Get Paid Now: How Money Makes You Write Better

MikeachimWriting24 Comments

roll of money

How money makes you *what*?

I love getting paid for my writing.

And like many writers, I’m always trying to get more money for the work that I do. Conventional wisdom would suggest two driving reasons — either I’m a rich and greedy sell-out, or I’m a non-commercial failure.

Well, it’s early days.

(Right now I’m experimenting with a combination: “greedy failure”.)

But there’s another reason why I’m always trying to get paid for my writing. It’s not just about staying alive, or the boosting of my ego. Writing for money is actually good for my writing.

What? Isn’t money the root of all evil? Doesn’t it dumb artistry down, render it into a thin, flavourless gruel that is bland enough to be inoffensive to the maximum number of people, and so lacks nutritional value that even more dumbed-down rubbish has to be peddled to everyone in a self-sustaining cycle of artistically starved misery? Well, that’s a rude way to talk about my commercial work, but I’ll let you off the hook this time. Yes, of course money can mess things up. For example:

…almost the worst thing that can happen to writers, at least if it’s the quality of their work we’re thinking about, is to receive, immediately, all the money and recognition they want.

– “Does Money Make Writers Better?” – Tim Parks, NYR.

Agreed. (That’s a great article, by the way, well worth reading.) And at the other extreme, you have too little money to live on, and your writing becomes a ticket to eviction, bankruptcy and pursuing something else, anything else for a living.

Too much or too little money, and your writing suffers. But the right amount of money, that middle zone where you can pay the rent but still have dreams you can’t yet afford? That’s a creatively healthy place to be.

But there’s another reason I try to get paid for my work.

In 2004, I opened a blog in another corner of the Internet, and called it “Fevered Mutterings”. It was drivel. Don’t get me wrong: for me, it was excitingly, thrilling drivel. I got up early before work just so I could tap my drivel into it before I went off to work, and in the evenings, I cried tears of joy when I saw that complete strangers had called by, read my words and immediately fled in horror. I was so damn proud of my drivel. It was earnest, heartfelt, and utterly wretched.

I needed help. I needed to be held accountable for the quality of what I published – not just for some lofty standard of “good writing,” but because I clearly wasn’t getting better fast enough.

In 2008, I started writing for other people, and a little later, started to get paid for it. And my writing changed. I had deadlines to avoid missing, employers to please and audiences to stir up. With money came accountability and a very different kind of feedback. A post went out in a magazine facing tens of thousand of people, and it had a glaring error in it, and I was torn to pieces. I wrote something that didn’t reflect the general sentiment of the time, and I was torn to pieces. I wrote things that weren’t good enough, I submitted things after deadline,  I got my words wrong and said things I didn’t mean – and each time, I was torn to pieces.

Here’s what writing for money does for you: it gets your work torn to pieces.

And the weird thing is . . . it’s the best thing that could ever happen to it.

Creating work that is designed to make money is the ultimate levelling-up experience for new writers. Having a mentor is a great help (which is why I’m now helping others with their writing). Having similarly committed peers is vital to keep your spirits up. But money and the feedback that comes with it will strip away all your illusions and land you in the real world. If you think you have a huge, committed, engaged online audience, you’ll really learn the perceived value of your work when you ask them to support it with their hard-earned cash. If you aspire to being a professional writer, “professional” means getting paid for your words, and the quicker you make that happen, the quicker you go pro. The quicker you get an experienced editor to say “this isn’t good enough” – the quicker you can fix it. The quicker your audience says “no way in hell I’m funding you for that,” the sooner you can begin to learn why.

Even if it takes a while, the mere act of intending to get paid for your work will put the right pressure upon you. The more real and immediate that pressure is, the harder you will have to work and the better you will get. This isn’t a law of creative writing. There are exceptions, especially in the ever-fluxing online world. But it’s a damn reliable guide.

If writing is like exercise, writing for money is exercising with weights. You’ll get in shape so much faster. Even if your ultimate goals are non-commercial, go commercial now and get beefed up much faster than you ever could without financial compensation.

Chase the money. It’s where your best writing is.

Image: 401(K) 2012
  • I agree with this to a point. I definitely get lazy sometimes on my blog, but I’m not necessarily sure my best writing comes when I’m being paid. I think it’s more about my level of awe for the place I’m being published. For example, I think I’d feel pretty motivated to write something extraordinary for the Nat Geo even if they weren’t paying me a penny!

    • Good point – if it’s a gig that doesn’t pay but has the same level of critical rigour and exposure, yep, agreed. Same with guest posts that are in front of massive, vocal audiences that expect a high standard. There are a few of those that exert the same kind of pressure as paid gigs. I’d say…

      Thanks, Victoria!

  • So that’s what is holding me back! I’m scared out of my wits of having my work “torn to pieces.”

    • Me too. It’s like the old soldier’s adage about bravery – the ones who have no fear are the ones who get everyone else killed. Being scared is, well, horrible – but it’s also a sign you’re onto something.

      >>”The moment that you feel that, just possibly, you’re walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself. That’s the moment you may be starting to get it right.”

      (http://www.uarts.edu/neil-gaiman-keynote-address-2012)

      Add to that the panic-inducing thrill of someone giving you professional feedback on your courageous nakedness, and YAY, it’s a ticket to extraordinary misery. But there’s no other way to get published. (Apart from bribery. Rich people can cheat, I guess. Or people in the local mafia/triad can threaten editors. My point is, this is the most *acceptable* way.)

    • The thing about having your work torn to pieces…. someone has to do it if you’re going to go from draft to finish. It either you or an editor. Thing is, it’s easier for editors to actually see the piece as a whole and not get caught in the parts or the emotion of it.

      Nice to see you here, btw. :)

  • I love this, Mike. I think it’s really great advice. There are so many unpaid writing gigs out there (I’m not pretending I’ve never written for free) but I’ve noticed a huge difference in my writing as I’ve steered it in a professional direction. I used to hate having my pieces edited or “torn to pieces”, but now I love it. Awesome article as always!

  • Victoria

    Brilliant post Mike! I’d agree with the other Victoria :) It’s not about the money (of which there is little) but about the forum and range. Who is going to be reading and why? Once you know that, you just have to step up!

    • Readers keep us honest and sharp, agreed. :) Thanks, Victoria!

  • Sharon miro

    True words. Good advice.

  • That’s the key – getting torn to pieces, being held accountable to someone else! It makes a huge difference. Great article!

    • Thanks! And that’s the word – “accountable”. Payment is a good reminder that a piece of writing should serve someone else’s needs as well as the author’s…

  • Great advice! I’ve been on the edge of breaking into the freelance world, but have yet to take that step. This was just the encouragement I needed. And you always make me laugh at least once a post, so thank you for that.

    • *bows / capers wildly*

      The best thing anyone ever told me about freelancing was “pitch before you’re ready”. Because if you’re aiming at a publication or audience that is challenging enough to do your career some good, you’re never, ever ready. :)

      My friend Lola is probably getting seriously narked off at me linking to this post all this time, but – this is a good, inspiring kick in the pants if you want to see how successful freelancing works: http://lolaakinmade.com/2014/01/03/work-update-2013-went-freelancer-pie-chart/

  • This is so true. Even if you’re not considering how much you’re getting paid for a piece, the very act of trying to sell an article to a magazine that looks for a specific kind of content means you have to exercise all your writing tools to make sure the register, and theme and style appeals to that magazine’s audience. This is such a useful process to go through, and unlike writing on your own blog, an editor will come back and be very frank about what fits and what doesn’t. Or they’ll outright reject the piece, which is a message in itself that you’re on the wrong track. And the more money the magazine pays for writing, the more ruthless and frank the editor will be – but it’s often the kind of feedback every writer needs to improve. The process of honing your craft to fit the needs of different audiences is such an authentic way of changing and improving your writing. And when you get it right, you get paid! There’s a reward no college writing class can offer.

    • Precisely. Editors always feel like the opposite end of the scale from family and friends – it’s their *job* to be hard on you so you create something amazing for them. Both their job and their reputation requires it. In practice, editors vary, but the best require your best, and that’s a great working relationship. They will have no qualms about saying “do better”.

      And as you say, it’s a very useful practical skill to learn to adapt your writing to fit other publications, other house styles. And in my experience, where there’s a house style, there’s almost always money involved. Free-writing, in all its forms, is rarely that constrained.

  • Hi Mike, I opened a blog at the end of 2012, so it’s about one year young and after some months I found a couple of works as a writer. Sometimes it’s hard to concentrate on the posts I must write, but they give me money. The thing is that I spent 3 months without writing on my blog, and still I had wonderful stories to write, just beacause I was exausted! Now I’m back again, but what a hard work to face everyday.
    But thanks for sharing your feelings with us, they gave me again the strenght to go on, since it is this job that I want to do:))

    Alessandra

    • Thanks, Alessandra. Hang in there. :)

      If you’ve returned to your blog again, looks like you’re one of the 5% that beat the odds (https://medium.com/life-hacks/9449595424df). And paying the bills is more important than anything (and another reason why chasing the money is wise, obviously). There are a lot of things in blogging that require you first get your minimum income sorted out, so you’re upright and not fretting about paying the rent…

  • I’ve really enjoyed this post, it’s so true! I put so much more effort into a piece when I’ve got a deadline and paycheck looming. So, so true.

    Thanks for this great bit!

    Chloe
    http://travelawakenadventure.blogspot.com/

    • Thanks for reading, Chloe!

      ps. re. your blog, I had *no idea* there were so many varieties of peanut butter. There’s one with coconut in it? Need me some of that.

  • Hi Mike,

    Such an inspiring edge on “selling your soul.” Even though I’m someone who thrives under pressure I’ve never really looked at it this way. I’ve always been more of garage, sweaty, swearing Nirvana fan while the world bowed down to Bieber (thinking I support the love of music and not the greed for money), but hey, even my heroes made tons of cash from it.

    I haven’t made a cent from writing, yet, but spend hours a day pouring my soul into the interweb. Since I’m giving it away anyway, I hope to be paid for it somewhere down the line. As a fairly new travel blogger, where would you say is the best place to start? I want people to tear my shit apart so that I can carefully construct a masterpiece and become the best writer that I can possibly be.

    Thanks for this article, it’s always great to see clearer.

    Kind regards

    • Ha! If money = Bieber, I may have to rewrite this post quick. ;)

      Regarding the best place to start, do you mean pitching paying publications? Or seeking to get paid by your readers? Who do you most want feedback from, and who do you want your writing to serve, specifically?

  • Hi Mike, thanks for getting back to me.

    About that Bieber comparison, I think I might have suffered from oxygen deprivation a tiny bit when I wrote that.

    I’m quite new to your site, so please excuse me if you’ve answered this question before.

    My travel blog is only 2 months old, and even though I’m pleasantly surprised about how good it’s doing, I’m seeking to build a certain sense of trust with my readers before I start trying to monetize from Solo Travel Uncut directly. I’m also quite keen on slowly but surely building a career in travel writing. What I want at the moment, is not to make money (as I understand that it takes some time to reach that level), but I want my writing to get better and better and eventually reach that level in quality, so that I can start thinking about monetizing my site.

    I guess what I’m trying to ask is, is there some kind of network/group of similar minded travel bloggers that I can join and in which I can improve my writing by getting honest feedback and contribute by providing my own feedback? Also, learn from others, and share what I’ve learned. Like a “new mommy support group”, but for travel bloggers.