My First Writing Job Was Porn Titles for a Penny Per Word: Here’s What I Learned
Things have a way of snowballing…
The year was 2009. Two years earlier I’d graduated with a BA in Literature into the dual disasters of a historic economic crash alongside the collapse of print media. Jobs of any kind were scarce and paid writing jobs were essentially nonexistent. Then—how, precisely, I no longer remember—I landed my first wordsmithing gig ever: producing titles for porn videos at a rate of a penny per word.
Not pornography, mind you, for a word with four syllables is far too fancy to describe what I was entitling. It was porn, plain and simple, and as raunchy as could be. It seemed like it could have been smuggled via VHS from someplace behind the Iron Curtain—Leerdovia, perhaps—and was so degraded in terms of both content and video quality that I frequently was not quite sure what it was I was looking at.
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But I wasn’t getting paid to know what it was—just to name it. And I wasn’t getting paid much. Next to nothing, really. In those financially fraught days, however, any money—particularly the under-the-table variety—was better than no money at all. So I spent hours on end slamming through filth and debasement, typing off machine gun bursts of words that more or less described what I saw.
This went on for some amount of time, was the first job on my writing resume, and in fact helped me land my next and considerably better—though still not great—writing gig upon a positive referral from my boss. So I will admit that as foul as it was (and it was foul—I am no puritan but damned if this wasn’t some vile smut), the job did serve as a means to some form of ends. Not too long after that I was copywriting for Fortune 500 companies and further down the line working on dream projects for the biggest publications in the world. So it got the ball rolling, and I did learn a few things along the way.
1. Somebody has to do the writing.
Every word we see on a product, ad, or article was written by someone. We don’t tend to think about it, just take for granted that the words will be there, but someone got paid to produce them.
Equipped with this knowledge, I began reaching out to provide words in any and every context imaginable. I cold-called businesses and offered to write ad copy. I applied to bizarre, random writing gigs of all varieties. I ghostwrote pet projects for weirdos with money to burn. Whatever needed words, I wrote them, growing the size and quality of my projects as I went along.
2. Go with the snowball.
In the context of the introductory story, that might sound grosser than it really is (if you know, you know). But what I mean is that small projects lead to bigger projects as long as you’ve got the stamina to keep rolling along.
This served in many phases of my career. Initially, I positioned that first gig as “writing product descriptions” which I leveraged step into describing something less eye-exhausting—home appliances, if memory serves—which gradually evolved into marketing copywriting. Eventually I was composing ad campaigns for top brands like Audi, VH1, and Smirnoff.
About a year or so after the porno gig I began writing for publications, again starting with exceedingly puny projects—writing $20 travel articles for websites no one ever heard of and I’m not sure who read—eventually finding my footing in some decent mid-level outlets, and today I write for the Washington Post, Esquire, Popular Science, Afar, and so on.
Things grow if you stick it out.
3. Ignore the naysayers.
I was strangely proud when I got my first week’s porn-title-paycheck. It was the first money I ever made off writing, bad as both the work and pay may have been. The check was for just shy of $100, and if you do the math, that means I’d titled some 1,200 videos. That’s a lot of smut to watch for a single C-note.
Everyone around me thought it was pretty funny, and the response ranged from good-natured ribbing to outright disparagement. Some just could not understand why I would work such an awful job for such awful money.
Besides the fact that these were people who clearly had never been truly hungry and therefore didn’t seem to grasp the economic necessity, they also didn’t understand the snowballing goal. Even at that early stage I still saw it as a stepping stone to the proverbial bigger and better things. And it worked.
Yes, ball stomping. The videos had a lot of that. Why have I mentioned it here? Primarily to refocus your attention. It’s better than declaring conclusion.
I may have learned other obnubilate lessons from that strange job—something somewhat dark and grim about human nature, for while I have no moral quandaries with porn per se, this was the stuff of nightmares and spoke to some sinister, exploitative corner of existence—but these are the most practical educational offerings that arose from the experience.
The wise extract whatever knowledge can be drawn from even the basest of struggles. Wield it how you will.
And a ball stomping good day to you.