A Tip for Young Writers: Remember the Willie Sutton Rule

You’ve probably heard the story. A reporter once asked bank robber Willie Sutton why he robbed banks.

“Because that’s where the money is,” Willie replied.

He later denied ever saying it, but the story had already entered America’s cultural mythology. So much so that medical students began learning “Sutton’s law”—the principle that the most obvious diagnosis is probably the right one.  

Willie’s words offer some wisdom for aspiring writers too—especially copywriters. Want to be successful? Go where the money is.

That is, if you want to make money, you have to work for people who have some.

Obvious? It should be. But how tempting it is to go after projects that have no realistic chance of paying off.

For writers just starting out, it makes sense to take some jobs pro bono to build a portfolio. But that can become a habit. Eventually, you have to decide that your work is worth something, so you should start insisting on a fair price.

Even experienced writers can be seduced by shiny objects and wind up taking a loss.

Here are three traps I’ve learned to recognize (yes, from sad experience):

The Charismatic Individual. This guy has always wanted to write a book. “I’ve got an incredible story,” he tells you. “Wait till you hear it! Some publisher will snap it up.” All you have to do is ghostwrite it. And by the way, he’s ready to spend $500! Then, once it’s published you could get royalties …

Or, he’s got an invention that’s going to revolutionize the … tech/financial/communications/organic farming/dry cleaning industry (take your pick). Wouldn’t you like to get in on the ground floor by writing some copy?

Or, he’s got a band that’s on the verge of breaking through … a new Internet marketing scheme …

You get the picture.

But few individuals have the deep pockets to sustain a real livelihood for someone else—even a great, talented writer like you. Proceed at your own risk.

The Promising Startup.  Sometimes smart, experienced people get together to launch a new business. They seem to have everything going for them. They’ve studied the market. The demand is there. They know that what they’re offering is unique. They’ve got the expertise to pull it off. And you get to write for them! Just be content with a few bucks now, and in the long run you’ll make out like a bandit.

Except, most startups fail. And not just the flaky ones. The marketplace can be merciless. If you look beyond the placid surface, you’ll see the landscape is littered with great ideas that flopped.

The Content Mill. One consequence of the digital revolution is that writing has become cheap—since people no longer have to spend money on printing and ink to make something public. So hacks and hucksters of all types are hungry to fill web pages with content.

You’ll find these “writing opportunities” by the dozens on jobs boards and online lists. Quality? That’s secondary. Many of these operators wouldn’t know good writing if it punched them in the nose. And of course, they pay next to nothing. So while they’re wasting your time, they do nothing to build your portfolio or qualify you for anything—except to work for other content mills.

 So, does that mean you should never take projects that don’t promise a reliable paycheck?

Not at all. But you mustn’t rely on them for all of your income. Instead, seek out established enterprises that have a solid product, service, clientele or donor base. Organizations that have been around a while, that have a strong revenue stream and a history of paying their vendors.  Those should be your meat-and-potatoes clients. Then you can afford to take on the occasional mad whim.

Because by then you’re already making a living.

And yes, by the way, you deserve it.

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