[Remember, keep sending in your questions to email@example.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday. I will use your first name ONLY, unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous. My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. I am 576% here for questions so long that they do the heavy lifting of a post and let me make a shorter answer.]
I’m a longtime reader and fan, lifelong writer, and very recently a writing professional. Easily my favorite part of writing consultation and editing is having the opportunity to help people ask for the things they need and want-- grant writing, resume workshop, scholarship applications, petitions and letters, advocacy campaigns, etc. This work is even more fulfilling when I am able to do it for someone who *really* needs it and most especially rewarding when it is connected to any sort of cause meant to serve others. If I didn't need to eat or sleep or drink water (or pay for the privilege of living), I would spend every minute of every day doing this kind of work. That's the dream.
Enter Stage Right, CAPITALISM:
In the professional world, I've found that the more financial security I gain, the fewer people I am able to help in this way. I am grateful to be at a place in my life where I am truly scraping by instead of falling further behind, but I cannot yet afford to offer up my skills as a writing consultant for free.
I've figured out that I can scale back on my hours at my full-time job and take on a few clients and projects at a very affordable rate. But I can't figure out how to ethically accomplish this without undercutting my colleagues. Do you have any thoughts on how I (or how we as a community of writing professionals) can make our services more accessible and still make a living*? And is it possible I'm overthinking this? Do these concerns of "undercutting the competition" only apply if my goal is to be competitive? Is it enough to say that my little labor-of-love "side hustle" won't *really* affect the market?
Alternative question if there isn't a good or interesting answer to what I outlined above: are there any service-oriented writing careers that I have missed?
Any insight would be appreciated :)
Just as a point of logistics, if anyone else is hoping to hop the queue this May and get a question answered right away, it's a long, tough month for me, and it will help if you do a huge question that does a lot of heavy lifting and lets me pop off a pretty brief answer that still feels like a full post.
Congratulations on discovering what you love within the industry. I know a lot of people get so fixated on being A Novelist™ that they aren't willing to adjust course to go after what brings them far more bliss. So now all we need to do is figure out how you can do what you love, survive capitalism, not undercut your industry colleagues, test the waters of other kinds of service-oriented writing, seize the means of production, cast off the yoke of our oppressors, abolish bourgeois private property, and solve climate change in the next decade before humanity goes extinct or at the very least, civilization as we know it completely collapses in an extinction-level event that kills billions and renders most of the world uninhabitable.
The first and most important thing you can do is know your value. I'm not kidding. Walk through the world with your default setting being: "Fuck you. Pay me." I know a lot of your questions have to do with doing things pro bono or for a big discount, but knowing exactly what you are giving someone when you work for free is the most important thing you can do when interacting with the forces of capitalism. If you are trying to figure out how philanthropic it is to charge someone $10/hour, the answer is different if you are worth $20/hr than if you are worth $50/hr. And knowing that is important in making certain decisions. The basic core principle here is that there's a difference between donating labor that you know has value and letting yourself be taken advantage of.
Are you undercutting your colleagues? First of all, not really. You, Deva, are not somehow going to go out there and change the market value of freelance writing with your own personal philanthropy. Maybe, maybe, maybe in a world before the Internet you might have been able to impact a local market by always working for free, but....not really.
And also consider that as long as you're talking about folks or orgs legitimately helped by you working for a little less and not Jeff Bezos convincing you he'll get you free Amazon Prime for a year and some awesome exposure, consider that anyone itching to charge these folks is not super high key the type you need to worry about.
"How could you edit that cleft palate orphanage's webpage for their help-us-not-go-bankrupt auction for only $20/hr. I was going to make FOUR TIMES that and overbill them. You....UNDERCUTTER!"
In a broader sense, though? Well, this is one place where knowing your value matters. If you are letting yourself be hired by slick-ass rich folks who absolutely COULD pay for the work, but just want to be able to sing a song about "exposure," you ARE undercutting your colleagues. The entire writing industry––and really the entire CREATIVE industry––has been so saturated by writers (artists) willing to devalue themselves for "exposure" that it is NOTICEABLY harder to get a paying gig. To this very day people slide into my PMs thinking that I might work for no pay and "ground floor opportunities," and they get genuinely OFFENDED when I won't budge from my freelance rate.
"Why should I pay you if I can just get some other writer to do it for free?"
And there it is! And yes, it hurts me. Maybe not ME me because I don't do a lot of freelance, but the universal me. Everyme.
The industry is steeped in this assumption, and that sense of entitlement from those who would otherwise be paying clients hurts everyone. If writers, as a whole, would just appreciate not only their actual labor value but the value of the training that got them to their current skill level, we would all get paid a lot more. Although I will say that, in general, the people who have money but try to weasel out of it by citing "exposure," are exactly the sort who would try to rip off independent contractors and freelancers in other ways. So I wouldn't work for Trump even if you get him to agree to your freelance rate.
So you do have to be aware of not giving away your value to folks who could otherwise pay you.
But it's pretty easy to just not do this.
If someone can pay you, charge them. You know what you're worth and if they have money to give you, you're all trying to survive capitalism. TAKE their money. You deserve it. This is very important both to yourself, your self-respect and self-esteem, and also to your colleagues.
If they can't afford to pay you, things get interesting. Now you get to decide if you want to essentially GIVE them $X/hr (in the form of your labor) for whatever cause or interest they're working on. And most of them are going to open with things they CAN do. (Like a non profit can give you an invoice for what you are worth [again, know what you're worth] that you can use as a tax deduction.)
I charge $50 an hour for most people who want me to content or line edit something or write something for them (I don't do proofreading). But actually, I'm worth a little more than that. And if Bill Gates or Google wanted to hire me for some god-only-knows why reason, I'd quote them $75/hr and start with a consult hour where I tell them what I like on my bagels (lox, capers, cream cheese, and cucumbers for sure). But for most mere mortals, I go down to $50. I know how expensive freelance work can be for folks who aren't independently wealthy or have the backing of a major corporation.
(Yeeeeaaaah, this joke might be funnier in person.)
And sometimes my friend who works part time at the Shakespeare theater and who also wants to be a writer asks me to look over her stuff before she submits, and I work for more like $10/hour. Or $25/hr for someone who is trying to put together a grant proposal for their non-profit. Or I let a fellow artist pay me in trade. Or I tutor a kid on their admissions essay for free because I know their mom lives from paycheck to paycheck. (And even though for me it isn't about who can regale me with the best sob story––I actually KNOW these people––I get to be the one who decides essentially how much I'm going to DONATE to their cause or situation.) Or I'm completely a dry-mouthed pushover and I work for half price because I want someone who is really cute to like me.
And here's the beauty of all this. If they can't pay you, you're not screwing over your colleagues. They wouldn't have been able to pay your colleagues either. It only damages the "freelance ecosystem" if you don't take money from people who COULD pay you.
But in all these transactions you MUST KNOW YOUR VALUE.
What about competitiveness? Again, know your value. (This is like the "Know thyself" of freelance work.) If you're having to bid for a contract, and you know you need to be competitive, knowing what you're worth can help you decide how low you're willing to go. (I don't really bid for contracts, but if I ever had to, I could go as low as $45, but it wouldn't be worth it to me to spend my valuable time that I could be writing my own stuff working for any less. So I'm not going to lowball at $40 just to get the gig.)
Are there service-oriented writing jobs you haven't worked yet? I'm sure there are many, but I don't know everything you've already done. If you've done grants, applications, petitions, editing, and advocacy, you've done a lot. Grants are always going to be the biggie (because they translate most directly into money), and honestly you can make money in development if you want to do the same thing during the day. Staff writing. Blogging/web content for a non-profit's website. Philanthropic journalism. Copywriting. You might even enjoy technical writing, which doesn't OFTEN happen outside of day job contexts, but is notoriously hard to find for cheaper than a pretty "robust" market rate.
Many of these would not be most writer's first choices in what kind of writing they'd like to be doing. They usually pay the bills. But if you're picking your causes, it sounds like it might be very rewarding and the kind of writing you like to do. Personally, I would either pick one and specialize so you can be VERY good and maybe even renowned in that one thing (and probably have a skill set that might translate to paid work if you ever needed it to) or keep just helping all over the place as eclectically as you can and enjoy the sort of gestalt way that you become better at the entire spectrum of freelance and/or consulting.
I will give you one piece of advice that actually came from my editor who also does pro bono work for causes she believes in (of which, thank all the things, I am one). No matter what amount you're working for, even if it's FREE, absolutely bring 110% to the table. Do your very best. Because once your work is out in the world, no matter what you got paid for it, it is representing you. And you want your best possible effort in a portfolio if you're trying to land a paying gig.
Note: the rest of the socialist revolution will have to wait until part two, (which I will never get around to writing).