What Are They Smoking?

jointA member of the American Medical Writers Association freelance listserve recently posted this help-wanted ad from Craig’s list:   

“We’re looking for an experienced analyst/wordsmith to make sense of the health care bill. We will pay a per-project fee for a  qualified writer to put some hard work into summarizing the bill in an 8-10 page white paper. We have a strong preference for individuals with a background in Sociology, Policy Research, Health Care, or  statistical analysis. Above all – however – you should have some  clippings to point us to so we can evaluate your writing chops.

As you can see, this report will include a lot of information, but it’s important that you are succinct and clear in your prose. Think of it as a detailed study done by a respected think tank, but
produced for the average consumer.”

The “fee” (and I use the term loosely) for this “detailed study”? $100. Which wouldn’t even cover the cost of toner to print out the full bill for reading!

Hence the title of this blog.

The people behind this posting are not the only ones smoking something, however. Content sweatshop Demand Inc has also been trolling for writers, offering what amounts to a few pennies a word for churning out short articles on topics that a mathematical equation has determined will bring in the most web page visitors, spiking ad revenue. The sad part is that thousands of my fellow freelancers have taken up the challenge, earning, if they’re lucky, about $20 an hour (before taxes and with all expenses out of their own pocket). Most earn far less.

I’m reminded of the scene in the classic Great Depression tome, The Grapes of Wrath, when the Joad men find that by the time they arrive at  a job site, the promised hourly pay has dropped significantly because so many other hungry men were willing to work for even less–some for just a roof and a meal.

Is this what writing is coming to? Is there no recognition of the skill required to turn disparate facts into compelling prose? To research a topic to find the hidden gems? To conduct interviews with scientists, doctors and other experts and then translate their jargon into something someone actually wants to read–and can actually understand?

As my AMWA colleague and fellow freelancer Bruce Wilson noted in a recent posting:

The same market forces that devalue writers and journalists allow Wall Street bankers to pocket billions after bankrupting the economy and providing absolutely no value to society at all. Are we supposed to get over that as well?

A skilled, experienced medical writer is worth what he or she can provide society – high-quality, accurate research manuscripts, medical education, and other documents. The work of medical writers saves lives and prevents illness. To say that has it no inherent monetary value is to accept the insane view that money has no relationship to social value and that it should be allowed to do what it wants. It’s that view that got us into the mess we are in today.

The only way writers are going to be able to stem this “race to the bottom” is by refusing to play. I understand that it’s tough out there; I understand that millions are unemployed and will jump at anything. But if you’re freelancing you’re not unemployed; you are your own boss and you can determine your salary. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: You get what you pay for, particularly when it comes to good writing. Writers of America, stick together and prove it!

Your thoughts?

22 Responses to “What Are They Smoking?”

  1. Wendy Meyeroff

    One of the first comments says “Editors want to see quality clips”…but unfortunately that's not necessarily true.

    I've been writing for both clinical and consumer audiences for over 20 years AND teaching freelancing (non-fiction) magazine writing for almost that long. There are way too many outlets beyond Demand where everyone from individual entrepreneurs to major corporations to media outlets are looking for low cost, not quality. Venues like Freelance Daily and Direct Freelance, job banks at Editorial Freelancers or AMWA, are just some of the places where the requests are thoroughly unrealistic–and yet there's always someone willing to do the work.

    Places I used to steer students to get started no longer pay. “Front of book” outlets now get postings from housewives, business execs and others for free.

    And the standards for health journalism have almost totally disintegrated. That's another lecture I can give you another 10 paragraphs on…but I'll spare you. 🙂

    I'd like to see, maybe on some of the LinkedIn sites, postings of where are the good outlets. What skills do you need? How DO you get work if you're not a PhD, RN, or whatever? (That was always my greatest struggle and a battle I still regularly fight.)

    Look forward to hearing more, not just here but on sites like AWMA, Medical Marketing, Writers/Editors. Thanks, Deb, for confirming the downturn isn't just our imaginations.

  2. Star Lawrence

    “Pearls before swine” world? It's more like a “good enough” world or “I can't tell the difference” world. I used to get Texas Monthly for some reason–never found out why, some crossed wite. I don't know anyone in Texas, but I read every word–more than I even used to read of Washingtonian–and I used to write for Washingtonian. Why? Because the writing in Texas Monthly is wonderful–sucks you right in. Yet, I see people trying to START publications who want free work to try to attract advertisers and readers. It's all crazy-nuts these days! And don't forget my stupid wasps–the bug, not the snob. We needed to get rid of some and everything on the internet was recycled goo about putting out a pop bottle full of sugar water so they would climb in. They don't want to climb in, people! We are so polluting the useful info pool that is just about a cesspool these days!

  3. Debra

    I'm afraid you are all too right, anonymous. Very very sad.

  4. Anonymous

    There have been several comments which (to me) seem to relate to quality. And unfortunately they just remind me of the quote from H.L. Mencken, “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” I've seen it also quoted as “underestimating the taste.”

    But either way, it seems to explain the selling of a great number McDonald's hamburgers, and the watching of almost anything on television . . . and the buying of cheap and poorly-grounded writing instead of asking for, nay, demanding quality work.

    Do they even know the difference? Or are these hirers the same ones who think things are “awesome.” And who think it's spelled definately? And who (probably) don't know what an acronym is, and who now think that Nasa is a word but don't know where it came from.

    Saying that a “skilled, experienced medical writer is worth what he or she can provide society” is true, but only for a society which is capable of appreciating what is being provided.

    Are we now moving farther and farther into a “pearls before swine” sort of world? A world where a lengthy and well-written article will be, or may be, pushed aside and not read? But the quick “5 things that will help you sleep better” will be read?

    You tell me.

  5. Anonymous

    Deb – Nice work. You have captured my recent ire over Demand/Livestrong word-for-word. I, too, was thinking that this is just like the Grapes of Wrath economics. The only thing that has kept me from getting completely irritated with these writer mills is that I can't imagine anyone actually reading them – but the fact that they're expanding into “legit” media is kind of scary. – Eric Metcalf

  6. Alisa Bowman

    Oh, you get what you pay for. $100???

  7. David Appell

    > Why do people pay $16 for a Kobe
    > hamburger versus $1 for a McDonald's
    > hamburger. Is the quality better?

    Yes, but there are a lot more McDonald's hamburger's sold than Kobe beef hamburger's. That is to say, people do not put as high a value on quality as you seem to suggest.

  8. Deb Gordon

    to mark:

    I've noticed the same trend. It's part of the “anyone can write if you know the material” mindset. Read the post http://debragordon.blogspot.com/2009/11/you-need-me-you-really-do.html for more on this.

  9. Deb Gordon

    To Annie. ..

    Sad, isn't it? (love your website!)

  10. Annie

    I thought it was bad enough that freelance rates had stayed flat for so many years… I had begun to wonder if there was something immutable about $1/word. Little did I know that it would get even worse. I appreciate your post.

  11. Mark

    Thanks for this fantastic post. At the other end of the spectrum, I've noticed a disturbing trend over the past year or so: Suddenly potential clients are requiring writers with MDs or PhDs for jobs that quite frankly don't require that level of education. In many cases I have done very similar jobs with my MA in English and 15 years of medical writing experience. I've applied anyway, only to be shot down for not having the “minimum requirements.” I want to know who all these MDs are, in particular, who went to medical school and did a residency only to end up making what we do as medical writers (which seems to be getting worse by the looks of it). Has anyone else noticed this trend?

  12. Deb Gordon

    Now, why didn't I think of that? The day the Medicare drug benefit covers medical marijuana is the day I promise to eat my computer.

  13. Marc Wright

    Fantastic that you chose a photo of two patients sharing medical cannabis. Does a great job of illuminating the fact that a major flaw in the healthcare bill is its failure to mandate reimburseability of medical marijuana. Good for you, Deb!

  14. Deb Gordon

    David. . Yes, I do because they would get a writer who really understood how to do this type of analysis versus someone who will probably just cut and paste. In fact, I can't imagine they're going to get anyone to take this one for $100.

    Why do people pay $16 for a Kobe hamburger versus $1 for a McDonald's hamburger. Is the quality better?

  15. David Appell

    > I've said it before and I'll say it again:
    > You get what you pay for,

    Deb, suppose the client was willing to pay $5K for this report, instead of $0.1K. Do you really think the writing and would be 50 times better?

  16. Star Lawrence

    And don't forget–if you accept Pay Pal, you pay the commission. I have been writing about this for years and at first, everyone called me a dinosaur and a dope, but I saw–felt–this coming. I have been TOLD by reputable trades that they are lowering their rates. Surprise, surprise. I fired a client for not reimbursing my Pay Pal. I wasn't worth $10–well, back at ya! Call me crazy. We have to stand tall here. Thanks for writing this, Deb.

  17. Dr Natasha Das

    Thanks for this, Debra.

    This is one side of the coin. There is another, which is of equal if not of a larger concern. I am astonished at how many writers do the job without paying the slightest notice to their ethical responsibilities as writers.

    I was discussing with a client about a project. This one seemed to be paying well for a rather easy job. However, I had to turn down the project because the sample they wanted me to follow was highly plagiarized. If a communication firm thinks highly of a document that is of poor quality to my understanding, I am sorry I am not doing that project with them, no matter how well they pay.

    Let's stick to quality. Money will come on its own. There are clients who will appreciate good work. You can ask for a good pay only if you can assure that your work will be of the best quality.

  18. Deb Gordon

    Sara, Livestrong IS Demand Media. The scary part is that traditional media outlets like the Atlanta Journal and Constitution is starting to use this content!

  19. Sara Altshul

    Wow, Deb. You nailed this so beautifully. I'm shocked at how many writers I know supply copy to Demand and other pay-nothing sites like Livestrong (doesn't Lance Armstrong have a gabillion dollars or so?) Since you can't pay the rent on cents-per-word wages, why bother? And to all you newbies out there who think the experience is worth the low pay: think again. Editors want to see quality clips, not poorly-researched web quickies.

  20. Amanda Strong

    Great post on a very important topic. I'm seeing it come up more and more as a discussion topic among freelancers and even small communications business owners. I'm glad it's being discussed. The best thing we can do is educate our clients, unite and stick to our rates. Thanks for this.

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