4 Things You Learn Writing Online For Free

Words by: Jonathon Davidson
Image credit: Joe Issid

For reasons I’m still not entirely sure of, last year I started a small personal blog and joined the world of online writing. Nothing changed in my life at all, and in a lame way, everything did – in one action, I had become one of thousands of Australian writers in their early twenties trying to produce a ripple in the infinite ocean of the internet. Certain cynical types, like my Journalism lecturers, would probably scoff at my usage of the word ‘writer’: if you’re publishing it yourself or not getting paid, there isn’t much to help you evade being slapped with the shameful label of “blogger”.

If you self-publish and don’t get paid; I’m sorry buddy, but you’re out of luck. Here’s why:

4. You’re Probably Not A Very Good Writer

Stephen King wrote a fairly popular essay on learning to write in which his first stipulation is “be talented.” That’s pretty much it. Those are literally the only two words you need. It’s the single most inane piece of advice you can possibly receive and it is also the best. With this in mind it quickly dawned on me why most writers are neurotics. With a few good grades at uni confirming my ability to spin bullshit, I was under the assumption in mid-2014 that the level of interest I have for the things I say would be shared the same by everybody else. This isn’t the case.

The most brutal truth of writing for free is that you’re probably writing for free because you’re not good enough to significantly impress anyone. For sure, writing is an art, and nobody can produce perfect art on their first attempt, but you don’t need to be a savant to get paid. Of course, to be fair, that goes two ways – Yahoo and The West pay for some pretty atrocious articles. For most present day emerging writers, the first audience you ever research will be your friends. If you’re lucky, you will have a lot of friends who are regular web users and genuinely enjoy amateur writing. If you’re unlucky, like me, most of your friends will be more like normal people who avoid amateur writing like the plague.  You post a few pieces of creative fiction, a few local news articles. The views don’t go up.

That’s because the second most harsh reality of writing for free on the internet is that the entire thing is a popularity contest.

So what can you do?

3. You Will Behave Unethically

It’s easy to identify sensationalist writing and substantially harder to avoid producing it. Only when you realise that people aren’t going to care about your social commentary – after you’ve written 1000 words of it – do you discover how goddamn tempting it is to knowingly misdirect an audience. At best, your lack of research and general disposition lead you to vaguely exaggerate. Slightly worse, you may deliberately omit sources that force you to change your argument. At worst, you can reference those sources that force you to change your argument and frame them as if they are sensationalised; a writing method also known as political speechwriting.

I’ve been writing hobby journalism for like, seven months, and I’ve already breached about half of the MEAA codes of ethics. Essentially every image I’ve ever uploaded has been somebody else’s, which I have addressed by lamely affixing the photographer or organisation’s name underneath. See above. Writing a disclaimer does not make it legal whatsoever, and the fact that I’ve never approached anyone to ask for image rights either is probably a further indicator of this. But then again I’m not making commercial gain, so maybe the everyman still has access to the power of the loophole.

Time will tell but for the present, if I ever get sued, you’ll find me in a tent on Rottnest.

2. You Will Confuse And Annoy Almost Everyone

Wait. You don’t get paid?”

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard this, well – I still wouldn’t be getting paid I suppose, but I’d have a shitload of dollars. There’s a moment of strange, transient shame when someone who thought you were getting paid realises that you don’t. You are placed into a category of people alongside those who mow the lawn at 3am, or start using Isagenix – lost souls wasting time at no benefit to themselves. Acquaintances at parties will no longer ask you how you have been, they will apologise to you for not reading whatever they last saw you promote on your Facebook or Twitter. “I didn’t get the time to read it because of work, but I will. I love your stuff.”
If you want to experience the spirit crushing monotony of a middle-aged dinner party buzzing with career insecurities in your twenties, simply tell people you’re a self-start-up writer.

And let’s not forget the spam. Whether you like it or not, Facebook is this generation’s community noticeboard. Literally the only way you are going to get noticed is by advertising yourself over social media, unless you keep a physical audience of readers locked underground somewhere in a den, and the logistics of that on a volunteer’s budget aren’t viable. You’re quickly going to piss off a lot of people, fast. I’ve received a number of personal messages and emails ranging from understanding criticism to psychotic abuse over some of the things I’ve written, a number of the latter category from good friends. Furthermore, what you think is going to be a controversial statement is almost never controversial. Instead, you will strike your readers’ nerves with your misrepresentations of outstandingly benign or obscure topics. At this point I’m lucky to have five friends on Facebook left who haven’t chosen to hide my posts.

And a side note: if you’re the kind of person who has their confidence easily damaged, never provide a link to your work on a forum where users are anonymous. You will get torn to shreds by emotionally damaged users of that community and they will remember you. Perhaps this is why many volunteer writers operate under pseudonyms. I, on the other hand, have no problem making my rivalries public. Case in point: fuck you, Narutoboi_12.

Fear not though, for…

1. You Will Learn To Navigate A World Of Criticism

This is the feel-good final entry where I bring all the pos vibes home, which I’ve sort of trapped myself into doing because it’s the only logical way this article can end.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Two months ago, I was a staunch advocate against list-based articles. I dislike them for everything is stripped down to its bare minimum: Title, hook, supporting hyperlink. Title, hook, supporting hyperlink. Title…so it goes on. Yet here I am concluding a list-based article. ‘Why’, you probably didn’t ask?

What I’m trying to say is volunteering as a writer online makes your skills stronger, mainly through humility. There is definite healthy catharsis in complete and total failure, assuming that success is notoriety opposed to money. When you spend a few days on an article that only one person views for 20 seconds before leaving a comment saying “don’t quit your day job dickhead”, you somehow become stronger. Sure, you can choose to use this experience to confirm your belief that you should give up. But you can do with it the opposite, too.

Slowly, you realise that the number of people who read your writing is dependent on dozens of independent variables occurring at any one moment, all completely out of your control. Having an article go viral is as much up to luck as it is to anything else – unless you’ve got a bunch of your parents’ cash and a social media manager. But even then, luck is the name of the game. You are only ever one popular public opinion away from being either the voice of a movement or an obsolete, desperate hack.  So, to all emerging writers making no money, I say to you keep doing what you do. Chuck Palahniuk wrote the following sentence, which has stuck with me for some number of years. “Humiliation is humiliation only when you choose to suffer.”