You Weren’t Expecting to be Paid, Were You? (The Worst of Being a Writer)

Over at the blog Written Words, Scott “the writer” Bury hosts a series of guest posts in which writers share the best and worst parts of being a writer.  Andy Hollomon, for example, likes interacting with readers and dislikes the editing and revising process.

I thought I would take my own stab at a best and worst of being a writer post.  I can honestly say that I like the entire process of writing, including editing and revising. I like the alternating rhythm of flow and what is called writer’s block.  I like to go back to what I’ve written and to try to make it just a bit better.  When I relax, for fun, I write articles in my head, going back over the sentences I just dreamed up to find just the right turns of phrase.

What I dislike about being a writer is just about every part that does not involve the actual writing. There is no part of building a literary career that is not insanely difficult. The main reason for this, I have concluded, is that it is one of the rare fields where a person is considered to be a professional and yet is not expected to make a living.

You may think this is an exaggeration, but I assure you it is not.  Accidents do happen, and you occasionally get a Twilight or a 50 Shades of Gray, but for the most part publishing, including books and magazines, operates on the principle that the writer is either married to a primary breadwinner, holds a tenured teaching position that provides time for writing, is retired and collecting a pension or works full time at some other occupation.

Paradoxically, when a writer is negotiating a contract and expresses a desire for terms that might provide the kind of security regular job fields provide, the publishers and agents in the process tend to take it as proof that she is an amateur and doesn’t know how the system works.  If you know how the system works, you know that real writers do not expect to be paid in a timely fashion, or the amount they negotiated, or maybe at all.

Let me give you an example of the experience I just had writing for a major magazine. I believed I was incredibly fortunate when the publication requested an article from me.  I did not query them, they suggested the article based on a book proposal I’d sent to their book division.  This magazine is one of the holdouts that still pays writers a decent amount for articles.  (This may change. It is part of a company that is going through a bankruptcy, and the money managers may decide this whole paying writers thing is a bit unnecessary.  After all, not paying has worked well for The Huffington Post. In any case, I was assured that the parent company’s filing did not impact the editorial department.  I do not know if it did or not.)

I felt fortunate, as well, to be given a standard contract that stipulated payment “on acceptance” rather than “on publication.”  Writers only control the quality of their work.  They have no control over when a magazine chooses to publish.  “On publication” could be a year down the line.

Here’s the thing, though.  As a writer you also have little control over how long it takes an editorial team to get around to “accepting” your work.  When I have done magazine articles in the past, it was a fairly straight forward process.  I discussed what the publication wanted with the editor in advance, I wrote based on our discussion, turned it in and the editor said it was fine and had the office people start the process of cutting a check.  (I believe publishers still do this on antique letter presses with custom characters for each job.  I assume this because of how long check cutting tends to take.)

This article would cover a number of different subjects and I went back and forth with the editor on how many it would be possible to cover and do justice to given my assigned word count.  I thought that fewer topics would be better.  She wanted to put about ten topics into the article, which meant that each only would be only a few lines.  I went off and researched the topics, wrote the article, sent it off and waited for feedback.  And I waited.

After a couple of months I ventured to ask where the article (and payment) were in the process.  I was told that it looked good, and that I could expect acceptance and payment “soon.”  And I waited.  I started to believe, with childlike innocence, that a substantial check would arrive in the mailbox any day.

At which point, the editor got back to me to say that the editorial team had suggested that the entries in the article were a bit slim and needed a bit more material to give them depth.  This is what I had said originally, but I followed my instructions.  Now I had new instructions which meant that my check was not in the mail.  In fact, I needed to re-work the article and start the process again. So I cut some topics in order to keep the word count and expand the entries.  I resubmitted the piece, confident that now that I had written it as requested (twice) I would soon be getting my paycheck.

Time passed.

The next communication from the editor was a request to send a list of potential topics for the article so that the editorial team could decide which ones I should write.  In case you did not get the nuances on this request– after asking for direction, discussing the topics to be included, writing and rewriting the article– they now wanted to start from scratch and chose new topics for me to research and write.

I may not have been as diplomatic as I would have wanted when I asked if writing a new article based on some of the suggested topics would result in getting paid at some point.

The editor responded with something about the terms of my contract.  I sent a list of potential topics for the twice written article.

Time passed.

I followed up.

“Good news!” said my editor. “The article has been slated for the December issue.”

This, I assumed with the innocence of a child, meant that the article would have to be accepted soon and I would have to get paid.

A week later, the editor wrote back to say that the magazine had decided to change its editorial focus and my article no longer fit their style.   They would not be paying me the full amount but a 25% kill fee.  The editor expressed her hope that we would work together again an suggested that I send ideas for more articles.

But now that my anticipated income for the work I already did has been reduced by 75%, I must admit I lack a certain motivation to suggest any new projects for this publication.

I did have one question though: “How long will it take for the kill fee to arrive?”

I am told it will come “soon.”


  1. When I took a creative writing class, the professor invited a few professional writers to discuss their experiences to the class. The all said that only about the top two percent of writers can actually make a living from it. It was also mentioned that magazine editors referred to writers as “suppliers.”

    1. I don’t mind being called a supplier at all. It is a job and I have no problem writing to order. But I don’t know of another field where you can expect suppliers to give you services without an understanding of when and how much they will be paid.

  2. Pingback: Author Laura Lee

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