There are few creative and professional fields that experience as much polarity as freelance writing does.
Artistic writers, such as essayists, poets, and screenwriters have been systematically undervalued throughout time. This mindset has bled into editorial writing with the constant needling to get skilled writers to contribute their thoughts “for exposure” or pennies because “it’s your passion!” Business and content writers may employ some of the same storytelling skills and mechanical skills as the former, but reside in a completely different world because while there is low-paying work in the content world– many of us make an incredibly stable living with a stellar quality of life doing this. The Internet has provided unprecedented opportunities for digital hustlers to build followings, find clients, and constantly engaging people with the content they crave.
The gig economy is in a wildly different place from whence it began. Depending on what you do for cash, you’re either living out the new Gilded Age in a really, really terrible way or making more money than you ever did before. How did we get here? How do writers fit into this beautiful yet tragic hot mess? Where are we hurtling in 2020?
Writers Are Not One and the Same
You know how frogs and toads are both amphibians, and a toad is technically a type of frog, but NOT all frogs are toads? Same idea here. Not all writers are working on their own projects or doing more editorial or artistic writing. (But given that I’m the toad lady, I had to make an obligatory analogy with amphibians.) HIring content writers to produce content for a website and/or take charge of the client’s editorial needs is a different process than what goes on in a newsroom, the writers’ room at a TV or video game studio, or seeking out full-time editors and columnists for magazines.
But it’s 2020 and people are still failing to make this distinction. People have this vision of “freelance writer” and it usually means “constantly stressed and broke”, even though I’ve been stably making close to, or just above, six figures with my client base. I have officially been job-free for 5.5 years at the time of writing, and it took breaking out of this mindset to get to that point.
There easy a million and one ways to build a freelance writing career, but plenty of laymen and even some writers can end up being stuck in this old view that you’re either getting a job in publishing, struggling to get pitches accepted at numerous outlets, or working on that novel while you have a day job or you’re Not a Real Writer™. There can be this snobbery towards content writing as though it isn’t as real or valid as by-lined writing where you had to make pitches or personally know an editor to get that by-line.
It’s 2020. You don’t have to apologize for sticking to content, or just using it to subsidize the riskier pursuit of selling a manuscript or constantly pitching publications. In fact, if you want stability, you should wear the label “content writer” proudly: clients are more willing to shell out big bucks for the “content-native”.
But whether your jam is content, novels, video game dialog, or hard-hitting journalism: we accomplish more by standing together and demanding better pay, payment terms, and respect than tearing each other down over whose work is more valid or not. Let’s leave the in-fighting in 2019, shall we?
The Struggle for Stability: Journalists Unionizing at a Record Rate
Speaking of solidarity, it looks like this generation of journalists is certainly taking that message to heart. Record numbers of newsrooms are unionizing across America in the wake of “small reporting” largely dying out in favor of a small number of conglomerates buying up news companies and publishers left and right.
This is an exciting development that ties in with the gig economy because many journalists have been relegated to gig status as newsroom employment has been essentially the same as gigs, but with a W-2 instead of a 1099. Gawker was the first company to make this stride in 2015 then the unionization furor grew across social media and the burgeoning new labor movement designed for the digital age. Journalism jobs that used to offer stability and compensation commensurate with experience and J-school credentials became oxymoronic “full-time freelance” jobs (dubbed “permalance”) where 40 hours a week or more are expected but without the pay or benefits newscasters, writers, and editors once enjoyed.
As more newsrooms, magazines, and online publications organize with NewsGuild, WGA, and other labor organizations representing writing talent, we could see a return to stable employment in news media for those who want it. For web content writers in particular, particularly those of us who are by-lined, we could also see the “Hollywood model” being adopted in some places. Our role in this movement is fairly embryonic at this stage, if present at all, but who knows what the 2020s could have in store?
AB5 and Other Measures Trying to Kill Freelancers’ Autonomy
The gig economy is not a monolith, just like writing itself isn’t. While professional writers can make far higher and more stable incomes with the flexibility and autonomy many of us always dreamed of, there is genuine exploitation afoot among the gig economy’s physical labor counterparts. The people who deliver hot meals and groceries, perform courier services, and basically replaced taxi services end up causing major wear and tear to their personal vehicles while receiving low pay for these services. Pressure has been put on lawmakers and the companies behind these apps to provide some means of stability, benefits, fair pay, and the right to workplace safety as well as unionization by becoming employees.
However, for writers who’ve carved out fantastic careers in the brave new world we now inhabit, good faith efforts to mitigate the above exploitation ended up inadvertently throwing us under the bus in California with the passage of AB5. The law also affects marketers, photographers, programmers, and virtually anyone else who does work on a submission basis and/or performs “core services” for the client (e.g. most writers with media companies and marketing agencies, but if a client in an unrelated field contracts you then it passes muster.) A murkily-written exception was written into the law for freelance writers, with a submission cap of 35 per year or else you’re considered that client’s employee. The law was obviously written by people who don’t write for a living because it doesn’t consider parent and subsidiary companies, working with agencies, or making further distinction for op-ed writing opposed to “strictly for marketing purposes”. My biggest client gets about 30 pieces a month from me, so it’s incredibly alarming that this bill became law and similar laws are being proposed in New York and New Jersey despite pushback from writers and businesses alike.
Because well, the law is not going to magically turn freelance writers into employees.
In addition to losing our valuable tax deductions as well as arrangements that have already been made for health insurance and retirement plans, being made into an employee also means loss of autonomy that we fought hard for. I don’t know about you, but I like being able to turn down work if it’s a topic I find really disengaging or if the pay is too low. I like getting multiple raises from multiple clients in a condensed timeframe instead of hoping I get that 2% annual raise. I LOVE being able to walk away if a client, agency manager, or their end client is being disrespectful and nickel-and-diming me.
I get that some writers would rather be employed than taking up the freelance life, but for freelance content writers who value our autonomy, bills like AB5 are our worst nightmare. These companies are just telling California freelance writers they can’t work with them anymore, and they’re totally screwed.
We can recognize that the gig economy is not working for many people while it can work fantastically for professionals on the “skilled labor” side. Writers are not one and the same as it is. Writing is also not as “uniform” as driving or food delivery: the driver may put their personal touch on things and chat with you during the ride, but ultimately they’re dropping you from Point A to Point B. Editorial and content writing are two different frogs in the same pond but have wildly different colors and types of bugs they need to eat. But they share some similarities in that not all clients and publications NEED to retain these services year-round, and not all of us want to work for the same client and/or perform the same services repeatedly (as would be the case in a journalistic environment where you must literally get on the ground, unlike looking up search engine trends with more flexibility and longer deadlines).
There are individual and collective pieces of the puzzle to come out on top in the gig economy, and people frequently think the self-employed are not capable of making a stable living. Apparently, some legislators bought into this mindset. If your state is about to become a battleground for an AB5 type bill, and you have no desire to be anyone’s employee, get ready to make some calls to your assembly district and state senator.
Writers in marginalized groups have been hurt the most by AB5, and will be even more if other states pass similar bills. Everyone loses because it means that these perspectives will be sorely missing from publications and media produced in California, or those that used talent based in the state. Even if the bill’s intent was to combat exploitative “permalance” newsroom positions and dangerous gig work, it threw out the tadpoles with draining the pond. Staying vigilant on this matter is crucial.
Medium Changed Its Algorithm and Some Writers Rejoiced While Others Panicked
There’s so many ways to build a writing career today, and sites like Medium have melded web content, journalism, and personal essays into one place where you don’t have to worry about sending pitches: you write what you feel, pick a few tags, then hit the publish button. With a similar model to Yahoo’s HubPages where the writer was compensated in terms of traffic that the article received, Medium has operated on a similar model. Writers are paid by engagement: read time and claps.
If you’re thinking about publishing your own content, or working with a client who plans to publish on Medium, this is an important consideration to think about. For the “content native” writer, the site tends to frown upon things like CTAs and excessive backlinking common to web content creation. However, with the read time based compensation now at play, it could mean focusing more on long reads or the kind of content that readers will want to revisit. Medium has basically replaced hosting your own blog for many writers, and there are several publications like The Writers’ Cooperative that contain many helpful tips for making a solid livng through content writing.
Whether we act alone, or together, writers are rightfully demanding a bigger slice of the pie in 2020. Whether we own our labor or simply get paid for work a brand will use? Content writers can justifiably ask for more in the new decade, especially as we continue to deliver value and figure out our place in the economy that we have. Stayed tuned with developments in the gig economy by following the WriterAccess blog!
Prior to taking up the game development and writing hustler life, Rachel P. worked as a tax advisor. She still retains an Enrolled Agent license for tax law writing purposes. Rachel has 10 years of tax practice experience ranging from retail tax preparation to white-shoe firm, and solo practice. She worked with Prometric and high-ranking IRS directors in developing the Enrolled Agent exam for three years running, determining minimum competency requirements for Enrolled Agents along with creating and editing exam content. She also worked with Pearson to develop educational tax law content for use in online adult education programs.