The development of the ChatGPT app has led to scores of articles about the possibility of the app replacing writers entirely. But writing is a tough business, one in which it is hard to make a living and even harder to build a respected brand. Part of that is because writing something publishable is such a small part of what is actually involved in being a person who gets to call him or herself a writer. While grammatically, a writer is one who writes, colloquially by "writer," we mean one who writes their own personal expressions for pay reliably. We mean something more like a public intellectual.
Over the years, the intellectual or policy wonk is one of the classic models of the successful nonfiction writer. This creature from a bygone era was best exemplified by the New York Intellectuals of the Cold War period. This well-respected and productive group of wide-ranging writers included heavy-hitting thinkers like Irving Kristol, Irving Howe, and even some people not named "Irving." But even if "Irving ChatGPT" started a regular column, he's in for a tough life as a public intellectual nowadays.
In recent years, the label of public intellectual has fallen into desuetude — most precipitously over the past decade. (Thank you, Google nGram.) There are a variety of reasons for this, and there have been a host of epitaphs for the term, but the bottom line is that being a public intellectual was not really a sustainable economic model for city dwellers in the modern era. Universities no longer employ generalists, and it is hard to make a living as a writer without some kind of institutional affiliation.
Given this challenge, I often talk to fellow writers about economic models and ask about their writing strategies. The most disappointing, and yet too common, answer is from those who say they have no strategy: They just write when they can get something published. But other writers put some thought into the question and have useful insights.
The need to understand editors is one reason why one of my early mentors, Les Lenkowsky, told me to start with book reviews: They teach you how to pitch, how to write, and how to accept edits, and they both build relationships with editors and give you some clips that you can share when pitching pieces. In addition, Lenkowsky told me, you do not really know anything in your 20s, so it's best to get some work experience before pronouncing on real-world events. It's also best to try to get published in prestigious places instead of self-publishing or using new platforms available to individual writers. Substack is appealing to some, but getting the approval of an editor who thinks your piece worthy has its own value. Another mentor of mine was the columnist Ben Wattenberg, a former White House speechwriter. I got my start with him as a research assistant straight out of college. I gained insight into his overall approach, learning that his revenue model was to make only part of his total income from his think tank salary, which also provided him with an office assistant and researcher (me), allowing him to be something much more like a public intellectual proper. He supplemented the fine but modest think tank salary with a TV show, book advances, a newspaper column, speeches for pay, and other writing projects. His voice was more than just his words on the page. Today we might call it "brand-building." (Though, can we not?) Artificial intelligence could not have replicated what he did.
Other strategies and approaches abound: One smart and well-known former government official, whose main source of income is likely his think tank salary, told me he tries to get a piece in one of the big papers — the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, or Washington Post — once each quarter so people will know he's still out there. Another writer friend of mine writes 200 articles a year and lives off the proceeds. He has no other employment, but he needs to spend nearly every day writing in order to make it work.
Others have institutional writer jobs as reporters or columnists. These people have a steady salary and benefits for the most part, but they also have a boss who tells them when to write and often on what topic as well. Some writer friends have variable revenues, but their spouses have steady jobs that provide health benefits and more reliable paychecks. Some of these friends focus on magazines or newspapers, while others go the book route. Books are a notoriously low-paying endeavor. Even relatively successful authors will not make minimum wage when you take into account all of the many hours it takes to write a book. Yet books are important for branding, for building intellectual credibility, and also for opening up other opportunities, such as public speaking. Op-eds are similarly low-paying, providing hundreds but not thousands of dollars for an appearance in a major paper.
Writers are certainly aware of the job's income limitations. One friend who lives in Brooklyn is friends with a number of writers with relatively famous bylines from the New Yorker, Harper's, and the Atlantic. When I suggested that it must be cool to live around all these well-known writers, he said it was actually dreadful because they are all jealous of the lawyers and Wall Street types who live nearby and make so much more money. Envy for lawyers doesn't seem to make much sense from writers who purport to know and comment on the ways of the world. Writing can potentially provide personal satisfaction, but it is a given that it almost certainly will pay less than even a middling ambulance chaser. Of course, getting your byline in a prestigious publication is a good way to make a case to your parents that your choice not to go to law school was at least credible.
At this point, though, I am required to note that some of my friends are lawyers and writers as well. They pull in that legal eagle salary, with the drawback that they must get permission from their firms for what they write. Still, good work if you can get it.
Another hard reality of being a writer that might vex Irving ChatGPT is rejection, which is a constant in the writing world. You have to find editors who are willing to accept your work. Presumably, ChatGPT is immune from hurt feelings, but that doesn't make it any easier to figure out what editors want. I once asked an editor I admire why he had a tendency to use the same writers repeatedly. He said editors like writers who are easy to deal with. He told me the story of one writer who wrote an impenetrable piece and then fought the editor over every word change designed to bring more clarity to what the writer was saying. In the end, the editor told me, "he got his piece in the magazine, but he'll never get another." ChatGPT should keep this story in mind and understand that one can't be a successful public intellectual without getting editors to publish one's pieces.
If ChatGPT wants to go down this path, have at it, but remember: Writers have the most envied job nobody would want.