Aristic integrity versus the paycheck: the myth of art.

When you take a closer look at writing as a career path, there are literally dozens of branches to choose from these days. It used to be there were only a few clear-cut paths: journalism,  novel writing, poetry and writing plays. Then came the days of the silent film, and screenplay writing began its first little baby steps. Since silent films relied more upon stories told visually, novel writers were able to successfully write for producers because it was simply adaptations of their literary visions. Dialogue was not as important as the actual story, which was transposed onto the screen.

Then came the talking pictures. Novel writers began to fade back into their own little world and the industry found that screenplays were better written by journalists because they understood how to get the point across to an audience without a lot of flowery script getting in the way. They wrote clear, concise dialogue, because that’s what they were used to doing for their publications in the first place.

The industry continued to evolve. Enter the Internet, and suddenly dozens of branches split off the main trunk of the writing tree, spreading their boughs in all directions. There were no longer just a few branches; there was an entire tree, in full bloom.

These days there are any number of paths to choose from on the highway of writing. You can write screenplays, TV scripts, plays, magazine articles, work as a journalist for any number of publications around the world, write website content for yourself, for a third party, blog, write SEO articles, do rewrites for other companies…the list goes on.

But there are some – we’ll call them the Panicked Writers, or PW for short – who claim that all these various branches are diluting the quality of the written word and stripping the so-called “artistry” from the “craft”.

Let’s analyze this concept for a moment.

There are very few writers in this day and age who write purely for the passion or purely for the “artistic” integrity of a project. There are two different kinds of writers: those who are writing part-time aside from a real job because they want to see their name in print and enjoy writing (part-time writers), and those who are writing full-time for a living, and making an actual wage at their job, paying the bills and so on and so forth (professional writers who love their job even more than the part-timers). No one writes for the “art”. No one writes for the “passion”. They write to get paid, regardless of which branch of the writing tree they have scampered out upon. This is why you continually see rate debates not only in the freelance world, but also from the literary community and the fiction world. Everyone sends in their manuscripts/queries/screenplays/whatever to various publications in an attempt to earn a credit and a paycheck. Everyone wants to get paid for their words.

I am a professional writer. I do this for a living. It pays our bills, pays for our vacations, our hobbies, our investments, our lifestyle and our toys. To me, the most important aspect of my job is to bring a paycheck home so that I can put a roof over my family’s head and food on their table. Period. There is no other reason why I work.

Now, I love the written word. I’ve been chewing through novels and stories since I was a child, and I knew from the time I was still in my single digits that I wanted to be a writer. But here’s the thing: I don’t believe in artistic integrity. I don’t believe that writing has a “soul”, nor do I believe that there is anything to be diluted. There are only the needs of the audience or the needs of the client. In your quest to appease either the audience or the client you are going to be writing in a specific way to earn a paycheck and please the editors + readers. If this wasn’t true you wouldn’t be sending your work in for editors to look at and hopefully publish. You wouldn’t be querying. You would simply be writing in a journal for your own personal enjoyment, for your own artistic satisfaction.

Many of the artistic crowd claim that the Internet, and the rise of web content, has killed their baby, the written word. I disagree. The Internet didn’t kill the “art” of writing. The fact of the matter is plain and simple: artistic integrity is a lie. It doesn’t exist. It is a myth.

Now before you jump down my throat, actually look at the facts. Everyone wants to get paid for their time. Period. No one writes for free (or at least no one wants to write for free, thus the rate debate across the highways of writing and the continual attempts to get published). If artistic integrity was so all-important, there would be far more people writing purely for the “art” of writing, for the sake of writing the “perfect” prose, the “perfect” line of poetry, the “perfect” screenplay, the perfect sense of self-indulgence (which is all artistic integrity really is).

So now that we’ve gotten the fact that everyone wants to make money out of the way, we can move on. Literary works still exist, and there is still an audience for those works. For those individuals who want flowery prose to feel emotional over, there are literally thousand of publications on a worldwide basis that provide just that for their audience. But there is also another type of audience to think about, and that is the client/customer.

The client is interested in one thing: a product. Each client is different; each is unique. Each client has a different view on what they think is best for their business. Some want straight-forward content, some want rewritten Wiki content to simply flesh out their pages and to hell with the quality as long as it passes Copyscape, while others want SEO, which in some cases can read like it was chopped up in a meat-grinder before being hosted on the website if keyword padding is the only thing the client is after. Keyword density with some articles is so heavy that the articles read less like an actual article and more like exactly what they are…keyword-padded chunks of text. But, be that as it may, it is still a product that relies on the written word, which means it is technically still an aspect of writing. And since there is still an audience for it (see clients) then it still falls under the banner of actual, breathing words.

Anyone who works with the written word has the right to call themselves a writer. That means the guy writing keyword-heavy SEO articles has must as much right to call himself a writer as someone writing for The New York Times or some other publication. Both are working with the written word, and both are making a paycheck for their time.

So is there really any difference in the writer working on SEO and the writer who is authoring poetry or stories, or the more “artsy” projects?

Not in the least.

Which brings me to the crux of this article: should you be worrying about the PW (Panicked Writer) who claims you have no artistic integrity and are stripping the soul away from writing with your SEO content and other non-flowery-prose articles? Are you selling your artistic soul, or are you simply doing what every human being on the planet does: performing a task to earn a nut, which in turn provides for you and yours.

Let’s be realistic. Artistic integrity doesn’t put food on the table. It doesn’t pay the bills. It doesn’t provide for vacations and insurance and necessities. Artistic integrity is a warm fuzzy feeling that rests within your stomach, letting you know that what you wrote stirred some emotional response from the readers, or was in some way “beautiful”. Sure, it’s a nice feeling, but does it provide an actual, tangible side-effect that you can use to make your way through life?

Most of you (the readers who follow this blog) are professional writers in some way, and most of you understand that there is only one thing that really matters: the needs of your client. Clients are what pays the bills. Not flowery script (unless that’s what your client is after) meant to provoke an emotional response in readers. Clients want to know that you can deliver exactly what they want, when they want it, for a price they find affordable. That is your job. It doesn’t matter if you are writing SEO, rewrites off a web page or Wiki, health articles, golf articles, overviews on how to get rid of fleas for dogs, how to boil an egg, the airspeed velocity of a laden swallow, or how many pickles can you eat in an hour.

Your job is to sell yourself.  The most important thing any client wants to know about you is whether or not you can give them what they are paying for the first time around. That’s how you earn your paycheck. Clients want consummate professionals who put one thing ahead of anything else: delivery of a superior quality product on time, every time.

The value of the written word is purely dependent upon the audience. For some, artistic integrity is in SEO. For others, it is articles on how to boil eggs. For others it is a literary piece. Some prefer political essays or writing plays and films, while others prefer crafting science fiction. Each individual determines for themselves the value of the written word.

Another way to think of it is the way that Stephen King referred to talent in his On Writing book. “If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn’t bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.”

The next time a PW or any other critic tries to tell you that what you do for a living is somehow less than artistic, pay them no mind. Instead, look at your paycheck. That, in and of itself, is more than enough proof to the entire world that you are a professional who is writing for a living. That, and that alone, determines your reality. It doesn’t matter if some random individual on the Internet thinks you are stripping the value away from the written word; they are wrong. The artistic value of the project is directly related to your client and/or fan’s happiness with the end result. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.

Or in this case, your bank account.

T.W. Anderson is the founder of Complete Writing Solutions, and is a freelance writer specializing in travel writing, website content, interior design and home improvement, green-related topics, as well as anything else potential clients need him to be.

Posted in Freelance Writing 101 Tagged with: , , , , , , ,
8 comments on “Aristic integrity versus the paycheck: the myth of art.
  1. I’m not a PW. Not even close.

    At the same time, I do believe in artistry. Even if the client and audience don’t *demand* it, I like to provide it. The nature of that artistry may vary with the project but I’d like to think it’s there.

    I’ve long held the position that anyone who wants to call himself or herself a writer should feel free to do so. I’m with you on that and a number of other contentions in this post.

    I don’t think artistic integrity is a lie, though. I think it’s wildly subjective and nearly impossible to pin down, but it exists. At least it does for me.

    The other day I wrote a direct response letter for a furniture store. Trust me when I tell you that I could have met or exceeded expectations and collected the same check without trying a little harder, doing a little better and finding some kind of artistry in all of it. I wasn’t satisfied with that, though.

    I’m not panicked and I’m not some freakish writing elitist, but this is what I do and I want to make it matter to me–beyond the check. In my case, that means more than pounding it out and more than traditional measures of quality.

    Maybe I’m just delusional. :-)

  2. I wouldn’t call it delusional, but I think the important thing to note is that you liken quality to artistry, and that for you, it gives you that warm fuzzy feeling I first talked about when you go above and beyond for your client. It’s a personal thing, something that makes you feel like you did a good job, but I don’t think it really has anything to do with art.

    Let me give you an example: three individuals who are “artists”. One man paints stick figures. Another man sculpts human figures out of horse feces. The third is a traditional comic book artist.

    Each person is going to have his own unique group of followers. Some people will hate stick figures but love comic books. Others will think comics are too mainstream, stick figures too plain, and statues made of feces the perfect kind of abstraction. And while each individual artist may have their own personal “feeling” about the quality/artistry of their work, it is entirely dependent upon the audience/client what the actual value of that work is worth.

    At the end of the day everyone is worried about money, primarily, and making the client/audience happy. That warm fuzzy feeling in the stomach, which is different for each individual person, is what motivates most of us. But what you call art might be stick figures to another viewer, and so on and so forth. The paycheck is the one grounding reality in all of this: meeting the client’s expectations and earning that nut (nom nom nom).

  3. Lucy Smith says:

    I think every creative industry has its share of those who are doing it because it’s an enjoyable way to earn a living (like we are), and those who are doing it to feed their own egos. (Here, I’m thinking of those ‘ack-tors’ who never manage to rise above local amateur dramatics, or writers who go to Paris primarily to gaze forlornly to the street from a balcony.) It’s just how people are.

    They’re both there to do different things, both have different goals, and therefore a different kind of artistry is involved. I’m not sure that means that artistry doesn’t exist, it’s just a really subjective thing. But you’re right, artistic integrity doesn’t put food on the table. And selling your work doesn’t diminish artistic integrity, either. To me, artistic integrity is knowing you’ve done the best you can do and being satisfied with what you’ve achieved – which is pretty much what Carson just said.

    And re: the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow: African or European? 😉

  4. Hi Tim, I’m formerly abstractLatte (a now decaffeinated blog). Glad to see the blog and career are moving forward at a brisk pace.

    I am also a professional writer and I agree, writing as a profession is about a paycheck and client needs. If that includes creativity, great; if not, well, it’s still writing and is still about a paycheck. However, the “myth of art” describes what I’ve thought for a while: there really is no such thing as “art”.

    Art is such a ridiculous word. Art is creative communication and can be as much or as little as we want it to be. We’re all capable of being creative, whether that means using words, paint, sculpture, acting, video, dance, music, concepts, etc. When society classifies creativity as “art”, it suddenly becomes pretentious and loses functionality, real substance, and ultimately real value either as entertainment or as a stepping stone to improvement. After all, “art” isn’t about money and white-walled galleries…it’s about creativity and the communication of a message. Artistic integrity?…uh, yeah, I think integrity by itself is more important, especially when applied to communication. The word “art” is meaningless.

    When people stop applying words like “art” to creative jobs or activities, we’ll all better understand that creative communication comes in many forms, all of which means something different to everyone.

  5. Good to see you around again :)

    Absolutely agree….beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

  6. Zeth says:

    “So is there really any difference in the writer working on SEO and the writer who is authoring poetry or stories, or the more “artsy” projects?

    Not in the least.”

    It is clear that you have delusions of grandeur.
    People who write silly little articles & then think that they can mingle with the greats… doh!
    Stick to your day job… posing for photo shoots no doubt 😉

  7. Hi, Zeth.

    Thankfully, I have an entire resume and bank account available which prove my points precisely :) Don’t believe me? There’s a list of testimonials on the website + a bio page, and if you would like my full resume you are more than welcome to a copy. Just head over to my LinkedIn Profile and feel free to browse!

    Since I’m sure you are an educated fellow who has taken the time to read the breadth and width of my website, you know for a fact that I make a healthy living writing a wide variety of subjects and topics under the umbrella of “writing”. SEO, fiction, sci-fi, non-fiction, poetry, guest-posts on various blogs, and so much other content that I’ve literally lost track of the various projects I’ve researched and worked on for clients. That’s the beauty of writing in the 21st century; nobody is limited to just one thing.

    Delusions of grandeur? Hardly :) I let my paycheck do the talking for me. And so does every writer out there. The client and audience are the only ones who ultimately determine whether or not a person is “great”, and that greatness is defined by continued projects, new clients, and a future reader-base.

    We’d love to read some of your accomplishments! Feel free to leave us some verifiable references the next time you stop by, so we can appreciate your own special version of “great”.


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