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.