In November, author and editor Lilly Dancyger tweeted, “If you’re a writer who takes it personally if anyone in your life doesn’t sufficiently fawn over (or even engage with) your work, how deeply do you engage with your yoga-instructor friend’s practice? Your lawyer friend’s last case? Your cook friend’s new technique? I know as writers part of the job is convincing ourselves how deeply important our work is (& it is! The power of stories & all of that) but also… at the end of the day, it’s work.”
Her words struck me, a sometimes too-sensitive writer who subconsciously keeps a mental note of which friends swipe up on her Instagram story to say they liked a recent piece. Of course, mutual curiosity is critical in a healthy relationship. But “engagement” is a sticky thing for a career freelance writer. From piecing together the $0.10/word pitch calls and end-of-year rates threads, we know it’s bleak out there. That’s why my knee-jerk reaction to Dancyger’s tweet was, ‘But it’s not just another job, comparable to a lawyer.’ When you’re only paid $250 for an article that took 15 hours to report, write, invoice, and promote, verbal affirmation that it was worthwhile means much, much more.
Today, “sharing” is rarely a direct person-to-person ask but a tweet into the void. The more than fifteen freelancers I spoke to for this report follow roughly the same pattern of posting a link on their social accounts, retweeting any mentions, adding the story to their website if they remember to.
“I feel like if I was making more money doing freelance work, I wouldn’t feel as obligated to share,” says Britny Cordera, a poet and emerging journalist in St. Louis. “I’m still figuring out the balance between work and passion projects. It feels so personally charged right now… I have a problem with equating people caring [about a piece] to the amount of reactions it gets on social media. And I hate that.”
Does it ever get better? Will I ever stop taking it personally that pieces I’m proud of garner five likes and (seemingly just) gather dust on my virtual author shelf? As Allegra Hobbs reported in “The Writer as Influencer,” “to be a writer today is to make yourself a product for public consumption on the internet, to project an appealing image that contextualizes the actual writing.” Without a cult of personality, the possibility of a piece going viral plummets. Even publication name recognition is waning in the shadow of a writer’s “strong brand.” If virality is unattainable, I wondered what else could bring a sense of fulfillment when the high of a new byline fades away.
Journalists recommend tempering expectations about what non-journalists will read. For those hung up on their roommate not following their Substack, energy and environment reporter Bridget Morawski put it bluntly: “They need to get over themselves. I love my reporter friends, but they tend to think that they are the only ones who are busy. And it’s just not true. We’re not getting paid enough for how busy we are, but everyone has lives. As much as I would love it if all of my friends read my micro-plastics article, I can tell you about three or four did.”
The more time she wastes worrying about it, the less time she has to work on stories that matter. Morawski went freelance in March, after working full-time as an electric policy reporter for a site with a heavy paywall and highly specialized audience. “No one read my work, but I enjoyed what I was writing and I was pretty damn good at it,” she says. Now her sense of satisfaction comes from the opportunity to focus on the human aspect of environmental impact stories.
Turning inward was continually cited as an antidote to stressing about analytics. Kelsey Osgood is a writer in New York who doesn’t have social media; she never did, even when she was attending Columbia around the time that everyone was signing up for a new site out of Harvard called Facebook. “Social media is antithetical to what we actually do as writers – very solitary, sitting in an office all day obsessing over a word,” she says. “After many years, I still feel proud when I get an editor’s initial ‘this is in good shape’ email, when I file clean and cogent copy.” While she has no expectations about people in her life reading her work, she was tickled by the strangers who found her email after a WIRED article titled “Big Tech’s Psychedelics Grift.” They were professionals in that space and thanked her for putting their qualms into words.
“It’s always a pleasant surprise when I manage to convince somebody else that something is important,” says Eli Winter, a Chicago writer and musician. “I like to think of all the stuff I do as being in dialogue with other artists.” But that doesn’t mean he needs literal feedback from a musical hero that what he’s doing matters. “I’m supposed to be doing content bullshit to foment theoretical engagement that in actuality seems to do little… When really I just hope to find kindred spirits, cool internet friends.”
“My parents and my in-laws seem to be the only people who read my work – which is fine!” says Janet Manley. “Whenever they comment something like ‘great job!!!’ I hear Jerry’s mom cheering as he opens the jar on Seinfeld: ‘Yay, Jerry got it open!’” (But Janet, I loved your Lit Hub piece on Little Women and literary longing. And you’re making it work as a culture writer with kids. I think these are things to celebrate the simple fact of.)
Critic and fiction author Ilana Masad has come to believe that “it doesn’t matter how much I ask people to read [a story] or click on it or whatever – that’s not going to change whether I get hired by this editor again or not. I just need the editor to like my writing.” When you’re not being lavished with praise or reposts, maybe the reminder that this is a job is freeing. When Morawski was a staffer, her pieces would get 100 hits but she was paid $1/word (she thinks regulatory policy reporting isn’t touted enough as an alternative income stream).
For history writer Jack El-Hai, it helps to think of publication as only a test drive of a story, with other, future uses to look forward to. Cordera, brainstorming ways to develop an audience beyond an insular network of other writers, found that “one way to engage your audience is to bend genre and bend form.” Three of El-Hai’s books began as articles, including The Lost Brothers: A Family’s Decades-Long Search, published in 2019 by University of Minnesota Press, 21 years after he covered the story as a feature in Minnesota Monthly. El-Hai also derives satisfaction from successfully retaining copyright of his freelance pieces, which is what allowed him to write these books at all. I will never forget the feeling of my friend at WNYC tossing out the idea of a radio feature based on a Vulture story I wrote, before I remembered – I had signed away all the rights.
But that realization led to commiseration, advice on contract negotiation, and straight-up bitching, an unexpected form of fulfillment. “I find solidarity with my fellow writers tends to be helpful. So does occasionally DMing salty things to fellow freelancers,” says Masad. “We can feel all of our feelings. We can have the anger and the frustration and the jealousy and the rage and the envy. Do I want to be a Rachel Syme? Fuck yes, I do. Do I want to be Rebecca Solnit in 30 years with a bajillion books under me? Of course. Is it going to be my path? Probably not. The chip on my shoulder is still there and I’ll never be zen enough to not get upset, to some extent, about what our society does reward and doesn’t. But I can also remember the other things that do give me satisfaction and joy, that are in my control.”
Osgood, the writer without social media, reminds me that ultimately, the feedback is the publication. “Your story was good enough to publish. It’s no longer in progress. Now you can move on to something else.”