Professional writing and poisonous ‘opportunities’

Interested in professional writing? Let me help you out. When you’re desperate for legitimacy (or something to put on your CV), sometimes you don’t have the critical skills you need to assess the pitfalls of opportunity.

One of the most important skills I’ve learned in life is pessimism. This isn’t cynicism or pessimism as the first reaction to something (although I definitely have that). It’s more like looking at something that you’re excited and asking yourself ‘how horribly can this go wrong?’. 

Basically, don’t assume that people offering you opportunities have your best interests at heart. For students/early career people, this is getting better for some industries (I know that publishing is particularly vocal about internships, although they’re still considered crucial to the conversation), but in others, or in smaller universities that are less political, those conversations won’t even be happening. You’ll just be happy for the opportunity to practice what you’re learning, and hopefully get some feedback.

Spoilers: it’s so incredibly unlikely that you’ll get useful feedback. Part of the problem is that people are aware that internships/volunteering opportunities are meant to be giving people skills, so they fall over themselves to try and teach you what you want to know. The thing is, as a stupid student you have no idea of what you need to know. So what happens is you try and keep it try and broad, and they try and help you, and the whole thing falls down. And, the nicer people are, the worse this is. The whole system is broken. Do you want to know what the benefits of people like J. Jonah Jameson and Miranda Priestly are? They fucking tell you what you’ve done wrong. And yeah, you feel bad and there’s no praise and it’s shit, but my god do you LEARN what you need to to stop fucking up. There’s a huge culture at the moment of people just trying to make space for each other and I think that’s okay and great, but on the other hand we never hit the hard edges of what we can do, professionally or socially.

Writing professionally means acting professionally

You have to take yourself seriously, and know what that looks like. As an example: I took up as a newsletter editor for a university-associated association. At one point the word came down from their (international) headquarters, that they would like blog content. I remember our staff contact for this organisation talking about it, and I was excited. I love blogs. They’re good, light writing: you can be informative and helpful and they don’t need to be too long. You don’t need references. Memes help. They’re good, right? But then the group lead lost me immediately when she offered: ‘Hey, you can get your name in print. How lucky is that?’

Let’s just hold up for a moment.

It’s not hard to get your name in print online. Because it’s not fucking print, dummy. It’s online. It’s a by-line. If you have a website, every post you make has your name attached to that. Do you feel lucky yet? Privileged for the opportunity? No bitch. No one needs to give you permission to post on WordPress. That’s literally why the platform exists. And if you think, oh well, I posted this thing on this blog once (a blog that, by the way, you were in charge of), how does that look on your CV?

2017–19 Contributed to X blog

Best case scenario you list the headlines, but no you don’t. You just have a date range, and a name. If you have a writing folio, you can link to them, but were they your best work? Once you get work anywhere else, will they make your shortlist? What things have you written that you’re proud of? And should you be proud of them?

Over the years, I’ve realised that I was mad because they were confusing what they thought I wanted (praise) vs. what I wanted to do (write things that people found entertaining or useful). And professionalism isn’t about waiting to be noticed, it’s about getting the job done.

Why we do what we do (or why I do it, anyway)

At the end of the day, you do these things for two reasons: CV fodder, and genuine experience (because we know that no one is paying you for these things). So if you aren’t getting experience, and if you aren’t producing something that you want to include on your CV or in your folio, why are you doing it? You know why I wash the dishes every day? Because they need to be washed. Do you need to write every day? Chances are that if you feel that compulsion, you’re writing for you, and not for some weird pseudobusiness (and spoilers, if they want professional content but they aren’t paying you, they’re a pseudo-business. A proper business should know what a fair market price is). Just don’t forget that being a professional writer means getting paid to write, which usually means writing stuff that you wouldn’t normally do (it’s hard to get paid for the fun stuff). Know what? That’s great. Get paid — then you can focus on writing the fun stuff. Eat dinner before you eat dessert.

Quick maffs

What’s the best way to think about this? If you work for $10 an hour, you can work 24 hours a day. You’ll find the work. Why? Because that’s cheap as shit for content. And you’ll feel like that’s what you need to do it for to be competitive. But when we talk about competitive, what does that even mean? Don’t be part of the race to the bottom. Look, this is part of the broader conversation with content/professional writing, both in Australia and globally. At the end of the day, the lower the price, the lower the expectation. Do you think that you can do better than that expectation? Because in that case, you should probably be charging more for your time. But do you want to be working for 24 hours a day? Or do you want to be working for $20 an hour for 12 hours a day? $40 an hour for 6 hours a day? You get to make that decision. 

I’ve seen plenty of freelancers saying that they only work four hours a day because they have to spend the other four hours building their business. Whether that’s building their personal profile, doing personal admin or just that they don’t have eight hours a day to work, that’s where they’re at. The point is that there comes a point where shit people who don’t value you and what you COULD do will soak up the time that you could spend being a better version of you than you have been. A version of you that writes better. A version of you that cares more. A version of you works for less time to pay for lunch than it takes for you to eat it. Find clients who respect you. You’ll respect them more as well. Finding clients that you like is paramount. Also, finding clients who respect you and how you work (procedurally and temporally) is crucial. You want people who are happy with the kinds of time frames that you can work within.

Look after yourself because no one else will

Sometimes people are real pricks about deadlines. I’ve seen people ask about people for 24 hour deadlines with no discussion of rush job rates. Come on now, we’re both professionals. If you want me to prioritise your shit, give me a reason to prioritise it. Your clients don’t know that you have nothing else on. Don’t let them save money on the fact that you don’t have much else to do. For all they know you’re amazing (because you are) and you don’t have time for their shit. How nice are you to accommodate them in your busy schedule. You’re an amazing person. You’re very generous. But don’t let them smell that you’re keen (read: desperate) for the work. Be cool like a frozen dumpling. Have faith in yourself and your writing ability. And oh my goodness be kind to yourself. If they don’t want to pay you your rate, that’s their decision: it’s not an indictment against your ability as a writer.

But the point of this whole thing is don’t wait for other people to tell you that you’re good enough to make it with professional writing. I PROMISE you that there are people out there doing worse work than you, and they’re getting paid for it. Only one person gets to be the best, so just focus on being better. There’s room for all of us to make it.

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