Essays and Notable Articles

Dispatches From the Content Factory: On the Rise and Fall of the New Creative Class

By posted at 6:00 am on July 16, 2015 25


Seattle’s $15/hour minimum wage law went into effect this year, albeit at an incremental pace; this is good news for the city’s wait staff and other hourly workers. It leaves out, however, an entire class of ostensibly white-collar workers whose base pay adds up to less than the mandated minimum. At the time the law passed, I worked as a copywriter for an online retail company there (no, not THAT Seattle-based online retailer). My salary, which came out to $17.74 an hour, was among the highest in my department, where most of my colleagues made less than $15 an hour.

“I should just go work at Starbucks,” my fellow copywriters grumbled.

“Grocery stores are better,” someone said.

Hank, a lanky creative writing major with a taste for comic books, nodded thoughtfully. He worked extra shifts at Trader Joe’s on nights and weekends. Many of my coworkers had second jobs. “The guys who stay at TJs, they make good money after a while,” he said.

We sat in rows on the ground floor of a building still undergoing renovations. Just outside our windows, freight trains rumbled by, obscuring a partial view of the waterfront. Lined up end-to-end beneath the occasional cheery poster were the region’s English majors, writing, collectively, thousands of product descriptions each day. More seemed to join us each week: all aspiring journalists, authors, academics, critics, playwrights, and poets, all hopeful of joining a vaguely-imagined Creative Class.

“We have to stop hiring people with master’s degrees,” my new manager complained to me during a meeting. “They just don’t stay.”

“I have a master’s degree,” I told her. To her credit, she blushed.

Indeed, I have an MFA in Creative Writing, a degree of dubious commercial value. In the age of “content creation,” however, it showcases an essential commodity: the ability to write fluently in conversational English with a minimum of errors. Our work at the online retailer would surely have been outsourced, were it not for the difficulty of finding this particular skillset.

When I was in high school, I thought I would be a journalist or an editor. This was the ’90s. I had grown up watching romantic comedies about magazine editors and had the idea that I would live in New York and make a living with words. I loved my Sassy magazine subscription. Even in the mid-2000s, when I was in graduate school, I thought I might be able to “make it” as an instructor of writing until I got a book deal. Either that, or I’d work in publishing. I’d get grants. I’d be an arts writer of some kind — didn’t museums need newsletters? No matter what, I’d pursue my passion for writing through meaningful work. I had no idea that this dream was fast becoming obsolete.

I know these dreams are not unique to me, and I don’t believe I’m uniquely entitled to rewarding work. I understand that the baristas and bus drivers and nannies of the world — many of whom are my friends and relatives — cannot afford to think this way. Then again, I can’t really afford to think this way, either. With two graduate degrees between us, a prestigious undergraduate education and solid work experience, my partner and I still live mostly paycheck-to-paycheck. Hence, my foray into the world of corporate “content.”

Content: that ubiquitous term. What is it? Photos, videos, headlines, “click bait,” long-form articles, anything to keep a website looking fresh, anything that might go viral, anything that might cause someone to open an email or follow a link. At my old job, content was mostly descriptive writing: what is this product, and why do you want it? A separate team wrote catchy emails. The company needed a small army of people who could write complete sentences in English, as well as use diction and syntax that conveyed a certain warmth and authority. They did not, however, want to put much effort into training or paying anyone to do this.

A coworker and I found ourselves shoulder-to-shoulder with two men from the finance department one day, as we shared the elevator up to our new floor.

“What do you guys do?” They asked us.

“We’re in the copy department,” we answered.

They glanced at each other. “The coffee department?”

My coworker and I laughed. It was a joke, wasn’t it? A corny, New Yorker cartoon-style joke.

But no. They smiled gently. “That’s so cool that we have an actual coffee team.”

“COPY,” my coworker nearly shouted. “We write the words on the site? All the words.”

The finance gurus shrugged. They hadn’t even stopped to wonder where those words came from: those millions of nouns, verbs, and adjectives (but not too many adverbs!) that had been strung together and pumped onto the site each morning.

The job entailed no interaction with clients or with vendors. We were given product information from the buying teams, often badly formatted and difficult to decipher. We mined this for essential selling specifications, typed these up cleanly, and whipped out a two-sentence description of the item. Nothing more, nothing less. The job did require critical thinking, however, as we attempted to decipher the information given to us: was this table really 10 inches high by 10 inches wide? Was the dress made of 90 percent cotton and 10 percent “twig?”

Initially known for selling children’s products, the company had expanded to offer women’s clothing, home goods, and pretty much anything else it thought might appeal to “mom” (their self-declared target demographic), as it pursued the holy grail of growth. My division wrote copy for all non-clothing items, from bedding to party favors, furniture to sporting goods. I wrote copy about electric lawnmowers, artisan spoons, oil paintings, flower bulbs, dog collars, math books, and pogo sticks. Most hated was anything “décor,” which generally meant oddly shaped candleholders, sets of wire baskets or tables too small to be useful. Anything stained, rusty, or splintered was called “distressed” or “vintage.”

Once in a while, I got to write about well-known children’s books. Then, I wanted to take my time, to describe beloved characters or zany illustrations, but that would have been an indulgence. One-size-fits-most descriptions had to do.

The workload crept up steadily. When I started, we often wrote between 60 to 85 descriptions a day, but this had risen to an average of 120 when I left. Though it was a salaried position, one had to finish one’s queue each day, so writers regularly stayed late. Sure, we had health insurance, which was often trotted out as a perk we shouldn’t take for granted. Also, they gave out one beer per person, one Thursday each month. Beyond that, there was little recognition for the breakneck pace and little opportunity to grow.

And yet the job was desirable. I sat in on many interviews, given the retention rate, and watched eager young graduate after eager young graduate attempt to describe their career goals. They were English majors who had written theses about postcolonial poetry and they were communications majors who had written for their campus newspapers, and now they were so desperate for a job you could smell it on them. One interview was with the heavyset, visibly sweaty editor-in-chief of his college weekly. His resume revealed that since graduation he had held a series of unpaid internships. My supervisor asked him if he’d take the Tuesday-Saturday, 1-9:30 p.m. schedule (the least desirable by far). He accepted immediately. He accepted the lowest pay grade, as well. Beyond his facility with language, his desperation was his most desirable quality.

I don’t intend to bemoan the value of a degree in the humanities. If anything, I wish there were more quantifiable value attached to it, as I fear such educational choices are becoming the sole province of the elite.

Concerned about the cost of high turnover, or perhaps just to keep a closer eye on the unruly creatives, the leadership brought in former Starbucks store managers. Ours knew nothing about writing, and loudly announced that fact on the regular, as if it were hilarious. As a result, she leaned heavily on the three leads who had done the job and could speak to its complexities when higher-level management swung by or pulled us into meetings. She made much more money than us, of course.

There were a few lead copywriter positions, which paid in the mid-to-upper-30s, and were tasked with training and quality control. I was shortly promoted to one, given my relative wisdom (at 32, I was nearly a decade older than many of my colleagues) and my background as an adjunct instructor, a profession from which I’d fled in search of greater stability and profit. As a lead, I was in the dismal situation of trying to maintain morale while also policing quality. I quickly discovered that even the ability to write error-free was not a given. Comma splices, dangling modifiers, and capitalization errors abounded.

There is an art in achieving a highly readable piece of copy that maximizes character count. I counseled my writers in this every time I gave a quality review. I also tried to emphasize the importance of accuracy. Hank rushed through reams of products featuring sports team logos and regularly mis-typed essential information: “men’s” instead of “women’s,” for instance. He’d nod when I pointed this out and promise to pay more attention, but we both knew that it didn’t really matter. During my quality reviews, more often than not, we complained together about the tension between quality and quantity. Where was his incentive for doing his best work? And where was my incentive for reviewing said work?

I loved my team. My writers were quirky and prickly, yet quick to laugh. They held bourgeois passions for great food, travel, and literature, though they could little afford to indulge any of these interests. To keep ourselves entertained, we circulated daily emails with questions about favorite books and bands or embarrassing childhood stories. A millennial sense of humor pervaded, from irreverent gifs to an easy melding of online lingo with academic and pop culture references.

On my first day, my neighbor, who sported a sassy pixie cut and a wry smile, muttered to me, “I just can’t stand ellipses. They’re so slutty.” She wrote pithy reviews of television shows on the side, and made irreverent jokes at meetings. The new management disliked her; she didn’t display “company values.” Fortunately, she found a new job as an executive assistant before they could rout her out.

That writer led the creation of a weekly worst-of-the-worst contest that featured photos of the most bizarre products the team had written about: terrifying cornhusk dolls, t-shirts that read “Trophy Wife,” a decorative pillow featuring an image of Lady Godiva and the word YOLO stitched beneath. We were filtering through the detritus of the retail world, forced to examine every image in an attempt to describe it for a smartphone-wielding shopper.

All the while, the company grew at an exponential rate. It went public while I was in its employ. We hunched-over copywriters were marched down to the second floor, given a small cupcake, and made to watch the events at the stock exchange unfold on screen. For most of us, the value of the stock meant very little, unless we were one of the few employees to have started in the first year or so. Meanwhile, the CEO brought home a salary in the tens of millions of dollars.

Most of my writers made around $28,000 a year, which is laughably low in a city with extremely high rents. Most justified this by assuming they’d acquire a useful line on their resume. Most became deeply resentful within a few months. A plethora of indignities piled up. We moved to a building under construction; for a while our floor had no water cooler or coffee machine, which had been major perks in the old space. Loud buzzing, sawing, and clanging sounds echoed through the space. Dust and detritus fell from the ceiling. Once, a pipe above us burst.

The new location entailed very expensive parking or long walks from the train station; neither aspect was subsidized by corporate. In fact, changes to the benefits plan meant that employees had to choose between setting aside pre-tax funds for transportation or for health care, not both. One copywriter wrote to the VP of human resources asking about help for transportation and was told that they were sorry, but they understood if some employees simply couldn’t afford to work downtown.

We were all replaceable and we knew it. Behind us stood an army of graduates with too much student debt and parents asking about the utility of their degree in the humanities.

Not surprisingly, everyone was applying for other jobs. I served as a reference several times. Some writers stayed only a few months before leaving for greener pastures. The lucky ones scored better-paying work in the field, while others left for contract positions, increasingly ubiquitous in the tech world. I was torn: was my position, with its low pay, better than a shorter-term contract in which I’d make more money? At least I had the stability, I told myself.

Then I got pregnant. It was intentional, but I didn’t anticipate just how difficult it would make my prospects for staying on the job.

Because of the high cost of childcare, I asked for a raise. My salary would have only allowed me to break even. I figured that with $5,000 more a year, I could make it work. I was told this was impossible. I asked if it would be possible to come back part time for six months or so, and was denied. I asked if I could do some work from home, as the writing can be done from anywhere, and was told “no.”

In the end, I went back to being an adjunct English professor at a local community college. Despite the well-documented injustices that adjuncts face, the position was preferable, as it gave me more time at home.

It’s likely I will again venture into the world of corporate writing when my son is older, given the dismal job outlook in higher education. I’ve heard of much better situations than the one I have described here, and I’m grateful that the network of connections gained at my former job might help towards landing me in one. That network remains the best thing about the entire experience.

I can appreciate the myriad ways the Internet has revolutionized our lives. Seattle’s growth is testament to the Web 2.0 economy, certainly. But who benefits from that economy? What options lie between the newly better-paying service jobs and the CEOs? If we are not baristas, then we are huddled on the ground floor writing about polyester dresses made in China.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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25 Responses to “Dispatches From the Content Factory: On the Rise and Fall of the New Creative Class”

  1. Inês
    at 6:59 am on July 16, 2015

    This was very interesting and important, and slightly sad, too. I really enjoyed reading it, thanks for writing and sharing it.

  2. Lydia Kiesling
    at 1:49 pm on July 16, 2015

    This is really well done. My two cents as a comp lit major: many decent writing jobs are actually disguised as other jobs (jobs like program manager/coordinator, marketing or fundraising roles, etc.). Those are the jobs wherein the newsletters mentioned above are produced (or grant proposals, donor reports, website copy, case statements, etc.). The problem is that while those jobs require very strong writing skills, it’s difficult to get a foot in the door without some other demonstrable field-specific competencies (whether or not they are actually necessary for the job). It’s not enough to be “only” a writer/English major–you’ve got to be a writer/English major who also has built up some experience in publishing, or affordable housing, or museum studies, or international education, or wildlife conservation, or what have you.

    I’m not saying that this is a fair system, just that English majors and writers should be advised to cover their butts by diversifying as best they can, and finding corresponding areas of interest wherein they may be able to deploy their skills for money. Because most jobs that actually have “writer” in the title seem to be terrible, as evidenced above.

  3. David Roberts
    at 8:14 pm on July 16, 2015

    Well written and well observed. I wish people like the author could be teachers of our children and be appropriately compensated.

  4. Leila Sewell
    at 10:57 pm on July 16, 2015

    This story! This story! I don’t even know you and I am indignant about this job.

    You said that you were teaching and raising a young child at the moment, but I wondered if you had considered switching into technical writing? I have found it to be interesting and lucrative work, and I’ve always been able to find a new position when I needed one–some corporate, some freelance. It might be another option for you.

    Anyway, I hope you find rewarding work (in both senses)!

  5. Someone who works there
    at 11:28 pm on July 16, 2015

    Thank you, Irene. We appreciate this so, so much.

  6. Greg
    at 9:49 am on July 17, 2015

    Great piece. Thank you for writing.

  7. Former Coworker
    at 1:35 pm on July 17, 2015

    Thanks for taking it to them, Irene. It was a pleasure working with you and we all benefited from your guidance and protection!

  8. il'ja
    at 2:41 pm on July 17, 2015

    “The finance gurus shrugged. They hadn’t even stopped to wonder where those words came from…” Finance Guru. Oxymorontopia.

    Great piece. Thanks for this; it resonates halfway ’round the world. And $15 an hour? Suhweeeet!

  9. Former Employee
    at 2:55 pm on July 17, 2015

    This was spot on! I can tell you things became even more grim as time went on. Our salaried positions turned hourly, OT was not approved and yet the workload increased. Sometimes we wrote 190+ descriptions a day. Then the firing started—lets call it a blessing in disguise. Thank you so much for writing this and sharing a part of your/our story.

  10. Kayla Williams
    at 4:35 pm on July 17, 2015

    Thank you.

  11. Hutch
    at 6:56 pm on July 17, 2015

    Thank you so much for this, as it really resonated. For what it’s worth, there’s a decent living to be made if you can pitch this sort of skill set in the marketing world, though you’ll be swimming upstream fighting against a plentiful pool of 24-year-old marketing graduates. The work is no less soul crushing or mentally stimulating, though. The entire profession of marketing is a long con by Corporate America to get some women at board room tables without actually giving them any power.

    I regret nothing about majoring in the journalism, as it has afforded me many opportunities to be creative and use the written word to affect change in the world around me over the last ~10 years. That’s more than most people can say. It was worth it even if left me in a professional purgatory in my 30s.

  12. heather curran
    at 10:37 pm on July 17, 2015

    My deepest sympathy goes to those who want to live their passion and pay ridiculously high tuitions fees in order to do so, then to be unable to find something in their field. I have been in a union job for 26 years with benefits and pension. My work is gruelling with 12 hour shifts and no down time but I am lucky enough to have money to spend on my passion: reading. I think it is so distressing for my young family members with their degrees working part time, minimum wage jobs. I worry for them. I will try to remember this article when I am stressing out over work bullshit.

  13. Stefano
    at 3:44 am on July 18, 2015

    Truth is the product descriptions are what the customers are actually buying.

    They’re not buying the products (because for an online retailer the products are just a bunch of pixels on a screen). They’re buying the descriptions, the words, the syntax, the meaning. That’s what’s generating the revenue. Not the executives, not the finance guys, not the managers. Not even the CEO.

    The descriptions are what create the sales and the customers. To treat the most important aspect of the business with such disdain is shameful and stupid.

    And irony of ironies, the writer as a mother is this company’s target market. The fact this company didn’t (and still don’t) want to pay her enough money to conceivably become a customer is borderline retarded.

    Even Henry Ford wasn’t that much of an idiot.

  14. Concerned Techie
    at 7:47 pm on July 18, 2015

    I’ve read article after article like this one. English majors with poor job prospects, tricked into getting an English degree after being sold a fraudulent picture of the media industry, lament their misfortune. As someone with many friends and relatives in the same situation, I deeply empathize. It’s a really unfair market and we – speaking for my in-group of people with technical skills – are systematically treating people in these roles with little to no dignity. The IPO scene was particularly wrenching; it’s already hard enough to listen to corporate BS when one *does* have stock options. I can hardly imagine being forced to sit through a “party” where the main message was “our success brings you no benefit, but your status is so low that you must pretend to celebrate it regardless”.

    That said, this is a perfectly rational market response. Compared to the demand for writing skill, there is a vast and unending torrent of supply, as the author here has observed.

    I think it’s worth examining why there is so much supply. When faced with the choice of a major, everyone in college is already literate. So this is the easy, default option. Undergraduates selecting a major look around at popular media, perhaps fondly recalling their subscription to “Sassy” (which, I should note, is now defunct), and think “there must be pretty good job prospects in this field”. Or they watch a TV show like “Castle” and think “writers can get rich, I can do that!”.

    Upon entering the major, class after class encourages budding literature or communications or creative writing students to consider the skills they are acquiring to be specialized, and, after a fashion, technical; especially in Masters or PhD programs. They watch their peers in engineering, medicine, or law, going through a superficially similar process. The whole social structure of university is designed to promote some notion of parity between all the fields.

    Most schools don’t require creative writing majors to learn any chemistry, biology, physics, or programming, but every engineering and science student has to participate in mandatory writing courses, because the process of getting a degree in any of these fields involves a tremendous amount of reading and writing. So almost every degree is “writing plus X” whereas creative writing or literature or communications is “just writing”. The general perception that an English degree is “lesser than” is, unfortunately, *true*.

    And that brings me to *why* popular culture produces so many romantic comedies about novelists and magazine editors and copywriters. Because they make their living with a skill that we *all have* to some degree – reading and writing words – they make an excellent Everyman template character. Everyone watching the movie, even kids, can vaguely understand what their work must be like. If the main character is an experimental biochemist, we have to just have a lot of establishing shots of shelves full of test tubes containing glowing vaguely-described liquids and hope that the audience gets the gist.

    Even if you love words, even if your passion is writing, going to school for “english” is a tremendous waste of time and money. If you have made this mistake, your best bet to get out of it is not to try to crack the code of the professional writing class. There isn’t one; it’s a mythology perpetuated by television. A better strategy is to acquire some other skills. Web design and computer programming are two that are very close to writing, surprisingly easy to learn, shockingly in-demand, and commensurately well-compensated. Certainly, anyone smart enough to make their way through a masters program in creative writing should be able to pick up the basics of JavaScript in two or three months’ worth of weekends.

    This does not mean giving up on writing lots and lots of words. *Most* of being a computer programmer – or, for that matter, any kind of technical person working on a team to produce something – is actually writing. Writing to explain how something works to another member of your team, writing to explain your plans for the future to management, writing to communicate the important aspects of your product to customers. If you love writing, you will not suffer for a shortage of it. And if you are a person with really exemplary communication skills as well as some technical skills, your team will almost certainly come to rely on you heavily, because although many technical people are really great communicators, a lot of them really don’t *enjoy* doing that kind of work. Plus, although writing about how your view state controller connects to the model event emitter might be duller than writing the great american novel, it’s not like it’s *that* much worse than having to come up with an adjective other than “rustic” because this is the fourth tetanus-inducing product you’ve had to describe today and it’s getting repetitive.

    I’m submitting this comment anonymously because if I were to write about this on my own blog, under my own name, I’d have to suffer being pilloried by people with soft skills who think I’m denigrating their worth as people rather than their economic prospects, as well as the worse consequence of being “defended” by gross tech bros who think they’re the kings of the world because they have a skill set that happens to be in-demand right now. I remember the crash of the early 2000s, and I am looking forward to seeing some of them be unemployed.

  15. Hank
    at 5:14 pm on July 19, 2015

    The striking thing in this piece is that the job is not valuable enough to the company to keep people but it’s valuable enough to create the content the company needs.

    So, although the work appears to be valuable enough, the people aren’t.

    This is the important one, I don’t know whether the author noticed: she’s writing about all the things she and her colleagues would want to do if only they had the money for it. That is: they would be customers for goods and services other companies would be selling them if they could afford to buy them.

    Thousands of companies are missing out on the revenue they could be making if the people that would be their customers made enough money to buy the product. How is that for a self-defeating cycle?

  16. Bookfox
    at 11:59 pm on July 19, 2015

    This was a really powerful piece. It made me really sad to read, but boy did I empathize. I worked for a decade as adjunct faculty before I finally flew the coop (also to raise children). I am so glad that I got out.

    In many ways I felt trapped in a lower-class of academia, but it seems that I would have been also trapped, just in a different way, in corporate life.

    Once my twin boys enter school, I have to figure out what to do. I’m certainly not going back to adjuncting, but your article certainly makes copy writing look less than appealing.

  17. Sharpei Ideogram
    at 10:32 pm on July 22, 2015

    “I think it’s worth examining why there is so much supply. When faced with the choice of a major, everyone in college is already literate.”

    LOL. Spoken like someone who has never taught an undergraduate writing course literally anywhere including Ivy League schools. I guess if you stretch “literate” to mean “being able to craft English-approximate sentences in paragraphs that don’t remotely hold together syntactically or rhetorically” then yeah, everyone’s literate.

    “Upon entering the major, class after class encourages budding literature or communications or creative writing students to consider the skills they are acquiring to be specialized, and, after a fashion, technical; especially in Masters or PhD programs. They watch their peers in engineering, medicine, or law, going through a superficially similar process. The whole social structure of university is designed to promote some notion of parity between all the fields.”

    I’d like you to examine the snobbery inherent in this sentiment, since you seem like a pretty self-aware person and a good writer to boot. There is no less thought or expertise involved in advanced degrees in English or Writing than there is in any other pursuit. Saying that just because most people can read and write to some extent means that a PhD in literature or CW is a soft option is like saying that just because most people can run and jump to some extent means becoming a pro basketball player is a soft option. In this same sense, the problem you’re correctly identifying has much more to do with what how many jobs there are for credentialled people. There simply are not many pure writing/publishing/academic jobs available for the amount of qualified people that want them (to continue the previous comparison, there are also not many NBA jobs for good basketball players, but you don’t see them being denigrated for trying to specialize in something that basically everyone can do). There are lots of technical jobs available for even mediocre programmers, but this has more to do with what our culture values than programming being a more inherently specialized field.

  18. Sharpei Ideogram
    at 10:40 pm on July 22, 2015

    I should say I found other parts of your comment on point and the whole thing entertainingly well-written, particularly “gross tech bros.”

  19. Sharpei Ideogram
    at 10:33 am on July 23, 2015

    Oh, one more thing:

    “And that brings me to *why* popular culture produces so many romantic comedies about novelists and magazine editors and copywriters. Because they make their living with a skill that we *all have* to some degree – reading and writing words – they make an excellent Everyman template character. Everyone watching the movie, even kids, can vaguely understand what their work must be like. If the main character is an experimental biochemist, we have to just have a lot of establishing shots of shelves full of test tubes containing glowing vaguely-described liquids and hope that the audience gets the gist.”

    The reason so many protagonists are writers is because the people writing the protagonists are writers. If what was required to produce a book was three years of solitary arc-welding, rest assured Henry Bech and Nathan Zuckerman (and Carrie Bradshaw, for that matter) would be arc-welders. Rather than feeling some obscure kinship, most people are, if anything, somewhat annoyed by this proclivity. “I don’t want to read anything about writers” is a sentiment that echoes far and wide across this land, even or especially among editors. You would be hard-pressed, in fact, to come up with something most people relate to less than sitting for hours trying to come up with a coherent, non-terrible page of literary fiction.

  20. Moe Murph
    at 11:08 am on July 23, 2015

    LOVED LOVED LOVED this whole essay, and especially loved the gal with the slutty ellipses! My tribe is writers and artists generally, and also those crazy, heart-breaking, musicians, who I think I favor most of all. I ignore most others (including those clueless duds from Finance – F ’em! all].

    Just a few thoughts from someone who gave this a lot of thought after escaping a crappy and violent marriage and deciding to dive into the fiction stuff, take it for what it’s worth, each person comes to his own solution but this was mine:

    I coldly eyed the choices and found the highest paying job (fiitting my non-writing aptitudes) that I could find. My needs included being able to leave each day at 5:30 p.m. with the assurance no one would bother me until 9:00 a.m. the next business day. These are NOT easy jobs to find! My employer is basically the law firm to Satan (clients include chemical waste dumps and gun manufacturers, etc.) which does gives one pause, but I try to think of them as my patrons, in the vein of a Borgia or a Medici of old.

    My employer generally fiercely refuses to pay us for more than 7.5 hours a day, and even for a critical deadlines, overtime authorization requires about 35 forms to fill out. My workload on a daily basis could easily fill 10-12 hours and I sometimes do a little more when absolutely unavoidable, but I have mastered the technical skills and developed killer strategies and checklists so am super fast. I ALSO hide vast quantities of filing in secret places, some piles dating from 2008, but no one has ever looked for them. Am great a faking it. I carry a small journal and if I have an idea (character detail, plot point, idea for query) I jot it down no matter what, I don’t care if the fire alarm is on or the building is hit by a tornado.

    I keep a small glass vase with a few flowers on my desk that I look at to remind myself of my creative dreams. With the exception of critical family needs of elderly parents, other than the 37.5 hours or work, about 7 hours of sleep, and a little for shopping, dressing, and cooking/eating, I write or think about writing. I try to get in about 40 -42 hours of effective work a week.

    At the moment, don’t socialize too much, maybe once or twice a month. Have a couple of confidantes (at all levels, one is actually the firm’s Media Director, who is my Partner in Crime and a great first editor). Otherwise keep myself to myself, and bear the idiots and their opinions of us minions with total indifference. I think of this life as “Money Life” but I truly live in what I call “Writer Life.”

    To close, I’ll give you a little outline of “Writer Life” –

    Up/Yawn/Write/Dress/Bus-Write/Work/Lunch-Write/Work/Bus-Write/Eat/Write/Sleep (Dream of plot holes)

    Good luck all you beautiful artists!

    Moe Murph

  21. Moe Murph
    at 11:31 am on July 23, 2015

    On a related note:

    [RE: David Roberts
    at 8:14 pm on July 16, 2015

    Well written and well observed. I wish people like the author could be teachers of our children and be appropriately compensated.]

    Some of the factors here (especially as expanded on by Mr. Roberts in comment above) relate to our country rather than our jobs (teaching, writing copy). I never forgot visiting a friend in Sweden, and being struck by the modest but comfortable townhome neighborhood she lived in. A bank manager and a nursery school worker lived side by side in identical homes. This was no accident. This was a direct product of social policies that, as implemented, taxed the bank manager much more than he would have been in the US (but also provided a broad array of social benefits as a citizen) and PAID the nursery school worker the equivalent of a $50,000 salary here. Sweden deeply values the work of childcare and teachers, and puts its money where its mouth is. The market is not undisputed king there.

    Moe Murph

  22. priskill
    at 11:26 am on July 24, 2015

    @Sharpei Ideogram:

    Thank you! Exactly right and beautifully stated — I kept waiting for someone to address the writing-as-soft-skill-anyone -possesses canard that dominates Concerned Techie’s interesting but flawed interpretation. I can skate — that don’t make me Kristi Yamaguchi. Excellent and measured response.

    I don’t know where CT went, but back in the day English majors were required to take a bunch of math/science/other domain classes before a degree was granted. The difference is I don’t consider myself a “geologist” or “mathematician” or “philosopher” just because I passed a couple of 101 courses. However, attainment of literacy hardly equals mastery, and certainly I saw this working with very smart engineers who struggled mightily with the written word. Everything they “wrote” had to be fed into the English Major Editing Consortium who worked full-time to make English out of weirdly engineered “writing.” Sure, they were literate — that don’t make ’em literary.

    And of course, those who translated the “English” into English were paid and respected less.

    Excellent reading all around, especially Ms. Keliher’s depressing piece.

  23. Angela Mer
    at 10:04 pm on July 25, 2015

    I am so over the disrespect for writers. Editors, too. And copywriting these days–especially in tech (and definitely in Seattle)–is a complete joke. The skill is simply not understood or valued, and companies often try to lump it in with roles comprising analytic tasks or a lot of cut-and-paste production work–almost as if a pure copywriter role wouldn’t be “valid” on its own. It is truly commonplace around here for designers and dev teams to come up with the copy, because “anyone can write.” Or, a copywriter title gets slapped on someone who’s done a bit of proof-reading. Geezus, people, you can’t sell ANYthing without proper communication — and a little creativity with good branding could take you so much farther. But … if your project manager or your dev dude or that kid right out of college working for cheap labor is writing copy — guess what — you’re probably not going to get the best results. Ahem. You might not get any results. Or the wrong results (ie: disgruntled customers). Ugh — and I’ve got to call out the designer/copywriter hybrid. Hey, I’m sure there are designers out there who can write. But guess what? Most designers are good at … design. And many of them would be content with a headline that fits perfectly in their template. Sigh. I know my point is probably mute amid a corporate culture that continues to embrace mediocrity as long as they can save a buck here or there — not to mention run on the backs of low-wage peons while protecting the interests of the uber-rich. That said, I greatly applaud the author of this article for her honesty and an extremely well written glimpse into the realities of today’s work world. I also think that she has provided valuable insight when it comes to the debate about living wage. I find it greatly troubling that the argument often used in opposition of a “livable wage” (aka the $15 hr movement) is that hey, well, there are graduate students and a lot of corporate positions (like content workers!) who are making that much. Helloooo – you can’t justify an unethical reality against another unethical reality. THE ENTIRE SYSTEM IS A MESS. How can it be okay that a few people at the top are regularly cashing out big-time while the majority of the working population struggles daily to survive. Hey, but there’s always the free cupcake now and then. Ha or all the free soda you can drink so you can work at lighting speed producing bad-quality work AND eventually get sick and do your share to boost those insurance costs for the company and the country. But that’s another whole mess. Good grief.

  24. Quilotoa
    at 10:30 am on August 10, 2015

    I’m so sorry to hear about this situation — sounds like you and your fellow writers were totally undervalued.

    But I assure you: There *is* better, more highly paid work out there for copywriters! I have a liberal arts undergrad degree and an MFA in creative writing, and I make close to six figures working primarily from home as a freelance copywriter. I’ve also written (and published) two books over the past ten years, and have two kids.

    I don’t mean to imply that my situation is typical, and I did start out as a full-time copywriter in the ad agency world, which is a different career path from yours, I think. But I know a lot of other copywriters who moonlight in creative writing who do corporate work directly with companies, via their marketing departments, or with ad agencies, or via creative staffing agencies, and are making decent money — even for the Boston area (where I live) which has an insanely high cost of living.

    Anyway. I know that none of this is simple, and getting your foot in the door is tough. I just feel the need to chime in to say that there are better paying (and much more satisfying and interesting) options out there for a good copywriter. Even one with an English degree. :-)

  25. just a cog in the machine
    at 8:07 pm on August 28, 2015

    Irene, I never worked with you personally but having been with the company for 3 1/2 years I have witnessed exactly what you wrote so eloquently about. While I have been promoted multiple times in my own department I saw so many good copywriters and photo editors leave for greener pastures because the quality and VOLUME of their work was not appreciated in a meaningful way (MONEY). It makes me sick to know my colleagues in supporting departments require food stamps to get by, even though they work 40 hours a week, or that they take second jobs because they cannot pay their rent and student loans on a FT corporate salary. Is writing mildly generic copy for thousands of products going to make anyone rich? No. But given the volume of SKUs you handle, the hours you put in, above and BEYOND your contractual 40 hours, it should at least keep the lights on at home, put food on your table and pay your student loans. FUCK THIS PLACE.

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