When it’s OK to write ‘hack’

Sometimes, self-care for writers means writing to pay bills first – and not feeling guilty about it.

Writing hack
Sometimes it’s OK to write hack.

Truth be told, I’ve always considered myself a “serious” writer. Under my twentysomething exterior is a stereotypically grumpy old man who shakes his cane at the digital age, scooting it off his lawn for mucking up the way we read and write: The digital age has made us lazier and less original. We’re all hacks.

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But I’m a hypocrite: I write “hack.” And a fair bit, at that. I daylight as a social media copywriter and supplement my income through ghostwritten blogs for small-medium enterprises and lifestyle articles for women’s magazines.

That doesn’t mean I don’t write “real” stuff as well; rather, the writing I consider “real” isn’t profitable…and that’s OK. Writing hack lets me write for me, which is why I’m listing my rationale for hack writing.

Here are seven times it’s alright to write hack.

You don’t want to fall into the starving artist trope

Honestly, this was the reason I started writing everything from Instagram captions to blog posts: I needed to eat, and I needed a roof over my head. After working multiple jobs and pinching corners by eating instant ramen, I realized I wasn’t writing (on account of working all the time and being too tired and too hungry), and that made me miserable. Initially, writer friends scoffed when I’d tell them about being published in click-baity websites, condensing my personal life into listicles with “Sex and the City-esque” tones – but truthfully, these outlets pay. So while some lit mags promised the non-transferable unicorn currency of “exposure,” I opted for real currency, peace of mind, and the ability to spend my downtime writing for me.

You want to be a ‘serious’ writer

When I first started writing for a living, in my head, I was equal parts Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Wodehouse (the irony that they’re all white men isn’t lost on me). I wanted to write. I wanted to write so much that I never shared anything I’d written with anyone after I left school. Writing and publishing stuff I wouldn’t ordinarily write myself, has, at times, left me exposed. And while that’s terrifying (who wants to tell an ex-classmate that the reason a piece has a clinical tone to it is because the client wanted it choked with keywords?), it’s an effective way of getting comfortable with both publishing exposure and criticism.

The content is hack

Because ghostwriting mindless content for a small business is easy, you should, if time permits, make it the best bit of hack writing you put out there. I used to feel like I focused on the fact that this was hack I was writing rather than the fact I was writing. It’s not always doable, but it’s worthwhile to me, to ensure I turn in a draft I’m not averse to. It may not be something I love with all my heart, but when I turn it in, I know I’ve turned in something I at least half-like.

Hack is easy

It’s OK to want a break from reported journalism or a piece of literary fiction every now and then. Fun is good. Fun is the reason Meryl Streep did It’s Complicated in 2009 after her Oscar nomination for Doubt in 2008. Often, those of us who write take our fuel tanks for granted: They’ll refill themselves, they always do. And that’s often true. But consciously writing something you consider hack and breaking it up with writing that is true to you is better than writing something demanding that drains you to the point where you unknowingly inch toward unoriginality. I don’t know if intellectual burnout is real, but I do know that I don’t want to risk finding out, either.

All writing teaches you something

Knowing what not to do is a good first step to understand what to do. Haruki Murakami once suggested that, to be a novelist, you must first, as a reader, “introduce yourself to lots of great writing. To lots of mediocre writing, too.” From experience, I know cranking out a quick 500-word blog post on beauty products I don’t care for exposes my writerly ticks: go-to words, clichés, and fluff to fill my word count with. And, like a true nerd, I jot these down and use them to police my “real” writing.

Hack is subjective

Defining what one means by hack is a good way to self-impose rules or limits: I know what I mean by hack, and I know where I draw my line. I work on one piece of “serious” writing for every three pieces of hack. Granted, much, if not all, of my non-hack sleeps in my hard drive, waiting for the day the journal of my dreams responds to my drafts. But in the meanwhile, I know what topics and outlets I’m willing to write about and for, and I also know what I won’t, and maintaining that boundary is largely how I’ve made my peace with writing for a living so far.

It makes sure you write frequently, if not daily

Words. We need them, and, ideally, we need them in a certain order. Hack writing is, if nothing else, a mental stretch into our vocabularies to find the words we want for when we really want to write. Writing hack is something I sit down to do in a timely fashion day in and day out. When I started copywriting things like web copy for an automobile company and writing emails for a diaper company, the question that nagged my mind was, “Is this really writing?” I can’t say any of it is “good” writing, but I can say that, for me, it has cultivated a healthy writing habit.

Writing for a living, at least initially, means compromising – not on one’s values, but perhaps one’s standards, however slightly. When I started out, I was the epitome of the self-loathing writer. A part of me was convinced I was “better than that” when I considered taking writing side gigs. But truthfully, I’m better than starvation – I’m thankful that I have the privilege of choice; the privilege of making a living through words, of working on my craft daily, and of being able to write what I want to write in my own time.

 

Akanksha Singh is a freelance writer and journalist based in Bombay, India. Her work has appeared in Atlas Obscura, HuffPost, The Independent, and Parts Unknown.