and uploaded them into the site’s template under a pseudonym.  I was proud of those articles; they were good quality work.  Then I went about logging into the financial system that would make it possible to get paid, and I found out it wasn’t so easy.  You had to have a certain number of articles published, and those articles had to get a certain number of visits.  For weeks I struggled to get locked in to the payment system, only to receive e-mail messages saying that I was not yet approved.  Finally – I think it was actually a few months after I had first applied – my application was approved.  Eagerly I awaited the outpouring of income; after all, I had begun to receive positive reviews, followers, and so on.  However, with over two dozen articles online my top income has yet to reach a dollar a month.  Payment is not made until a minimum of fifty dollars is reached.  Do the math.  I had better not hold my breath.

While waiting for the proverbial shower of income I sent out dozens of queries to folks requesting experienced help writing articles.  One day I received an answer from someone who proposed to start a website on a popular travel topic in Southern California and wanted help writing articles.  He offered me $250 for the first article, and promptly sent me an advance of $100.  I worked for days researching, writing, and honing the lengthy article, and in the end my employer praised the quality of my work and sent the balance of $150 right on time.  The problem was, such work was a needle in a haystack.  He never wrote back with more assignments, as he had promised.  I don’t know whether his website never got off the ground, or whether he decided to save money by writing the balance of articles himself, but I never heard from him again.  There’s the crux of the problem:  a freelancer cannot ever rely on steady work.  You never know when you might be cut off.

Next I snagged the best and steadiest job of my freelance writing career to date.  I had sent an application and some samples to a company who wanted some articles slanted at seniors.  They liked my work so much they offered me a year’s contract to provide them with at least five articles a day, six days a week, at a very good price per article.  Their main office is here in San Diego, so I went in one day to meet my supervisor, discuss what they wanted, and sign a contract.  Thereafter I got into intensive work.  To write so many articles I had to be constantly researching, constantly writing.  Usually I worked from about 7:30 in the morning until about 9:00 at night.  I stayed at it because it was good money and we really needed it, but I also got a lot of appreciation and rave reviews from my overseer.  Then from somewhere a company efficiency expert came into town and decided that their website was not growing enough regular viewers fast enough, and he canceled my contract.  Just like that I was left out in the cold.  Anyone with a modicum of knowledge about the web would have told him that it takes time to grow an audience, but he was having none of it.  His first thought to save money was to cancel the content provider.  Me.  So that was the end of that gig.  A pity.  It had been a good one.  But so it goes.  You can never, ever count on anything in the online freelance business.  My contract had a provision that either side could cancel, and they exploited the fine print and disposed of my ass.

I was knocked for a loop for months; I couldn’t find any other work.  The money I had saved dwindled.  Depression and stress set in as I couldn’t find a regular job and I couldn’t find writing work.  I didn’t sit around eating chocolates and watching TV – I don’t like chocolates anyway.  It never occurred to me to take a break.  I worked full time on a number of short stories and novelettes and sent them off to magazines and anthologies.  Such work, however, is a long-term proposition as far as income is concerned.  Even if they all got accepted it could be years before I would see the money.  Income from my already-published memoirs, novels, and short stories trickled in so slowly it could never pay even a fraction of the bills.  I had to find something else.

The next writing gig I found was for a company that solicited work from businesses that had online presences, and hired writers and editors to do the work.  Payment was made through Amazon, with a system called Amazon Mechanical Turk.  I was invited to take a writing test; I was given a topic and wrote a researched article on it.  In short order I received the reply that I had passed the test and I should set up the payment system.  So I did.  Amazon Mechanical Turk is used by many companies to pay freelance employees, and while I waited to receive writing assignments I did other work for which I was qualified, mainly taking online surveys for research companies.  If there’s any online work that pays worse than writing it’s survey taking; I found on the best days, when I worked at it morning until night, I could make about ten bucks.  I did it anyway while I waited for final approval, to try to at least slow down the hemorrhage of savings from my account.  Weeks I waited and wondered why the writing assignments did not come.  Finally I called the company and found out the problem had been the misreading of one digit in my long worker ID number.

So I started work.  About five articles a day again, six days a week, morning to night.  This job paid about a third less than the job writing articles for seniors, but steady money began to come in and I began to slowly recoup my financial losses.  For a month and a half or so all went well, and it looked like I had found a gig through which I could make enough to at least survive.  Then out of the blue the company announced they were going to cut off the writing assignments for two weeks to catch up on editing.  The two weeks became three, then four.  In the meantime I passed a test to qualify as an editor, but could not get enough assignments to make a decent amount of money.  Those savings are going down again.  Such is the life of the freelancer.  Definitely not for those with thin skins and temperaments that react poorly to stress.

One final word I want to say about these articles freelancers write by the tens of thousands per day for companies that want them for their blogs or websites.  Where do you think the writers do their research?  Online, of course.  I used to buy used books and get stacks of books from the library for the articles for seniors I wrote, but very few writers go to such trouble.  Most articles are a regurgitation of what is already published on the Internet, often with only slight rewording.  Some writers use programs that remix information and lay it out in a new way.  Almost none do original work.  It’s the beast feeding upon itself, a humungous chaotic confusion of information that serves no purpose other than that of a predator putting out scents or lures to try to coax prey (customers) into its lair.  Yes, the Internet has an amazing wealth of information available out there.  But there’s a lot of crap.  A whole hell of a lot of crap.  The new hack writers, of whom I admit I am one, write this crap.  I would like nothing better than to cut loose from this hack writing scene and work solely on my own material.  I hold fast to the hope that someday I will.  In the meantime I struggle onward, day by day, task by task.

“Perseverance…keeps honor bright; to have done, is to hang quite out of fashion, like a rusty mail in monumental mockery.”  – William Shakespeare, “The History of Troilus and Cressida”

In other words:  Never give up.

I’m a professional writer; I make my living by my words.  I’m happy to share these essays with you, but at the same time, financial support makes the words possible.  If you’d like to become a patron of the arts and support my work, buy a few of my available books or available stories.  Thanks!

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