It’s Okay to be a Writing Sellout

selling out your dreams

A long time ago I had high artistic ideals. I wanted my work to change the world, to bring awareness to important issues, and to be “great.” That lasted until I was out of college. That’s when I realized that I had to eat, pay rent, and fill up my gas tank. High ideals went out the window in favor of any job that paid. And since I graduated in the middle of the 1990’s recession, the bar wasn’t all that high. I took a fair amount of advertising and marketing work, shilling useless products to people who probably didn’t need them. But I got the bills paid, even if my work wasn’t world-changing in any way.

A few years out of college, I met a former friend who was still clinging to his ideals. You can guess the state he was in. He didn’t have a job and was living with his parents. He had no social life or real work. But, dammit, his ideals were still pure. He was still cranking away on his “literary masterpiece.” In his parents’ basement. While I was far from rich, I’d managed to cobble enough money together to have my own place, a car, and a few extras. I felt superior to him in just about every way.

“You sold out,” he accused me.

“I had no choice. Work of high artistic merit doesn’t pay the bills.”

“That stuff isn’t important. Your work should change the world. Be important. Not just be some drivel on the side of a cereal box.”

“Yes, but I also need money to live. These jobs pay my bills.”

“Sellout,” he said, shaking his head.

I think I was supposed to be insulted. I wasn’t. While I don’t live for money and I don’t chase the Joneses, I’m well aware that everyone needs money to exist in this world. Earning money through legitimate work isn’t a terrible thing to do. In fact, it’s pretty darn noble. I’m sure if you’d asked my friend’s parents they would have preferred having a sellout for a son over a mooch.

There is nothing wrong with taking jobs to pay your bills. You may not be crafting life altering prose when you write that ad for weed killer, but you are earning money with your skills. You only become a “sellout” if you let that kind of work permanently derail your higher dreams. If you’re writing marketing brochures by day and working on your novel or Pulitzer winning article by night you haven’t sold out, you’ve just made a realistic decision to keep your head above water and feed yourself/your family.

You might even find that “selling out” can be a good thing. Work that gives you a credit can be a pathway to better things. You never know who will see your work and ask you to work for them. One job may lead to another until you are suddenly being paid to produce work of high artistic merit. (Incidentally, some of the greatest artists in history became famous after they sold out.) The money you earn from selling out can also be used to buy more education or better supplies which may speed you on to that ideal job. Getting yourself out there and earning money is rarely a bad thing.

The exception is that you should never take work which goes against your moral principles. Sometimes you have no choice but to work against your beliefs, as when your jerk of a boss demands that you work on a campaign for fur or be fired, even though you’re vehemently opposed to the fur trade. You may have to do it because you don’t have enough money saved to tell the jerk to shove it. (But you’ll quickly learn to save money and find a better job so that you’re not in that position again.) If you have a choice, though, don’t sell your soul. Try to find jobs that align with your beliefs, if not your definition of great writing.

And try not to take work that will impact you negatively later. Writing that script for a hard core porn movie may net you a boatload of money, but chances are someone down the road is going to frown on that one. Just try to look forward and think about how this job will be seen later when you’re applying for another job. Most employers won’t care that you took “sellout” work like advertising, low budget movies, brochures, and infomercial scripts, but they may not look so favorably upon things written for certain industries or fringe causes. (In other words, if you have to write the porn script to pay for groceries, for heaven’s sake, use a pen name.)

Artistic snobs like to call those of us who get paid for less-than-ideal jobs sellouts. But there’s nothing wrong with selling out. I’d rather be a sellout with a place to live, food to eat, and a cared-for family than a parasite living off of my parents or society. High ideals and great writing have their places and are certainly worth striving for. The reality check is that you have to pay your bills. Fortunately, we live in a world that requires a lot of words to explain (ads, manuals, web sites, easy to read books, brochures, etc.) and offers a lot of jobs for those who are willing to do the work. I’d rather work than not. I still work on my idealistic projects, but I admit that I took the money and ran a long time ago. I’m a sellout, but a sellout with a good life.

  • Hey,

    I’ve read a couple of articles on the “Word Counter Blog,” and have yet to be disappointed:
    the advice is sound, the tone friendly, yet professional; and the tagline-genius.
    I’m glad you(guys) are more than just a web app!

    When I first started out as a freelance writer, I was 18 and had nothing that would make me desirable to a client, not even a high school diploma or GED. I had no references, no credentials, aside from a poetry blog I started as a young teenager, and only a poorly drafted resume to pawn me off as legitimate. For me, it only made sense to start looking for whatever work I could find that — as you stated– didn’t violate my personal beliefs.

    I had never been interested in college, and since my dad ended up with no job and no savings that same year, it was probably for the best. I was fortunate enough to have parents that valued my presence in the household, and had no intentions of kicking me out. That helped me immensely, as in the first year and a half, I took whatever job that would hire me, learning skills like SEO, adjective stuffing (don’t judge,) and time management, on the fly.

    I started out on Elance and Odesk, websites that provide users with opportunities to submit proposals to online “classified” adds. My profile started out listing my hobbies as experience, and poems as my portfolio, but what I quickly learned, was that people like samples.

    Most employers are the same way, they have a specific thing they are looking for: are you qualified? The sooner you show them you are, the better.
    And now we arrive at the paradox: If you don’t have experience, you don’t get work, but if you can’t get work, how do you get experience? It’s simple: work anyway.

    I did this by reading adds for projects I was interested in, googling industry idioms and terms I wasn’t familiar with, and browsing style guides and similar articles to learn the voice they were looking for, then, I wrote my own samples.

    There’s a phrase, “It takes money to make money.” That is technically true.
    There’s another phrase, “Time is money.”
    If you put them together, you see that time and money are often interchangeable. If you have one, it’s easier to have the other. I had no money, but what I did have, was time. So I took my time, and turned it into a way to make money.

    After that endeavor, I started getting hired! Amazing, I know. The hard work didn’t stop there, however: they still only had my word for it. I had to do my absolute best every time, intensely editing my own work,
    agreeing to unfavorable deadlines,balancing work and household chores, and spending a lot of time indoors, but after just over a year of hard work and sincere prayer, it started paying off.

    Now the clients are inviting me to jobs. The tables haven’t exactly turned, but it’s getting there.
    I was able to go to a writers conference in my home town this past Friday, working only a little in the lobby during lunch break. Saturday morning I left with my dad, who now has a job as a trucker, on spur of the moment trip to Delaware, and from there, the Jersey Shore.

    As I’m writing this, it is 4:08 am in Cincinnati, Ohio, I’m halfway through a project due tomorrow, working from the bottom bunk of a big rig cab, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    God bless,
    Janissa Harris

    Because of, I know this comment is 668 words, 3603 characters long; it’s more an article than a comment, but meh, words happen.
    Anyway, I owe a lot of my meager success to sites such as this. If it weren’t for this site, I would likely be on a different path, and so for that I am grateful. Thank you.

  • I don’t think being a sellout is a good thing. But also, I don’t think you’re a sellout for having a job and doing other things besides pursuing your dreams 24/7. I consider sellouts to be people who have lost all their principles, including their moral ones, for money. So when I read the title I instantly disagreed.

    I don’t think it’s Okay to be an anything-sellout. But I also don’t think your friend’s definition of a sellout (and yours apparently) is right. You shouldn’t say you’re a sellout only because you use your artistic skills to make money and pay your bills.

  • I know this is an old article, but I would like to throw in my 2 cents.

    I’m still in school, so I haven’t yet had any experiences where I’ve had to pay bills and taxes. However, I write during almost all my free time and someday I hope to make a living out of it. I completely agree with this article. I think if using what you’re best at (even if it’s for something unimportant like the writing on the back of a cereal box) to pay the bills is being a sellout, then a sellout is not necessarily a bad thing to be. It’s simply having goals, but knowing reality.

    I also love acting, so I made up an analogy for this that pertains to acting:
    If you want to get on Broadway but you don’t have any theatre credits, you don’t go straight to a cattle call for a Broadway show. You start small, in your local area, doing regional and community work. You take classes and you go to every audition you can find. You work your way up, maybe doing commercials or jobs outside your local area. And then, you can go to a Broadway audition prepared and comfortable in yourself as an actor.

    Equating a job on Broadway to a published novel, the small local jobs are the “sellout jobs”. But they’re not really selling out, because local theatres are wonderful places. So maybe it’s not a perfect analogy, but it works.

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