Writing as work

With the Writers’ Guild strike going on, there’s been some interesting talk about this “writing” thing as a job. You may have already seen Joss Whedon’s excellent post in response to a New York Times article about the strike; if not, go read it now, because Joss Whedon is very good at being funny and right at the same time.

Why is it so hard to believe writing is work?

When you get right down to it, we shouldn’t be surprised when people question this “job” we “work” at and “deserve” payment for. I can list four major reasons why they doubt us:

1) You don’t have a boss. I mean, you kind of do — after all, you have an editor. But that isn’t the same thing. The editor doesn’t drop a folder on your desk and say, “I need this presentation together/account restructured/code compiled by Thursday.” Nobody hauls you on the carpet to yell at you. You can’t even really be fired. They can decide not to buy your next book, but “pink slip” isn’t in a writer’s vocabulary. (For the day job, maybe.) There isn’t somebody breathing down your neck every day, making sure you’re getting your work done . . . except for you. You are your own boss. And that’s pretty suspect, when you get right down to it.

2) You don’t work regular hours. Could be you’re one of those writers who says “I will write from five a.m. to seven a.m. every morning” and sticks to it — but if so, you’re in the minority. Most of us write when we have the time, the energy, the brilliant idea. We can’t afford to wait for the brilliant idea, but if it hits at 1 a.m. then, well, put on another pot of coffee. I mean, this, right now? Is me working. It’s ten to eleven on a Thursday night, and I’m drafting this while it’s fresh in my head, because if I wait for my actual blogging day to roll around I’ll have forgotten what I want to say. We work when we can — whenever that may be.

3) You don’t have an office. Not a real one. Not a room in another building, where you have to dress up nice and share a coffeepot with other people. Heck, you may do your job on the couch, curled up in bed, at Starbuck’s. What kind of job can be done at an overpriced coffee shop? You aren’t behind the counter, buddy. Me, I have an office. It’s down the hall from my bedroom, and decorated with extremely colorful fantasy art. I can go to work in my pajamas (and often do). Clearly: not work.

4) It’s fun. And if you’re an American, your country was founded by Puritans, who knew very well that anything fun was Not Work (except maybe the Work of the Devil).

But of course we know writing is work. The hours may not be regular, but they’re long. I write about a thousand words in an hour when things are going smoothly, which means it would take me about three standard forty-hour work weeks to write a 120K novel . . . but of course it isn’t all about putting the words on the page, is it? I could not begin to estimate how many hours I spend researching, tweaking, staring at the wall and thinking. Mostly because I’m not just staring at the wall; I’m thinking about my book while I drive. While I shower. While I eat meals. While I try to go to sleep. When I’m into the guts of the thing, I’m rarely not thinking about it. (Let’s not even talk about the hours put into revision, copy-editing, proofing, and all the other tasks of getting the book to the shelves.)

And writing is a skill-set that must be built and polished, just as much as if I were a carpenter instead. If it weren’t work, would we have to practice so much? If I’m not actually a skilled craftswoman, then surely somebody else could step in and do my job, right? Er, no. In fact, I’m much less disposable than people in a lot of other recognized jobs out there. You can train somebody else to flip burgers pretty quickly. Yet we’ve reached a point in American culture where workers are all too often treated like interchangeable parts, and what they do has to be mindless to be real.

Writing produces a recognizable product. That product has value. And creating it is work. It may not happen the way “normal” jobs do, it may even be fun — but folks, it is work. Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.

[My apologies to people who read the slightly unfinished version of this post; the sixteenth sneaked up on me when I wasn't looking and hadn't edited my draft.]

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  1. 1. S.C. Butler

    Fun? Who says writing’s fun? If it’s so much fun let them do it. I just like the finished product.

    Since I write far less thn 1000 words an hour, I’m not sure I like the payscale much either.

  2. 2. Karen Wester Newton

    Well, I think it’s also because because we all learn to write in school, so everyone thinks they know how to write. I like to use the sports model. Anyone who’s not physically disabled can play basketball or ice skate or hit a golf ball. It’s how well you do it that determines whether you can make a living at it. Most people realize this because they have tried to do sports and realized their own limitations. But they’ve never tried to write a book or a TV show or a movie script, so as far as they know, it’s easy.

    Although with the size of the slush piles at every major house and a lot of small presses, you would think there must be more people out there who are sympathetic to writers.

  3. 3. Marie Brennan

    Karen –

    That’s exactly the issue I was pondering when I wrote “We All Use Language, But . . . .” for my own website. Short form is, since writing doesn’t involve any immediately obvious skill-set the average person doesn’t already have — after all, they know how to use a pen and/or keyboard, and are fluent in the English language or other local idiom — it’s easy to underestimate the degree of craft that goes into what we do, and to think, “oh, I could do that.”

    As far as the slush piles go, I’m not sure that experience produces sympathy, exactly. Envy, resentment, confusion, disillusionment, and the occasional bit of appalled understanding, maybe. But the vanity presses are good proof of how many people, upon being rejected, do not think “wow, now I understand what the successful ones have gone through;” instead, they think “why can’t I get published like they did?”

  4. 4. lyda morehouse

    This is awesome. Thanks for your post. Writing as work is one of those things I’m very aware of, though your take was much more articulate than anything I’ve come up with!

  5. 5. Marie Brennan

    Thanks! The WGA issue has had me thinking a lot about the value of what we do.

  6. 6. Jim Johnson

    Karen’s sports analogy is right on the mark. Everyone can go to the batting cage and hit the ball. They can even move up to the faster machines and feel good about themselves. But that doesn’t mean you can stand in the box with 60,000 people in the stands screaming for you to fail and come through in the clutch. Now let’s add Johan Santana on the mound who can blow it past you in the mid-90′s, twist you in a circle with a drop off the ledge splitter, or make your knees buckle with a curve ball that seems to defy physics.

    Unfortunately, you still have sports fans who think they can do better than the pros or go into hysterics when someone makes a mistake on an “easy” play so its no wonder people think that writing isn’t a job.

  7. 7. Ricky H

    I’m not a writer, but I do have an appreciation for the craft (mostly due to struggling to learn it). That said, I think the derogatory comments heard about the strike have a simpler cause. Money.

    If the people reporting on the strike wanted to generate compassion for the WGA then it they would. Instead, they frame it as if the writers are greedy and lazy so thats the impression the public gets stuck in their heads. The media companies want more profits (which is natural) so its no surprise that they help each other by framing the problem in a way that makes them look the best. There’s not a financial reason for one of the “news” shows to depict the WGA strike in favorable terms. Big corps don’t help unions as a general rule, even if those unions are in a different industry.

    As a test, while visiting my family over the weekend, I asked them about the strike. Did they know what the writers wanted? No one knew the whole story. Some knew their was an increase in the royalties for DVDs involved (but not how much). Some knew about alternate forms of media and its impact. All of their reactions were either ambivalent or negative. Explain it to them in a way they understand and they would be supportive. They already understand the concept of companies screwing over their workers. What they are missing and there’s little incentive to give them is the human connection between the writers and themselves.

  8. 8. Marie Brennan

    Ricky — that’s why the Internet is changing the playing field this strike around. The WGA last struck in 1988, when there was no comparable way for writers to get their side of the story out there; the public pretty much had to learn the details from newspapers, TV shows, etc, which — as you point out — don’t exactly have a vested interest in speaking against the conglomerates. But sites like United Hollywood give writers a way to bypass that system.

    Does it reach everybody? Of course not. But it’s a sight better than what they had before. The percentages vary based on who exactly’s being polled, of course, but I have yet to see a single poll on the matter that isn’t favorable to the writers’ side of the cause. Usually it’s something like 61% in favor of the writers, 35% not sure or pissed at both sides, and 4% in favor of the AMPTP.

    Of course, it would be a lot better if traditional media were being less biased in its reporting. But any rant I might deliver on the state of traditional media should wait for another post.

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Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.

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