Writing Online and Money: You’re Probably Being Duped
When your hopes are someone else’s paycheck
There are many conversations the internet is refusing to have with honesty, this is one of them. Since those are desperate times for many of us, we probably should. Right now, your livelihood may be a distant memory or even a receding one. But you’re the self-reliant, creative, enterprising type so you’ve taken it upon yourself to build a new life from scratch writing online and you’re very, very excited about it.
Cool. Hang on to this. Hard.
Enthusiasm is fuel. It can see you through everything.
Protecting, nurturing, and growing it will be your biggest challenge, especially if your situation is precarious. When you worry constantly about shelter and food and health care, there’s no mental or emotional respite. Try as you might, you can’t get out of your head unless you’re asleep, i.e. dead to the world for far fewer hours than you need to recuperate.
When time is the only resource you have, the only way to optimize it is to monetize it.
Desperation is the new motivation.
Now that the prospect or perhaps already the reality of homelessness and hunger have lit a fire under your ass, you long for whatever might validate your hopes and promise success. Even if it takes a while for your writing to make any money that goes beyond $5 a day. Or a handful of cents per piece. Or ‘bylines’ everywhere that doesn’t pay but everyone displays as badges of honor.
Look, your content makes volume for platforms and publications.
They promise you a spot on their digital property on the other side of the world and never reply to your email when you ask about the republication fee. In turn, this reinforces the message editorial content is plentiful, disposable, and most of all free.
And yet, as Austin Kleon’s newsletter reminds readers every week, free editorial content is never cheap to produce. Or rather, free quality editorial content is never cheap to produce. At a time when everyone dreams of finding an alternative way to cover up basic expenses, people want to read about how to write a viral hit and make $10,000 a month. Self-congratulatory or crass though it may be in this economic climate, it gets everyone fired up and the authors wealthier.
“How I Made XXX on XXX in [insert preferred time measurement unit]” isn’t a niche, it’s Plato’s cave.
No one cares about editorial quality, only how to hit the jackpot ideally more than once. Going viral is a lottery: The more content you can produce, the more chances you have, at least in theory.
Predatory capitalism lies in wait at the intersection of desperation and hope.
If you want to know how to make money writing online, there’s a thriving parasite industry dedicated to helping you do exactly that. It’s also completely unregulated. Think life coaching with a more affordable price tag that can still run into three or four figures. Practitioners pride themselves on empowering customers so they offer payment plans. But their marketing is aggressive. Grifters are like email spammers, tenacious and convincing, with calculated approachability thrown in and better spelling. They sound like your friend.
The gist is always the same: “If a rando like me can do it then so can you.”
The digital snake oil is homemade, cobbled together from freely available info online, and seasoned with super slick marketing to give it that unique flavor. And you can’t wait to deep fat fry your words in it to see if you can turn them into algorithm-pleasing nuggets of editorial gold.
An investment in your writing is an investment in yourself and into a better future, they tell you, and so you buy whatever it is they’re selling. They’re charging you for what you were always going to do anyway: write, write a lot, write so much you eventually get decent at it.
Only now you sound like another clone. You never found your voice because you replicated someone else’s formula, molded your thinking to theirs, and defaulted to whatever their way of writing was. And you also never developed the ability to write in different voices, styles, or tones.
As Bernie Madoff showed, multi-level marketing has its limitations. You never get to the top when you’re in someone else’s downline.
And there’s only one way not to be in someone else’s downline: You create your own.
Worship at the altar of one particular self-styled digital deity for long enough and you, too, might decide your self deserves its own cult. Why be an evangelist for whatever guru or platform that powers your hopes and rave about all the possibilities you’re yet to experience? Guerilla marketing is sometimes indistinguishable from the candid self-sabotage of desperation. Either way, someone is making money from your writing hopes and that person, regrettably, isn’t you.
You’re just the dupe.
You bought into the illusion of guaranteed financial redemption through words and however much the snake oil peddler managed to get you to charge to your credit card, assuming you even — still? — have one. You worked hard, you gave it all you had, you followed all the rules, and you’re no further forward, just more broke. Snake oil is expensive. If everyone could afford it, it would lose its appeal as a status symbol.
We all make terrible investments.
We invest our attention, time, and hope into producing filler content that seeks to standardize and commodify our creativity so that someone else might benefit from it. If that’s the entry fee into a world where we’re no longer desperate then many of us will gladly pony up for the illusion of control.
Sometimes, a little magical thinking is the only thing that stands between you and complete collapse. That’s your creativity right there, jolting you into action with epic feats of storytelling. You’re upgrading your narrative because you paid someone to tell you to.
Motivation is an inside job and it’s free. If you need to rev it up, curiosity is free, too.
Anyone offering to expedite your dreams is only charging you to host theirs. Words don’t all have to be about marketing how much money you can make by writing words on the internet. Just ask people who never talk about it because they come from an industry where it has been an open secret for years.
Or just dare to open your eyes and face the facts.
All you wanted was someone to tell you the truth so you could make an informed decision without doing your due diligence. Desperation needs all the shortcuts it can get but there are none.
You cannot run before you can walk and writing is the ultramarathon that never ends when media is dying, when language is dying, when communication is dying.
Hopefully your enthusiasm and benevolent disposition toward writing remain as undaunted as ever. As Donald Trump continues to demonstrate, words wield immense power. We can use them to alienate, we can use them to unify, we can use them to indoctrinate, we can use them to communicate. And then there’s poetry, which does all the heavy lifting: Life, condensed.
Now is when we make the choice that best fits the future we want to live in rather than the zeitgeist.
better words = better world
We still have a long, long, very long way to go.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor now based in the Netherlands. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.