You Can Succeed as a Writer Without Selling Your Soul

Sean Kernan

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My first hard career lesson was that we can’t have everything, and even if we do, we’ll still want more.

If my ultimate dream came true, I wouldn’t be on Medium, Quora, or Newsbreak. I’d be writing fantasy novels. There’d be elves and dwarves and all sorts of nerdy stuff.

But I don’t want to be broke. I like doing things. So I conceded and write articles instead.

It’s also easy to concede too much as a writer.

Where is the line between succeeding and becoming a total sellout?

The Term ‘Selling Out‘

In the 1990s, the grunge rock movement rose in sharp contrast to the boy bands and Britney Spears of the world.

On one side, it was about artistic integrity.

On the other side, it was corporate. Teams of songwriters, businessmen, and image consultants debated over ‘what the people want’. They forged the perfect product for audiences.

Too perfect.

Smashing Pumpkins’ lead singer, Billy Corgan was scathing of this movement. He wrote, “Pop music is porn. They want to get you off. I’m not here to get you off.”

This critique invites a deeper philosophical question, particularly with the benefit of hindsight:

  • Today, grunge music is dead, little more than a memory.
  • Pop music couldn’t be hotter. The templates that created Backstreet Boys and Christina Aguilera have been replicated with mega-pop stars like Justin Beiber, Taylor Swift, and Nicki Minaj.

Is it our job to protect our artistic integrity? Or to keep ourselves relevant and pay our bills?

My Own Experience as a Writer

Most careers involve an idealism hangover, a moment when our glitzy expectations meet operational reality: alarm clocks, annoying people, terrible processes, and insufficient paychecks — doing things we don’t want to do.

I have this dirty habit of resetting my expectations every time I move to a new platform. I vow, “I’m not falling into these traps. I’m not writing clickbait articles.”

I’ve violated these rules in the past, unknowingly — when it was just me overcorrecting, and knowingly —when I was lashing out in frustration, at people ignoring me, and wasted time writing.

“Why won’t people click on my normal articles?”

“Why do I have to use these stupid titles?”

Clickiness and subject-matter are the great concessions of writers.

When have we sold our soul as writers?

If you asked 20 professional writers where the line is, you’d probably get 20 different answers. Some would have GPS coordinates of the line and condemn all who crossed it. Some would say it doesn’t exist.

My line is where readers get the impression, “This guy only cares about money. He’ll write whatever makes him money without little regard for anything else.”

You won’t always know where no-man’s land is beforehand.

After you write something sketchy, you’ll get a bad moral aftertaste from it, like you’d experimented with drugs the day before, or perhaps slept with an unseemly partner.

“Eh. I shouldn’t do that again.”

That’s you — zooming in on your line.

The Most Glaring Example of “Selling Out” I’ve Ever Seen

Quora’s Partner Program started as this super cool idea. It was the platform's first attempt at paying writers for content.

They paid you for interesting, unique questions (duplicates got merged) that people were interested in. Your pay would be based on views.

Sounds cool, right?

Then, I watched in horror as writers hijacked the feed with inane, go-nowhere, repetitive questions.

A single individual user would post questions in this order:

  • What’s the weirdest thing about living in Japan?
  • What’s the weirdest thing about living in Korea?
  • What’s the weirdest thing about living in society?
  • What’s the weirdest thing about living in your mom’s house?
  • What’s the weirdest thing about living in a theme park?

Hundreds of users churned out these ‘template questions’ in high volume.

The authors cared nothing of intellectual curiosity, the user experience, or the health of the platform. It was all about ‘gimme gimme gimme’.

Why every writer should think about this

Client work comes and goes. Platform earnings fluctuate in the changing winds of their respective overlords.

Meanwhile, we see lots of shenanigans, writers predating on fears, repeating trigger phrases about the collapse of society, how we can instantly 10x our work ethic in two minutes, or the certainty that our spouses are cheating on us.

When these articles getting massive views while your own content is sinking, it’s easy to get salty. Playing ball with them is an easy solution. This is where you’ll have to challenge yourself and what you’re willing to do. Clickbait is the steroids of our game.

The first rule of a writing career is that you’re going to get jerked around, by clients, platforms, and even by your ‘competitors’.

Start thinking about your goals, what your creative laws will be because, ultimately, your writing won’t just pay your bills, it’ll pave your legacy.

Online writing lives forever. It’s our digital tombstone.

Lastly

We don’t have teams of writers and PR agents to master-craft a piece with the perfect title, tone, message, that we can bathe in adulation of as the frontman.

It’s just us. So be thoughtful. You can succeed as a writer without selling your soul. Protect your integrity and the audience’s experience. Be stewards of the garden you live in.

I try to find a happy balance between writing about topics I like and topics that pay. Then, I try to adopt strategies that don’t devolve into spinning naked on a pole, covered in glitter (figuratively).

Enjoy the process. Don’t make everything about money.

There’s something cathartic about letting your fingers fly and writing something, knowing full well, “This piece isn’t going to make me more than $2. But I’m going to have a lot of fun and be proud as hell of it.”

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