jun 29

The Death of Writing, The Rebirth of Words

I've been thinking a lot about a comment that Rick Webb made in my post last week about unpaid writing gigs. "Just accept it's like photography, and that you'll never make a living off of it." I have a instinctual desire to say, "No, writing is different." But I'm unable to come up with any intelligible way in which it is. Will writing just democratize itself into ubiquity, leaving only a scant few people who can call themselves writers by profession? And would that be a bad thing?


It is not a bad thing for the art of writing.

It is, however, a terrible thing for people who cannot function in another profession.

I am taking this slightly offtopic and tl;dr to a thought I'd like for you to consider, because it is ultimately why people whine about the loss of "journalism": Take your average writer, reporter, etc. They work full-time and make an average salary. Ignore for a second the will of the subject (that is, whether or not they WANT TO switch careers), and consider that it is incredibly difficult for anyone to switch careers and basically start over in a new line of work. It's a massive pay downgrade and it is still a struggle to land an entry-level position without relevant experience. You're competing with college grads and former interns, and employers rush to deign you overqualified. So, there is a major labor transition issue at play here.

There are strong forces in the economy right now that is causing this issue to occur in a lot of industries. Like the broker who doesn't have a financial industry to go back to, the industrial robotics worker who doesn't have an auto industry to go back to, the Java coder who can only find Ruby-on-Rails jobs. These people have already invested years of their time into training, and their entire line of work is shrinking while evolving. This wouldn't be as much of a problem if there were decent jobs these people could run to. We are finding out right now what happens when this sort of thing happens to an economy on a mass scale, and not in just one sector at a time. And there is absolutely no plan for handling this in a sufficient manner.

So: writing will be fine, but we are all fucked. Maybe someone should write about that.

posted by Brian Van at 1:32 PM on June 29, 2009

whenever somebody puts journalism in quotes i know exactly where things are going.

posted by jSon at 1:59 PM on June 29, 2009

maybe writing and photography aren't different and you shouldn't do either for free (for companies who are going to make lots of money off of your work without compensating you).

posted by josh at 2:16 PM on June 29, 2009


posted by John at 2:22 PM on June 29, 2009

My take: photography and writing have a different cultural function. If you're referring to magazine-y writing, then writing attempts to make sense of things by positioning them historically, culturally etc. Alone, photography can't do that. So the practice of doing the two is the same, but their effects and uses are quite different.

At the same time, the ridiculous, almost infinite wealth of good photography online means that it must be really really hard to be a pro photographer. So... yeah, probably. You'll soon get a very tiny slice of people who will be able to call themselves writers, and those people will have to be exceptionally, unusually good.

So in that sense Brian Van is right: regular, run-of-the-mill, dime-a-dozen writers like me are fucked.

posted by Nav at 2:33 PM on June 29, 2009

I don't think writing in general is in trouble as a career or a profession and it wasn't like it was any easier to have a career as a writer before the internet. But non-fiction writers are indeed in trouble. I guess how good or bad that is depends on how you look at it. The good thing is that there's less bullshit making and no matter how good your prose is, it's what you do, not what you write. That's why we still have the Paul Krugmans and the Gladwell's. The bad part of course is that is going to get harder and harder to get paid for expository writing. Like you mentioned, I don't that's such a bad thing.

posted by JayCruz at 2:48 PM on June 29, 2009

I don't think writing in general is in trouble as a career or a profession and it wasn't like it was any easier to have a career as a writer before the internet.

I don't know if there's any way to scientifically prove this, but that sounds WAY OFF.

posted by Rex at 2:55 PM on June 29, 2009

"You can make a killing as a writer in America. You just can't make a living." -Sherwood Anderson

posted by Johnny at 3:06 PM on June 29, 2009

Professional photography is pretty far from dead, I know plenty of people who still make a good living at it.

Journalism is in fact, still around. The major "citizen journalism" breakthroughs are still the exception, not the rule. Plus, it's not the only paid writing job out there.

Somehow I don't see "citizen speech writers" or "citizen communication directors" popping up any time soon.

posted by Bob at 3:19 PM on June 29, 2009

@bob: "Professional photography is pretty far from dead, I know plenty of people who still make a good living at it. "

Oh, well that's reassuring to hear. Any predictions as to when companies will begin hiring photographers again?

posted by Brian Van at 3:24 PM on June 29, 2009

what's the difference between not paying writers and paying terrible writers who attend the right parties?

posted by joanne at 4:04 PM on June 29, 2009

I see no reason why writing as a profession should be threatened by the Internet, any more than it was by the invention of the printing press. Doesn't every new medium offer new opportunities?

posted by rjleaman at 4:28 PM on June 29, 2009

Depends on what you mean by writing. There is plenty of work for writers, but most of it won't make you famous or even include your by-line.

posted by Jeremy R. at 4:32 PM on June 29, 2009

@rjleaman: yes, absolutely, and it's been wonderful so far for that. I've encountered so much good writing on the Internet that I would have likely never seen otherwise.

But writing, as a professional service for a company or commercial operation, is no longer a viable career. And there are factors involved that have nothing to do with ad revenue or profit models - some of it is a consequence of the runaway cost of living in the US. It does still pay, but it pays less in a society where things cost so much more. Now only the rich can afford it.

As it is with so many things now. The public is only aware of the people who are in a crisis now after years of sliding toward the abyss. What no one is looking at is that nearly everyone else is sliding toward that abyss too - unless something fundamental changes in the way that the American economy is managed. We cannot all buy luxury goods, make every management decision to best enhance quarterly reports, and play bubble games with equities, derivatives, commodities and physical assets. This would be painful and uncomfortable, so the most resourceful among us are instead trying to avoid that change by throwing the weakest people overboard. Layoffs and foreclosures/evictions and tanked credit scores and denial of healthcare. That will solve everything!

But if you fixed all that, and someday we must somehow, then writing as an art will end up stronger than ever.

posted by Brian Van at 4:48 PM on June 29, 2009

Shit. I better go buy a Chicago Manual of Style and start calling myself an editor again.

posted by stevemarsh at 6:30 PM on June 29, 2009

What is important to understand is that in the age of "user generated content" everyone feels entitled to write and give an opinion on absolutely everything. Personally I'm not sure how soon GOOD writing will become ubiquitous but if the popular saying is to be trusted it will take about one million words for the average user to become a good writer. At a pace of 100 words per rant and assuming one per day it will take a couple of decades to get there.

posted by juan Gonzalez at 10:32 AM on June 30, 2009

The honest truth: most people who fancy themselves painters, musicians, photographers, writers etc etc are not singularly talented and many are often just looking for an easy, sweat-free job. The crisis and the internet are thinning the professional herd in those areas.

Also, journalism as a profession has been affected in the US by a persistent left-leaning bias, and now that people have more options they no longer care for the likes of the NYT, CNN, Newsweek etc because they do not trust or identify themselves w/ their liberal agenda. I'm constantly amazed at the lack of political self-awareness of journalists who are clearly leftists but think of themselves as impartial reporters etc etc.

Finally, journalists were in a privileged position to see the current crisis approaching. Whoever sat pretty and simply hoped against hope lacked good sense and initiative.

posted by Edward.EB at 1:39 PM on June 30, 2009

Jeremy R, you said: "There is plenty of work for writers, but most of it won't make you famous or even include your by-line." That's true. But I'd argue that writing for fame and writing for your living are two different career paths entirely.

Brian says that writing, as a professional service for a company or commercial operation, is no longer a viable career in part because of the inflated cost of living in the US (if I get your point correctly, Brian?) - but I can assure you that's not necessarily the case in other parts of the English-speaking world.

What if those writers now struggling to make a living in the US were to look at the Internet, not as a threat, but as a way to bring their professional skills out to a much wider market?

posted by rjleaman at 8:56 PM on July 1, 2009

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