Bonus Mini-Article: Is Writing a Job?
I have been described, in a negative way, as particularly “mercenary” compared to other writers. By this, the person meant that more of how I think about writing is related to money and the acquisition of the same than other writers, who presumably do it more out of a love of the art or a desire to tell their story than I do.
I can’t really compare myself to others, but this seems true; it has the ring of truth to it. I’ve found it’s sort of awkward to say so, but I want to make a living writing and that’s a big part of why I write so much; if I didn’t have some vague hope of eventually being able to just sit down and write something I wanted to write and have that be my job, I wouldn’t do it nearly so much, if at all.
When my actual jobs are more writing-related, I’m happier. When less and less of my day-to-day job is writing, I’m less happy; I don’t really want to do the other things that aren’t writing, and on a really primitive level I’m unhappy that people are forcing me to. You know how like 95% of you on a deep, spiritual level really don’t want to do telephone sales? That’s how pretty much every non-writing task is for me.
Besides indicating that I’m much less useful than most people, this also brings a simple, obvious question to the front of most minds: Why don’t you just get a job writing? Like, where that’s the only thing you do; where you just spend all your time generating pamphlets or something. Considering that I want to do that, why don’t I?
The other day I was talking to a dude in the EA world. He was a bright guy, and we got into a sort of incredibly light-weight debate about the value of writing, basically arguing about whether or not high levels of writing should or were probable to command wages similar to high levels of other jobs, like UX/UI designers or similar.
Contrary to what you might have assumed, I was on the contra side; I wasn’t arguing that writers shouldn’t make a lot of money in some moral sense, but just that they generally didn’t, and that companies generally didn’t highly value them. The evidence for this, I argued, was the lack of job postings asking for their skills at reasonably high levels of pay.
He argued the opposite, basically saying that I was probably vastly underestimating how important pure writing was as a skill to various companies; he would be surprised, he said, to find that there weren’t a bunch of companies who would pay handsomely for what I and others like me did.
First, let’s define a term. Above, I said “pure writing”. By this, I don’t mean to imply that some forms of writing are better than others. Do you want to write vampire books for teenage girls? That’s fine - I’m not judging you. But within the realm of writing, there’s a subset of writing that’s something like “writer with a secondary skillset that enables them to do a very specialized kind of writing”. Sometimes you will hear this referred to as technical writing, even though what I’m talking about is a little more than that.
The technical writer is writing in the sense that they are putting words down on paper and are communicating information, but in a lot of cases this is something that looks like “API documentation for a web application” or “Manual for a VCR Remote” than it does “telling you what I think about something”. This is, make no mistake, its own incredibly important skill; it’s a big part of completing products and making them useful.
That said, what me and the other guy were talking about was the other thing - the part where you are using prose to communicate opinions and thoughts as opposed to data. It’s a different skill, one that relies on persuasion and word choice in a way the stripped-down style of the technical writer typically doesn’t.
This is especially relevant here because you can argue that in a lot of cases the technical writer (who is often very well compensated) is not so much being paid for the writing, but for other things they could be doing. If it takes intermediate-level skills in Python to write about the program their company made, the company doesn’t just pay them for their skill as a writer; they pay them not to write code in Python, as well.
Pure writing - which is a bad way to phrase what I’m talking about - is thus defined here as writing done where the value of the writing is in excess of the stuff you are paying the writer not to do, and which thus washes all the other salary-calculation concerns out. In the context of providing that service for a business, it would revolve around things like communicating what a company is up to in a way that requires not much more than a layman’s understanding of the underlying tech, talking about the company’s culture, or any number of other types of writing that could be completed with mere general competence and understanding as opposed to domain-specific training.
So when you go to find that kind of job, one for which the job posting reads something like “One writer needed; please provide one writer, please!”, what you usually find is a couple of things:
There’s a really hard upwards limit on how much these jobs pay. As a general rule, 50k is pretty high.
To get to that 50k (and especially to get above it) you are generally going to be running into pretty rigid credentialism requirements; people want to see English-based humanities degrees from universities.
If 2 isn’t true, it’s usually because some other skills/experience are being asked for: Think something like “also knows how marketing works” or “Can do SEO stuff and so understands how many times to say “Fish” in an article about the sea.”
2-3 overlap into technical writing in some sense, but more importantly, they are restrictive on how much “can write” can get you in the open market all by its lonesome. And note that 50k-60k is pretty high here. I’ve seen writing gigs that were for a penny or less a word; note that a novel is about 100k words, which means you’d get about $200 for writing a 20% of an entire book at that rate.
At the lower end of writing, you are getting what I usually think of as warm-body wages; anybody, it is assumed and implied by the wage, could do this; either be glad you have the job, or we will split it up into parts and feed it into the work-at-home-mom economic ecosystem and you will never see it again.
The highest explicit pay I’ve seen offered for a writing gig in a public setting is something like 120k; it wanted a lot of experience but (more importantly) was also for an in-person job in San Francisco. I am reliably informed that $120,000 is not “a lot” in SF, and the job was sitting next to engineering gigs paying roughly twice that that one could have with a few years of experience.
To put that another way, a pretty banal software engineering gig often pays about five times as much as the equivalently-good-compared-against-his-field writer would get, and the writer would need to have cross-trained in other disciplines to get it. Note that this isn’t wrong; there’s a lot that goes into being a good software engineer.
Consider the famous Substacker; he sits in his ivory tower of words, each day making enough money to furnish an apartment in vintage mid-century modern stuff. I think if I had to guess, I’d say that people on the list of “guys you think of first when you think about Substack” usually make low-to-mid-six-figures off the endeavor.
Some, like Greenwald and French, probably make more. Some probably make less. But it’s worth bringing up that they exist at all, since they both make good money and are “pure writers” even by my weird, strict standards. A job that sometimes pulls down $400k feels a lot more like “well, yes, writing is a job now” than other things we’ve mentioned so far.
But before we rush to accept that as full-proof-of-writing-as-job, I’m going to do an upsettingly lowbrow thing and tell you a bunch of specifics about my writing financial back-end. Since classy writers do not talk about their wages, this is pretty close to an exclusive.
(Note: I am doing financially fine because of other work I do. Don’t worry about any of this in that sense.)
I have, right now, about 2600 free-or-paid subscribers. This isn’t very representative of how many people read the blog; a lot of people use RSS readers or rely on bookmarks, so it’s no surprise when articles trend around 4k-10k hits as a general rule. Of those 2600, about 65 pay; since all my work is available for free, they apparently do this entirely to be nice.
A subscription costs about $60 a year, but some people overpay (On purpose! for reasons that mystify me!) so I end up making just under $4,000 a year before various other parties take what amounts to a 15% cut. So from that, you can reason, you know, he’s a pretty small-time writer.
In some ways that’s true - the big boys are much, much bigger than I am; think 10-30x bigger. And on top of that, they have better conversion rates and get more paid subs per free subscriber. I am dwarfed by them, and in that sense am small.
But in other ways, it’s not true at all. I’ve been unbelievably lucky in getting as big as I am. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, think of it in tiers of ascending impressiveness:
The first tier is people who either write entirely for themselves or write a blog that’s read, if it’s read at all, by people close to them who are doing so for social reasons. This is most writers. Many of them are very talented; things just haven’t taken off for them yet.
The second tier is people who have some readers who don’t know them but are an order of a magnitude smaller than me at most. These people are almost all talented. They are providing readable, enjoyable text that some people have found and enjoy, even if it’s just a few hundred so far.
The third tier is people like me - they are either very, very talented or (like me) have had some very lucky promotional breaks to get where they are. They represent a very small percentage of the people in 2.
This tier is Erik Hoel. He’s doing well, he’s growing, people increasingly have heard of him, and he probably has about
50,000-75,000free subscribers. He’s an incredibly small subset of tier 3. He’s also probably the first tier that is making a living off of this. Probably the biggest anyone is in this tier is Freddie deBoer, which means this tier is incredibly disproportionately likely to have surnames with “oe” in them.
(EDIT: Full disclosure: I just reread the strike-through number above and in the cool light of day I think it’s probably wrong. Like I wouldn’t be surprised to find he has 15k but this now feels high to me. I’m editing basically to say “I think on reflection I pulled this number out of my butt and it’s wrong, and you should trust me slightly less when I estimate numbers in the future)
This is Scott Alexander, Glenn Greenwald, Andrew Sullivan, and the like. At this tier, they are finally outearning software engineers with similar amounts of experience in terms of years.
The reason I list these out is to point out tnear as I can tell, being a member of tier 3 means you are doing better than about 99.9% of everybody who is trying to write. Like, if I’m walking against a crowd of writers instinctively returning to the library to spawn, I have to walk past about 1000 of them before I run into anyone as lucky as I am.
I make roughly 4k a year off that level of success, maybe 6k-10k if you count various freelance-type things I’m doing. For the vast majority of people trying to do what I’m trying to do, there’s no pay at all.
This opens up another way to think about the jobs of the people at the top. When you get to the one-in-a-million guys, it’s true that their job is writing and they make a great deal of money at it. But the raw statistics of the thing - the millions of people they are doing better than who make $0.00 a year at it - imply that they are the exception that proves the rule.
So remember when you read all this that the tone you should be getting is that I’m incredibly blessed, because it’s true. And the tone you absolutely shouldn’t get is that any of this is unfair, because it isn’t - if writers were necessary to the extent that their supply didn’t keep up with the demand, they’d be paid more. That’s how stuff works.
It’s interesting to me that the guy from the conversation I mentioned was so sure that writing was a valuable skill, given what I know (or think I know) about the economics of the thing. This may be because I’m just really bad at assessing the writer job market, but I think it’s more likely that it’s because he, like a lot of people, is correctly thinking something like “writing is an incredibly valuable skill to exist in the world; I get a lot out of writing”.
But given that there are so many writers (pretty much everyone can do it a little, which means quite a few people can do it quite well), and given that it often takes other skills to make it useful (the writer who is really a marketer; the programmer who is paid to forgo programming to write), it becomes an open question if writing is a job in and of itself - if it exists as a job beyond one that any warm body can fill, in forms in which it is not just a small subset of what a person is getting paid for.
As of right now, I have a better chance than almost everybody to live the dream and eventually get to the point where I can do this for a living, whether it exists as a job in any general sense or not. That’s fun; it’s the kind of hope I’m glad I’ve been given the chance to have.
To the extent we were arguing at all. I want to stress that this was a very short, very casual conversation. I have run into this line of thinking before, though, and it’s interesting enough to me to dash off an article about.
I’m wondering how big of a filter “try really hard at writing for a long time” is. The people I’m in contact with who treat it seriously seem to be doing alright. You’re in that tier but so is Karlstack and I happen to know you both. And he’s got around 100 paid subscribers. You’ve both also been writing for perhaps less than 2 years? I think this all is very cool, and I think Substack is still young. I imagine you’ll continue to grow.
The kind of writing you want to do seems to me to be affected by the star system. There are lots of aspirants, and very few that do well at it. Those would be your tier 5s.
Consider the difference between a teacher, and a writer of textbooks. If you are teaching 5 kids algebra, you need one teacher, and 5+1 copies of one text book. If you are teaching 10 kids algebra, still one teacher, and still one text book, with 10+1 copies. But when you need to teach 50,000 kids algebra, you need several thousand teachers - and still only need one textbook author.
So teaching doesn't pay very well - but lots of people can find a steady job as teachers. Whereas writing the textbook potentially pays more - but only for one person, and it's not a steady job.
Whatever you write can be read by 10 people - or 10 million people. It costs you the same to produce, either way -- except to the extent that you respond to comments. This makes you more like the textbook writer, and less like the school teacher.
OTOH, if I need something specific written - let's say a manual for the product I want to sell - you are a bit more like a teacher. I can't use any old product manual - it has to be specific to my product. But then you have to make writing products to order. Which may not satisfy the desire to write something you *want* to write.
My suspicion is that this is the key difference. It's not pure writing vs writing mixed with other skills; it's more like the difference between creating fine arts and creating advertising images - the same technical skills may be used for both.