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The End of the Freelance Life

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
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It’s always interesting to me how conversations with friends scattered around the world–friends of mine who may not even know each other– seem to touch on the same themes.

In the past week, at least four writer friends–all of whom live in different countries–have emailed to say they’ve either decided to step back from the freelance life or are toying with the idea of throwing in the towel on their freelance writing careers. The primary motivating factor for all of them is the lack of value, monetary and otherwise, that contemporary editors and their publications seem to be placing on “good” writing, favoring syndication and content mill models, which allow them to publish more “content” for less money.

Those models do exist, and they are depressing. They decrease the number of outlets available and they diminish the possibilities of making a living wage as a writer. They also contribute to the constricting availability of good, important writing, favoring instead the fatuous and vacuous, and this is the primary reason these friends are citing for getting out of the freelance game. “I only want to write important pieces,” one friend writes. “And if there’s no place for them, well….”

Well, what?

I agree that the current publication trends are terribly disheartening.

And, of course, I respect my friends’ decisions because they believe those choices are right for them.

But I also hope that I won’t see more friends and colleagues who are great writers throwing in the towel. For one thing, the sudden decline in the number of “important” pieces submitted may well lead editors and publishers to believe that no one’s really writing those pieces anymore, so why publish them anyway? As a result, readers might well simply settle for listicles and syndicated, generalist filler. It’s a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy that will occur because of our own unwillingness to resist the ever-advancing empire of page-click eye candy.

If we simply accept that that advance is inevitable and that resistance against it is futile, then we will have contributed to the publication landscape where significant work doesn’t have viability.

And then there’s this, which seems, but is not, a counterargument: Not everything is important, at least not in a capital “I” sort of way. I’d love more of my well-paid, published work to be thoughtful, “Important” essays with social significance, but I’m also entirely okay with the fact that my portfolio and my interests are incredibly varied. I’m interested in food and cocktails and art and family and science and a hundred other subjects, some of which simply don’t merit the kind of intensity and craft that a personal essay or in-depth, socially significant journalistic series requires. Besides, if your entire writing portfolio and career are wrapped around the intensely personal essay, there’s got to be an attendant–albeit eventual, perhaps–arc of awareness and maturation in your life and work. How many fraught essays can you write before the jig is up?

So I return to the position I’ve always held: the advocacy of diversification. Not just in interests and styles of writing, but in your income stream, too. We don’t have to concede to listicles and the content mill system. In fact, it behooves us to push back against it. But for many of us, we also need to say that we don’t have to plant a sole flag in one genre or topic. Our lives and interests are larger than that, and readers are richer for it.

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