inspiration at 40 cents a word

rebecca wellum

Steve Pitt once wrote a story for Chatelaine with a little help from his dog. The pooch had an infection and the veterinarian needed an early morning urine sample.

“Which means 5 a.m. for my dog,” says the Toronto-based freelance writer. “So I'm in my pyjamas and I pulled on my boots and grabbed an old teacup my son bought at a rummage sale to collect the pee. In March, here I am following my dog around the backyard. After she thought that she had distracted me with a flock of geese she hunkered down for a tinkle over in the corner and I slid right in like Babe Ruth and just got enough for the sample. But when I stood up I noticed all my neighbours watching, probably thinking ‘what is Steve doing?’ But rather than sitting there and being humiliated, you have to just say ‘OK, there's an article here.’”

If only all stories were that simple.

The days of waking up late, slipping on furry pink bunny slippers, and passionately typing away on your laptop may be over for magazine writers.

For the last 10 years word rates have become stagnant, with the “Holy Grail” being a dollar a word at the exclusive magazines, says Pitt. Otherwise, the average rate is around 40 cents a word for trade publications, but sometimes it sinks below 20 cents. Many writers are forced to branch out into other areas within journalism, or try new career paths to supplement their meagre incomes.

“The hardest part is earning a living,” says Tamara Bernstein, a freelancer from Toronto.

Nate Hendley, president of the Periodical Writers Association of Canada's Toronto chapter, says pay rate is the absolute number one concern for freelance writers today. Organizations such as PWAC and the Canadian Association of Journalists fight to maintain the freelancer's rights. However, Hendley doesn’t see much change in the pay rate issue. He says magazines will continue to pay writers low rates if they can get away with it.

"Freelance writers don't really have a lot of pull," says Hendley. "There is always someone who is going to be willing to write for dirt cheap."

Pitt calls these people "talented amateurs." They are the sort who "just want to see their work published so they are willing to write only one or two pieces a year, and they don't care what they get paid." In the end, Pitt says this takes away from those trying to make a living by writing.

The CanWest contract is another concern facing Canadian journalists. The contract forces freelance journalists to relinquish story rights to the news service for use in all media in perpetuity. The contract also allows CanWest to manipulate stories in any way without informing the writer in advance. This results in a complete loss of control for journalists, as they are unable to supervise the integrity of their stories.

CanWest says the contract will only be used in automotive sections of their publications, but freelancers are uneasy nonetheless.

“It’s just the arrogance of the big boys,” says Pitt. “They are multi-billion dollar corporations so it is like going by a blind man on the street and stealing the pennies right out of his cup.”

Even before writers face the challenge of getting paid, they must first find work. Mike Leslie, a freelance journalist from Guelph, Ont., says, “The magazine and newspaper industry is becoming more consolidated, so it is a lot harder for the individual writer to break in."

Pitt sees similar things happening with magazines that are producing smaller and smaller publications.

He says major magazines in Canada tend to carry a staff of only five or six people and that publications are “being taken over by larger corporations who really don't care.”

Lack of employment is forcing writers to branch out from magazines or find work outside of the realm of journalism. Hendley, for example, has published two books.

Pitt moonlights as a prep cook and has just completed his first children's book, Rain Tonight, a recounting of the evening Hurricane Hazel hit.

Moonlighting aside, freelancers who write from personal experience must also expand their horizons at every opportunity.

“It is important as a freelancer to have a field of expertise,” says Pitt. “Journalism grads are wonderful, except they don't have any life experience.”

For many, the search for ideas is the best part of their job. “The challenge comes when you are faced with always writing new topics,” says Hendley. “You have to be willing to write about almost anything. But it is a challenge that I enjoy.”

As for Pitt, he and his dog are currently looking outside the backyard for inspiration. “The key is to always go around with a pen and a piece of paper in your pocket. There are stories everywhere.”

Photo by Rebecca Wellum