Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Glamorous Life of A Writer

This "job opportunity" came through the email the other day from my alma mater (I've changed the identifying information):

"Client" would be interested to give a promising graduate student an editorial opportunity, reading and commenting on the readability of a fiction narrative novel. Total pages are 585 and in a pdf format that can be easily e-mailed to you. You would to read the text [sic] and comment as to readability.  He would be willing to pay a reasonable fee for the project. "Client" believes it would take about 8 to 16 hours to do a professional read through and is eager to begin this editorial project.

Believe me, "job opportunities" like this appear all the time when you're a writer. Before I went to grad school and got my fancy creative writing degree, I worked for many years as a freelance writer (I've got the clips to prove it and you can still Google my name and see some of them online) and then a friend of mine and I ran a copywriting company for a couple of years where we wrote marketing copy for companies, ghosted articles and books for executives (you didn't think they write those themselves, did you?), and picked up the odd job like the one above. I stopped when got into grad school, but she's still at it. Most days, I think she deserves a medal for keeping her sanity in the face of "job opportunities" from people who believe they've got the book everyone has been waiting for.

Seriously, there's a category of people out there who believe that writers are just waiting around for people who want help to bring their amazing projects to fruition. For free or as close to free as they can get because you, as the writer, should be grateful for the opportunity to work on something like this, and, hey, let's get real, if you were any good, you'd have a book contract already and be living the jet setting life. Am I right or am I right?

Take, for instance, the above opportunity. The client believes it will take about sixteen hours to read and critique this 585-page manuscript. That works out to 36 pages an hour. Even reading through my own novel (which I know intimately), editing and proofreading along the way, I read about 20 pages an hour max. So that puts us up to about 30 hours at a minimum to do this guy's manuscript justice (the reality, based on my experience, is that it's going to take closer to 50). If I were still in the biz, I'd bid this project at $1,500 ($50 an hour), but I can almost guarantee you that he's thinking "reasonable compensation" means $100 max.

Which is where the disconnect between "what I do" and "what people think I do" lies.

When people hire a writer, they're not thinking about how they're actually hiring a professional to do something they can't do. Just like hiring a plumber or an electrician, when you hire a writer, you're hiring someone who has spent years honing his or her craft, taking the time to learn and practice all those niggling rules of grammar everyone forgot as soon as they were out of school, and who has a skill set you don't possess. How do I know you don't possess them? You wouldn't be hiring a writer if you did. 

In addition, when you hire a professional writer to help you hone something that you hope to have published, you're also hiring a professional who understands the marketplace (or at least should) and what your manuscript has to do to compete out there in the big wide world with a thousand other manuscripts that say essentially the same thing. 

A lot of times, clients don't want to listen to that. I can't tell you how often my friend tells me stories about clients who have "improved" the copy she's written by filling it with grammatical errors, random digressions, etc, that she then has to clean up. I once had a client, for whom I was writing web copy, tell the creative director of the project to have me go through the copy because he'd found a LOT of grammatical errors. The creative director and I rolled our eyes, but I did comb through the copy and even had a grammar checking program go through it, too. The result? One grammatical issue that was more a question of style than grammar. 

What I find funny about all this (and I do find it funny despite the somewhat snarky tone of this piece), is how clients expect the writer to be more invested in the project than they are. Writing a book, even editing a book, takes a great deal of time and effort and expertise to accomplish well. Think of it as turning over your child to be raised and educated by someone else. Wouldn't you want someone who knows more than you do? And wouldn't you want to pay them in a way that reflects the true value of what they're doing for you? And wouldn't...oh, well, yeah...and that's a discussion for another time. I'm off to work on my next masterpiece.