Should writers be more like plumbers?

What’s the difference between a writer and a plumber?

Many would say that a writer works more unsocial hours and a plumber is seen as having a more noble profession. But, for me, the main difference is that you wouldn’t ask a plumber to work for free.

Writers though, particularly at the start of their journey, are often expected – in print or online – to work for ‘compensation: nil’ as an opportunity to raise their profile or gain valuable experience and a readership. One could argue that it’s now part and parcel of a working apprenticeship, although when I last checked, apprentices were still being paid.

So why does it happen?
1. I think the democratisation of writing is part of the problem. If everyone can write then anyone can write. Which means there will always be someone else out there willing to answer the call for a freebie.
2. Another reason is the ambiguity of the term ‘writer’. It’s a catch-all for a range of skills, experience and qualifications. For starters. There is journalism, copy writing, poetry, novels and comedy writing – these specialisms all have their own requirements and it would be a rare soul indeed who was comfortably proficient in all of them. Okay then, Clive James – I’ll give you that.
3. Another factor is the lack of a standard rate of pay, even for web articles. It really is a buyers’ market and any polite noises towards the existence of a minimum wage will quickly find out opportunity-less.
4. Until they are published – and often afterwards – most writers are fantastically insecure. The very idea that someone is interested in and willing to use our words is music to our ears.
5. The ‘industry’ knows it has us by the gonads because writing is now really sexy with a creative writing course on every street corner.

This is a REAL issue affecting countless writers today. Bad enough that many of us earn less than £10,000 a year from writing alone, we also have to contend with an ocean of upcoming newcomers who have become convinced that working for free is the only way to get a start in the industry.

I’ve done it too. Of course I have. So far my gratis proof-editing, copy writing and comedy material has been limited to friends, non-profit organisations and one or two occasions when I believed I was getting in on the ground level (few of those are still standing). But I can’t help thinking that every time we support a business – where everyone else is being paid – by submitting to the tyranny of ‘compensation: nil’ we are just undermining ourselves, our fellow writers and the future prosperity of writing.

Wait, I hear you shout. What about the print publications and websites that would cease to exist without the input of freebie writers and enthusiasts. It’s a fair point and so is the counter-argument; that if they’re a business and their business model relies on having people (who have their own bills to pay) working for nothing – for any time at all – then it’s little short of scandalous.

So what’s to be done?
I’ve given it some thought and I think we need a union. No subs though, no committee power struggles and a simple manifesto. After half a dozen pieces of work, maximum – which are signed off by the client as meeting their needs and supplied to prospective employers on request – all work undertaken thereafter has to at least meet the minimum wage.

Or we could retrain as plumbers.

And to end, let’s hear a few words on the subject from the highly respected and successful writer Harlan Ellison. Check out this link:


  1. It's the same with photography, as Derek knows. It's the same with any creative media. I had a discussion with a fashion designer a few months back that got shitty with me because I didn't want to go and copy other people's ideas.

    It seems that it's ok in the modern world to go and rip off ideas. The fashion and film industry do it all the time.

    People that have original ideas or who choose to be true to themselves by keeping their work 'organic' seem to have the hardest paths.

    As Derek's said though, there's always going to be someone that will do it free for very little or for free just to get their name in.

    How much is a CORGI nowadays? Do you have to bag its turds afterwards?

    Things 'll come right after the next huge human disaster though when the world population is decimated…or Derek drops one of his farts…whichever comes first 😉

  2. Brian Keaney says:

    The Society of Authors and the Writers Guild do a very good job. I've been an SOA member for many years and I can tell you, it's well worth the subscription.

  3. Derek says:

    Mr Wolf, I would say you have a twisted mind but then you have heard my CD so maybe that's to blame!
    Brian, you're right – I'm an SoA member too and they're brilliant for contracts and advice. The NUJ website also has great info on rates of pay. But… in my experience, the lower end of the market still thinks writers should be glad of any opportunity and they will not negotiate. Ultimately, we writers have to be prepared to say NO and lose the work if the pay is substandard.

  4. Bill Kirton says:

    I just looked in from Nicola's party and was glad to see someone else trying to undermine this notion that we should be glad to have our stuff appear in print or online and not expect to be paid as well. I found the thing that helped me most in that regard was learning to say no. I've read scores of novel drafts, short stories, essays and God knows what else because I didn't want to disappoint someone – but it was all time taken away from my own work. It isn't as if novels bring in huge lumps of cash anyway.

  5. Derek says:

    Hi Bill and thanks for your comment. I agree wholeheartedly. The more professionally we treat our craft, the more professional our dealings, even if that means disappointing a few people who see it differently!

  6. ahab177 says:

    Writers and plumbers? Well…
    1. Few plumbers do the job because they think it confers some kind of social cachet. Since writing's become so fashionable, I strongly suspect many people mostly want to be 'writers' – as opposed to wanting to write, or actually having anything to say. Hence also their willingness to do it for nothing, just to acquire the status (however notional).
    2. Plumbers don't need a go-between; acquire the skills, put a card in the newsagent's (or whatever) and you're in business, though building up a regular and profitable trade (like e.g. maintenance contracts) needs some marketing skills. Most would-be writers seem to lack confidence in their ability to sell themselves (or indeed to be truly self-employed), so look for an intermediary (agent/publisher) to do the selling for them. Alternative mechanisms may be on the way (e.g some variation on self-publishing), but this seems still to have negative connotations of 'vanity publishing'. Maybe this is changing; I hope so.
    3. On the other hand, my mate, who is a plumber and heating fitter, tells me that at nearly sixty he's getting a bit fed up of crawling around in the gunge under sinks and the prickly insulation in roof spaces. We, on the other hand, can carry on for as long as we have the strength to depress those little plastic keys, so maybe it's not all bad…

  7. ahab177 says:

    Re. Wolf's comments about the parallels between writing and photography, see Brian Duffy, quoted in an interview in the online Guardian: "In what he calls the "insecure-making" world of photography, he says, you have to prove yourself anew with every picture, because anybody can use a ­camera."
    He tried to burn all his work, claiming that photography was over by 1972, since evrything that could be tried, had been. Interesting to compare this with the 'death of the novel' thesis.I think I can spot the flaw in this – anybody else?

  8. Derek says:

    Sorry, I've been otherwise indisposed, swapping over to a new(er) computer. Is writing a craft or a business?

    Maybe a plumber was a bad choice but it's brought up some interesting points.
    Is writing a craft or a business, or both? Another factor, which is probably for another post, is mathematics. How many full-time writers can the market support? You're right about writers carrying on past a notional retirement age (or beginning, in some cases). We all write for different reasons and while status and a yearning for fame and fortune might be the starting point for some, I think they generally fall by the wayside. It's the obsessives who stay the course, whether it leads to success (however it's defined) or an inversion of your earlier comment – where the keys depress us!

  9. Derek says:

    Re: the 11th Jan comment. I suppose we are only as good as our last creation. On the plus side, we can always create something else. Perhaps the newness of anything lies in the experience, rather than the medium.

  10. ahab177 says:

    I think the flaw in the argument is that the world changes all the time, so even though you may use the same technique (e.g. the novel) it will draw on contemporary material – whether you want it to or not. Even if you're writing it in a monastery. Not only that, but a fresh audience is coming along every day. So reason for optimism, maybe.
    Laurie Taylor's discussion about holiday photographs on R4 yesterday had a relevant point, i.e. that you can't take the same one twice (like stepping into the same river etc.) Something is always different, and I've noticed that some of my photographs taken long ago are acquiring a sort of minor historical document status – e.g one of Hull Fish Dock packed with trawlers, now all gone. Not to mention my only attempt at a diary, from 1968 (shades of Adrian Mole!).

  11. Derek says:

    Quite right too. Otherwise, for example, why bother with a New Testament when the old one is perfectly serviceable…

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