The Good, the Bad, & the Online Writers
So you want to be a writer? Quit your job and enjoy banging away daily at your keyboard, wine glass filled with Cabernet on the right, cat perched in an awkward but adorable position on the left? I’m going to tell you what being an online writer is really like.
Warning: if you keep reading, you agree to not get mad at me.
My name is Chase Whale, and I’m an online film critic and short crime fiction writer. Please allow me to crow for a moment, so you don’t think I’m some punk bitch who hasn’t been in the digital trenches or paid his dues.
Since the beginning of my online writing career, I’ve attended the biggest film festivals in the world — Cannes, Sundance, SXSW, others; interviewed actors — Harrison Ford, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mark Wahlberg, to name a few; prominent directors, and I review lo-fi independent movies to huge blockbusters. This is how I currently make a living. Sounds amazing, right? Keep reading.
I earned my B.A. in Creative Writing from the University of North Texas and have been a film critic for almost ten years now. In 2007, I co-founded GordonandtheWhale.com while living in Denton. Life was good. We had a handful of sponsors — they sent us to France, Germany, London, Canada, and other parts of the world. I sat behind Guillermo Del Toro for hours while he directed scenes for Pacific Rim. A dream.
Moreover, I was accepted onto Rotten Tomatoes — a very hard achievement in film criticism — and was voted into the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association on my first nomination, another challenging goal.
I’ve freelanced for MTV, Indiewire, ScreenCrush, Hammer to Nail, Film Threat, Flaunt Magazine, The Dallas Morning News, Dallas Observer, and was the head film critic for the Denton-Record Chronicle.
In 2009, NBC wrote an article about me, as did The Wrap. I was a guest speaker at the Austin Film Festival’s Film Critics and the Industry panel, alongside David Denby from The New Yorker; Kenneth Turan from Los Angeles Times; and Chris Vognar from The Dallas Morning News. Writers with far more talent in one finger than I’ll ever have in all my bones.
I’m almost done boasting, stay seated.
I was on the programming jury for the Sundance Film Festival, as well as a film programmer for the Alamo Drafthouse and Fantastic Fest.
I hustled and was on motherfucking fire.
Ok, that was more than just a moment, but I’m about to wallop you with some harsh truth. Most people see these crazy cool accolades on social platforms and think I must make a lot of money doing it. I don’t, and I never really did.
Currently, I’m living in my niece’s playroom at my mother’s new house because I can’t afford to live on my own. I’m 33.
What changed the game was the big boom of websites in 2009. Every day, three to four new movie websites launched and now ad revenue goes to the lowest bidder. GATW started losing money, and I couldn’t pay my writers, but they stuck around because they believed in me and Gordon and the Whale. I gave them badges to film festivals (which are up to $4,000 depending on the festival), and Blu-rays — pretty much anything I could to compensate for not being able to pay them. When I didn’t have a sponsor, badges were comped but I paid out of pocket for the rest - flight, lodging, food. I had to work side jobs that made me miserable to keep doing something I made no money off but made me feel like the king of the world.
I wouldn’t take back any of these amazing experiences I’ve had, but currently, my future has a whale of a question mark.
Every site owner with a heart wants to pay every contributor, but there’s never enough money to go around. Even big sites are struggling. Moreover, look at some of your favorite online writers and watch them play musical chairs — they are writing for a new site each month.
Online killed print and now online is eating itself. Crazy, huh?
These days, John Doe can build a blog spot and call himself a film critic, get into press screenings and a badge to film festivals, something we used to have to work very hard for when I first started. He’ll have no copy editor, no knowledge of film except that he loves Marvel movies, and no experience or love in the aesthetic of writing.
Online film criticism is now so watered down, and film criticism itself is dying. If I want a family (and I do), and not live in my niece’s playroom at my mom’s house, I need to do what I should have in the first place: have a stable day job that I enjoy and continue hustling with my writing during my free time. I don’t want to be a full-time film critic, I do it for fun and people like to pay me, but it’ll never be close to enough to live off, anymore. I’ve accepted this.
I get emails every week from young, hungry scholars wanting advice on how to be a film critic because they think there’s a lot of money in it, and I always tell them the same thing: do it because you love it.
Like David Byrne howls in Talking Heads’ excellent “This Must Be The Place,” “Never for money, always for love.”
I’m sure you’re wondering what the hell is the point of this article. I buried the lede deep into this ocean of words so you’d grasp highs and lows from someone who has done a lot with online writing.
This part is for you.
Write because you love it, not because you want to make money, because chances are, you won’t. For every few hundred writers, there’s one Stephen King. My favorite writer Nathan Rabin has written four books and is currently the most in-demand online entertainment writer, but he needs to live in his in-law's basement because he’s not making enough money. This is devastating — I love this guy, and he’s more talented than most salaried staff writers at large publications.
Read. A lot. I suggest starting with Stephen King’s On Writing. This gospel will give you magical tips on writing, and you will learn where the King was working when he learned his first novel was purchased, which changed his life forever. He didn’t always have it easy.
Read your favorite writer’s work over and over. Read books on how to craft the type of writing you want to do — creative nonfiction, journalism, film criticism, fiction, poetry; it’s all there. Get a good job that pays your bills. Or, get a weird job like these fiction writers did — you’ll surely have a story to tell.
Set aside time when you’re home or on the weekend to write for x-amount of hours.
And don’t worry, young scholar, you can still call yourself a writer/journalist/whatever; just because you have a day job doesn’t degrade your career as a writer. You would be slack-jawed how many professional writers have day jobs.
If you build your name up enough to where you started making a little bit of cash, great, but don’t ever quit your day job. You need steady income and health insurance. (If you are one of the few who can make a living off writing, kudos. I am very happy for you. Us writers have to support one another.)
I’ve built a solid, reliable brand for my name and can now write whatever I want. I do get paid handsomely, but it’s not close enough to pay all bills and rent, mind you. I could get by on writing stupid clickbait top ten lists or the hottest stars of the summer (my most embarrassing piece for MTV), but I choose not to write bullshit I don’t want to write about, anymore. I decide what I want to write about now because it stopped being fun. Writing once became a chore but the fire inside is back, and I’m now writing a book, due in January 2017. I’m also about to start working a wonderful day job that has nothing to do with writing about movies or fiction. I’m euphoric about this because I like to stay busy, I like to work, and writing will be fun again. That’s what it should be: fun.
If you want to be a writer, then write. Write your heart out. Write because you love it. Write for innovative independently-owned sites like The Dentonite. Don’t write just to get paid — again to drive it home; there’s almost no money in online writing. I promise. The tradeoff is you will have something to put on your resume when you’re going for the copywriter position at a big ad agency. It works. I had 21 writers from all around the world, and I couldn’t pay them a dime. They stuck with me for four years because they believed in me and the website. Now all of them are writing for outlets 10x bigger than Gordon and the Whale, and one quit film writing and is now the Creative Director at Dallas’ Alamo Drafthouse. GATW helped him get that job.
No writer should write for free, but right now it’s nearly impossible finding a site that can pay you. So take the tradeoff that you’ll have something on your resume, will get into festivals and concerts (I think the hip kids call them shows), and other cool perks. A true Editor-in-Chief will tell you upfront if it’s a non-paying outlet but the goods you’ll get for joining their team.
Take that gun out of your mouth, here’s some good news: you can make damn good money writing online. There are a lot websites owned by large corporations looking for editors and writers, you just have to look deep and hard. If you got the chops and drive, go get ‘em, Tiger. I believe in you.
Last advice that’ll carry you, little turtle dove: Don’t worry about other people. You will have friends and colleagues who will zoom past you. Happened to me and it may happen to you. Good for them. Don’t let it get to you. Just write your fucking heart out and have fun.
— Chase Whale
Chase Whale is a graduate of the University of North Texas' Creative Writing B.A. program. He's a film critic and short crime fiction writer, and you can find his work on Out of the Gutter, ScreenAnarchy, Indiewire, MTV, Flaunt Magazine, and other places. Yes, his name is really Chase Whale. More on http://www.chasewhale.com.