Writing, Except for Money

‘[H]e uniformly adhered to that strange opinion, which his indolent disposition made him utter: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money”.’

James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson

When I was about 16, inspired largely by swashbuckling journalists of the recent past, I decided to start writing.

My interest didn’t manifest itself in stories or poetry; and it was not intended for private amusement. I wanted an audience, which would make the laborious construction of sentences worthwhile.

I use the word ‘laborious’ deliberately because it took real effort, especially at that age as I didn’t necessarily know what I was doing. I wanted it to be worth it.

In search of both an audience and a purpose, I began hawking my articles, crude though they were, to people who might know what to do with them. I submitted them to a few small online magazines, and some were published.

But the thrill wasn’t enough. It was more than just ego that prompted me to look for larger platforms. I wanted the security and validation that comes with more established names.

At that time I didn’t care about money; it was enough to get a place to show off my work. The impulse seems childish and immature now – mainly because it was – but at the time it kept me going. I had little idea of how damaging the system of writing for free could be.

I set my eyes on what at the time resembled a glittering prize: the British version of the Huffington Post. I was 17 and I have no doubt that my experience mirrors that of many of my peers. I willingly signed up on the promise of a ‘platform’ and ‘exposure’, but soon realised that it wasn’t worth it.

Very soon, I realised that editorial oversight was almost entirely absent. Apart from some technical discussions – as I was under 18, I was deemed too young to have unfettered access to the CMS – I had virtually no contact with HuffPo‘s paid staff.

More often than not, I would paste whatever had come to mind into the box, click ‘publish’ and, in due course, it would appear on the site under my byline.

No one edited my submissions. That meant, due to my inexperience, that I ended up putting my name to a lot of posts that seem mortifying in retrospect.

My pieces were littered with ill-thought out opinions and long-winded expositions on topics that I did not and could not understand.

That catalogue of writing, which I now consider woeful, will likely remain accessible to anyone who Googles my name for years to come.

I won’t quote from the offending articles – I hope you’ll understand why – but I assure you, I needed editing. Many ideas and even whole articles should have been rejected.

Young writers need an editor to help them become more self-critical and analytical. What I wrote, while obviously from a young person’s perspective, has hurt me in the long-term and failed to add to the amount of valuable and insightful commentary out there.

There are many downsides to the current media culture, which leans heavily on writers who will work for free. The model leads to untrained, unedited and sometimes unethical people getting a platform and sometimes misusing it.

Another website which operated on a similar basis was Planet Ivy, which has since closed. It built up a large group of writers (‘more than 500’), but did not guarantee pay.

Only if a writer’s work got enough clicks – and it needed to be a lot – would they receive any reward for their effort. I signed up to Planet Ivy, but I was too busy to submit anything.

This site was criticised in 2013 by Robert Hall, a former contributor, who bitterly described a ‘landscape of exploitation’ which relegates aspiring writers to working for rewards that may never come.

Planet Ivy was just the latest site to follow the model so prominently pursued by the Huffington Post. At least it paid some of its freelance contributors.

Many would-be writers become bored and disheartened by this unrewarded labour, done under the pretence of being a ‘real’ journalist. And lots of readers have been turned off by it too.

It can feel as though the contemporary media landscape doesn’t have an incentive to push for ‘good’ clicks – people coming to articles because they are worth reading. Propagating rubbish can be almost as lucrative – a ‘hate’ click is the same as ‘like’ click in terms of growing your audience and luring in advertisers.

But websites like the Huffington Post, whose business models are predicated on large volumes of content, much of it poor-quality, continue to make money. That’s why they’re unlikely to change – the views and clicks keep coming. And so do the young writers like me, pulled in by the promise of a career.

When I finally figured this out for myself I was embarrassed – I’d been naive and become part of a cynical system which values volume over quality and exploits unpaid labour to achieve that.

This piece was originally published at The Malcontent.