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Criticism, The Writer's Life

The Below-Minimum-Wage Writer

Like most writers, I don’t make enough money from writing. Recently, I signed up on a couple of freelancer web sites to see if I could find a local writing gig or two, and now I have oodles of writing “opportunities” emailed to me each day.

I haven’t responded to any of these “jobs,” and probably won’t, because so many of them read like this:

50 Articles- $1.00 For 500 words

Let’s do some quick math. At my top writing speed I can jam out 500 semi-coherent words in about 15 minutes (I used to work at a newspaper). It is not quality work by any stretch of the imagination, but it can be done. So if I really work at it, this contractor will pay me $4 per hour. And since it’s contract work, I get no benefits and no paid breaks. If I work an eight-hour day under these conditions, I’ll make $32. And that’s if the contractor accepts the articles. Plus, I’ll probably aggravate my carpal tunnel.

More math: Fifty articles times 500 words is 25,000 words. That’s about a quarter of a novel. For $50.

Pure and simple, this is exploitation. Such “contract” deals should be illegal. You might think minimum wage laws would be applied to contract work as well as employment, but apparently not.

Yes, I understand the avalanche of court cases and legal challenges that would result from such a requirement, and yes, I realize I would be unfairly burdening our free enterprise system by requiring contractors to pay fair compensation. But I am concerned that the state of writing, as a profession, is going the way of the Taco Bell order taker or the guy who blows the grass and leaves from your patio. Writing, a skill that requires intelligence, perspective and years of education, lumped in with robotic blue-collar pursuits?

The writers who perform this type of work could do better picking lettuce.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


6 thoughts on “The Below-Minimum-Wage Writer

  1. But Joe, these article mills are not looking for highly trained, talented or sophisticated writers. They’re looking for sentence grinders; word stringers. Frankly, I would bet if you really displayed skill and art for them, your work would be rejected.
    And I don’t want a Writer’s Union, paying scale for anything that meets a minimum standard of quality, and only paying more for years of service seniority.
    It’s a simple fact of life: The Arts Do Not Pay. Ever. Or at least not a wage or a living.
    Every Holiday Inn has a lounge singer, and many of them are very good.
    Every town has at least one visual artist group and they display at local fairs and many of them are good.
    And as you know, there are writers by the ream. And a number of them are good.
    But none of them earn much money.
    Let’s not even talk about “crafters.”
    And I hate to say it, but this is not anything new. Sure, there was a Golden Age of Fiction, maybe fifty years ago. But even at that, certainly fewer than 1% of writers earned their keep. The only real money is in non-fiction. “Twelve Things Never to Tell Your Teen.”
    “Over Sixty? Here’s a Car for YOU!”
    “Vanderbilt, Michigan: Your tour of Elk Country.”
    “Ghosts of South Otter Creek.”
    There’s your writing money. Of course, there’s always lettuce.

    Posted by jonzech | October 8, 2011, 10:21 PM
  2. It is the writers who accept this kind of work who need to read this. They are the ones enabling that kind of robbery. Writers need to be aware of the effect they have on the market as a whole and work to support the profession as a whole.

    Posted by 1 Story A Week | October 8, 2011, 10:29 PM
    • Very true. I suspect many of the people who accept this kind of work don’t see how what they’re doing hurts the writing community. They may be people who don’t even think of themselves as writers.

      I doubt many of them do it for very long, though, once they see how much work goes into their $4 per hour.

      Thanks for your comment.

      Posted by jpon | October 9, 2011, 11:44 AM
  3. My point? The arts are not valued.
    Craft and trade people always make more than the artists who inspire them.

    Posted by jonzech | October 8, 2011, 11:56 PM
    • You’ve gotten to the point, Jon. Societies have never valued the arts over the baser instincts: self-preservation, financial gain, sex, etc. Even if they did, self-interest would find its way in and start corrupting things almost immediately. Part of being an artist is to accept life on the margins.

      Posted by jpon | October 9, 2011, 11:49 AM
      • Exactly. In society and in education, the arts are the first to go. And the first cut is the deepest.

        Parents literally cringe if a child says it wants to be an actor, artist, writer. It’s not a “real” job. My parents told me to go to college and get a teaching cert so I’d have “Something to fall back on.” My grandfather said I needed to learn a trade…”People will always need a plumber.” All were thrilled when I entered Civil Service. By most measures they were right. It’s hard to rail against reality.

        Posted by jonzech | October 9, 2011, 4:27 PM

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