The business of writing: what do you tell students?

Judging by the number of job listings on ‘Australia’s fastest growing publishing brand’,, it’s never been a better time to be a writer. Don’t believe me? Open a new tab. Type into the web address bar. Click on the ‘Jobs’ tab, choose Publishing/Media/Writing from the drop-down menu, then click on the button that urges you to ‘Find your dream job’. See what I mean? Pages and pages of dream jobs: nine in total and over 90 jobs in all, with enticing titles like ‘Writers/Contributors wanted’ and ‘Babe Hunter “Awesome at Everything” Contributor’.

But as you scroll down you notice something is amiss. In listing after listing, in the place where the salary should be, there’s this sad little symbol: $0. What could it mean? Is it an emoticon for cross-eyed surprise? Or does it mean that THE JOB HAS NO SALARY?

Conveniently, there is a checkbox at the top of that page that lets you exclude unpaid jobs and internships. So you check it. Instantly, more than seventy entries disappear. Of the 18 listings that remain, five have nothing to do with writing. That leaves 13. At least two of these are paid internships offering a stipend. Another appears to be an unpaid internship that slipped through the filter. Of the ten actual writing or writing-related job ads that remain, only a handful mention payment explicitly. But let’s assume that all ten of those jobs are paid. That’s still a ratio of around seven unpaid ‘jobs’ for every paid writing role.

For the past two years, I’ve tutored students in Writing and Editing for the Professions, a second semester undergraduate course at the University of Queensland. In first week of this semester, I asked students a number of questions, including: What are your writing strengths and weaknesses? What are your career aspirations? What professional experience have you had? They are second-year students mostly; for many of them the term ‘professional’ is still abstract. Despite this, the answers were gratifyingly varied, even considered. Around half the students had some kind of professional experience, mostly in the form of unpaid internships.

A report commissioned by the Fair Work Ombudsman, and completed by researchers at The University of Adelaide in January 2013, found that unpaid internships were on the rise in Australia. No kidding. When the researchers conducted a search on on 29 November 2012, there were over sixty entries in the internships/work experience section. When I conducted a search on 13 August 2014, there were over 370 – and, as I said, at least 70 of these were writing or writing-related roles.

Of the internships my students mentioned, many seemed to involve writing website content, especially food reviews. Are food reviews, or copywriting, or ‘content generation’ legitimate work for an unpaid intern? The Fair Work Ombudsman suggests a range of clear criteria to determine whether someone should be paid for their work, including this one: ‘Does the organisation need this work to be done? If the person is doing work that would otherwise be done by an employee, or it’s work that the business/organisation has to do, it’s more likely the person is an employee.’ Based on this criterion alone, if those reviews, or that content, is core to the organisation’s business model – which presumably it is – then the writing should be paid. Or, as Clem Bastow wrote, in her recent piece for the Lifted Brow: ‘Is your business making money? Are you, the editor, being paid? Are you selling ads? Pay the fucking writers, then.’

But students aren’t professional writers – yet. Who can blame them for being seduced by statements like this: ‘contributed work will not be paid, but if you’re looking to build your portfolio one article at a time, collect links to send and impress future dream jobs and have your CV looking mighty fine – you can achieve this.’ Who can blame them if, when faced with a choice between compiling a spreadsheet or some other odious task for free, or writing an online review for free, they choose to write the review? I know what I would have done. Why do we become writers in the first place? Because we want to write, and because for the most part we enjoy doing it, over just about anything else – certainly more than doing spreadsheets and filing.

At one point during the tutorial, I told my students about a recent experience, wherein I went to a bar and bought an $18 cocktail so that I could write a 35 word review, for which I would be paid 50 cents a word, or $17.50. It was one of a suite of such reviews I wrote for a new print guide, a job I’d taken on without thinking it through, because the work sounded like fun, and I thought it might lead somewhere.

I looked around the room, imagining what they might be thinking. Some of them, no doubt, understood my point: that losing money on a writing job is absurd. But I’m sure others saw it differently. An $18 cocktail for just 50 cents? That sounds like a pretty good deal. In that moment, I was not a teacher standing in a classroom full of students. I was a writer, and they were writers. They were my competition. Which left me wondering, if they are prepared to work for free or next to nothing, or for the promise of free food and drink, to build their portfolio, or make connections, or for the promise of exposure, where does that leave me, as a so-called professional writer? And what should I tell them, teacher to student, writer to writer, about work and getting paid? Should I warn them that, a few years from now, they might find themselves in my position, taking low-paid writing jobs because the only alternative is to work for free?

I do not have answers for these questions, not easy ones anyway. I have until the end of semester – nine more weeks – to find some

Melissa Fagan

Melissa is a Brisbane-based writer, writing teacher, and MPhil candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Queensland.

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  1. Changing the system would appear to be the answer. But how? Through writing in competition with other writers rather than through political organisation? If yes, the likely answer is no, given the writing jobs listed here. So a status quo, ‘agricultural’ capitalism, a capitalist master/bourgeois slave system is firmly entrenched in the writing work field, as in other work fields. In the moneyed economy of such a bourgeois writing field, I suspect, one needs to be a great publicist of their own achievements to be commercially successful. Otherwise known as rugged individualism – pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps – and all that guff. Agricultural moral in this city of writing to which students flock: you reap what you sow.

  2. I agree that the writer has to take responsibility for their career, but it can be incredibly difficult to find paying work to kickstart a career when you are starting out. It is a difficult situation because some people write for enjoyment and have no intention of charging a fee. Others, like myself, are trying to earn a living as professional writers.

  3. The first thing is “write”. I find that the time I waste (including spending time on “research” on the internet” can be time wasted, when I should be writing. I have so many unfinished projects, but I can’t blame any one but myself on that. Thanks to you Melissa for the article, and for the other article you have written. Also, thanks to Anitra for her comments about volunteerism. I am a volunteer writer for a national magazine, and have been for over 10 years. My topic is theatre, and I am RECOGNISED, respected for my knowledge and experience on the topic. However, I find that respect me less when they find out THAT i AM UNPAID. THAT i AM UNPAID. if ISpe

  4. Whoops. didn’t finish that…people respect one less when they find out that you aren’t paid, but the experience is invaluable. All the best everyone… and keep writing.

    Merlene Abbott

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