In the last quarter of 2022, I started to feel insecure about my career prospects as a writer. I was a copywriter at a fashion retailer and it’s no secret that writing and fashion both don’t pay well. When I first landed the job in 2020, it felt like a gift from the gods. I desperately wanted someone to take a chance on me and to get my foot in the door as a writer. My editor at that time took me under her wing and I slowly gained confidence as I developed my skills in copywriting. When she left the company in early 2022, my team’s structure changed and so did my job scope. The work was no longer fulfilling or educational, which made my pay less tolerable than before.
Feeling the need to supplement my income one way or another, I started to consider monetizing wildchild. Since I had invested so much time, energy, and money into the site for over two years, turning it into something more than just an avocation was ideal. I knew that the most ethical way to monetize the site was with a subscription model, which seemed out of reach because I would have to commit to producing quality content regularly. Another option was to create sponsored content i.e. take money from brands in exchange for coverage. Thus far, I’ve only accepted complimentary products and services. I feared that putting a price on an article would mean losing autonomy over my content and being beholden to the brands. And when that happens, wildchild becomes an empty vessel through which products and services are marketed. Even if I were highly selective about the brands that I work with, I suspect that a small part of me would feel guilty for selling my audience’s attention. Still, I found myself briefly wistful when a sugar dating company approached me for a partnership in October 2022.
For articles about dating apps, the brands are inadvertently mentioned in the titles and body (e.g. First Times: Finding a Sugar Daddy on Seeking Arrangement in Singapore and First Times: Of Coffee Meets Bagel and the Circuit Breaker) because that’s how wildchild ranks higher for searches, which consequently increases our site traffic. Since dating app reviews were already something that I did for free, the idea of getting paid for it was tempting. I ran a quick poll on Instagram to ask my readers what they thought, which revealed that the prevailing sentiment was to “get that coin”. After a lot of hand-wringing, I realized that I wanted to know if others would think less of me if I took the deal. But even the knowledge that I would be spared from critique was not enough reason for me to ignore my internal alarm bells. I didn’t want to actively endorse or promote sugar dating; I only wanted to document the unvarnished experiences of users with no agenda apart from sharing their stories.
When I was still deciding if I ought to respond to or ignore the sugar dating company, I bumped into an old, long-lost friend of mine. We caught up with each other and I explained my twin predicaments: my desire to monetize my hobby without selling out and increasing dissatisfaction with my day job. I told her that my options were limited because taking a writing job at companies in industries or sectors that I don’t particularly care for would also make me feel like a sell-out. Frankly, I don’t remember the specifics of what I told her anymore, just her reply. “Everything is selling out to you but you gotta sell out somehow.” That was a perfect summary of my inner turmoil and also practical advice that I ought to heed. To be clear, I define “selling out” as doing something solely for the money or having to compromise my desires or values in some way. Taking a job that didn’t allow for creative expression would be considered selling out since that constituted who I am.
The solution to my first conundrum presented itself soon after. I found myself wishing that I could run ads on my site the way it works on YouTube as it was something that people can tolerate for five seconds before pressing skip. Then, I realized that I could do that if I ran ads on my site through Google AdSense. To do so I had to upgrade my WordPress subscription and the monthly fee would increase from $11 to $35. Hoping that my readers were as ad-blind as I was and that it wouldn’t drastically affect their viewing experience, I decided to experiment with Google AdSense for a month. Weeks later, I got banned for self-clicking because my mom clicked on my ads religiously every single day in a noble display of maternal love and I had to return the five bucks that I earned through the platform. By the time the ban ended, I completely lost interest in monetizing wildchild. In hopes of recouping my losses, I left the ads running till early April 2023. But since I tried to keep the visibility of the ads as low as possible, I made a total of $10 for the entire duration the ads were live (lol), which I couldn’t even encash because there was a minimum withdrawal limit of $150.
My desire to monetize wildchild faded substantially after I landed a few ad-hoc translation projects and secured recurring revenue from a client for whom I wrote fashion copy. Since the freelance gigs were time-consuming, I had to take a break from working on wildchild. And it became evident that whenever I write for brands, I feel a latent desire to prove my worth, to demonstrate that I’m a qualified professional. This pressure exists even when I write about brands at no charge for wildchild; I am well aware that my interviews, profiles, and event coverage all contribute to my portfolio and prove that I can market brands. My side hustle made me realize that what I currently want from it is not commodification but to be able to carve out more time and space for creative writing that is unrelated to marketing. Sometimes I forget that wildchild is whatever I want it to be and that the stories that I want to tell the most have yet to be written.
And through my job search, which began in November 2022 and ended in April 2023, I discovered that the extent to which I’m willing to sell out changes with time and depends on my circumstances. My first unsuccessful application was for a marketing and communications position at an international school. I didn’t have the necessary experience and while I found the role interesting, I was mostly drawn by the promise of a higher salary. Months later, I was fully prepared to take a pay cut to be an editorial writer for a society magazine. Once again, I didn’t clinch the job because I was too green in the field. As I was sorely disappointed both times, my readiness to sell out and follow my heart confused me. Now I see that since I only had one application at a time, I would have taken any option because the only alternative was to stay at my current job.
The next role that I considered was that of a content editor at one of the biggest fast-fashion retailers in the world. Although working there would weigh on my conscience, it also meant that my previous experience would not be disregarded. However, I didn’t get past the first interview stage (with the hiring manager and HR rep), so I was mercifully spared from a moral dilemma. Then, I focused my efforts on another application as a UX writer at a tech company. After telling me that the offer was on its way, the HR rep ghosted me for a week. It turned out that at the very last minute, an internal applicant emerged and was ultimately awarded a transfer. When the application fell through, I was unaffected, only slightly dismayed because I couldn’t resign as quickly as I wanted to.
Although I had to start my job search from scratch once again, I was uncharacteristically optimistic. It was like a world of possibilities opened up, which was strange because I ought to have felt that way the entire time. I even applied for my “dream job”, a copywriting role at a circular fashion start-up based in Paris, France. I was quickly rejected because I lacked a work visa but even then, I was inspired and enjoyed the brief period of imagining myself in a role that excited me. Thankfully, the next set of opportunities that I explored was more aligned with my vision for my career.
My first option was an editorial role at a multi-national digital media and tech company, which had just launched a lifestyle site covering food, travel, and events in Singapore. The second option was another editorial position at a site, run by a local video production house, that focused on luxury fashion and social issues. It reminded me a little of the now-defunct Repeller, which I adored, and I especially liked that I would get to work with an experienced editor whom I could learn from. My final option was a copywriting role at a Singapore-based startup that retailed both clothing and lifestyle products, one that would allow me to join a close-knit team of creatives. For the first time in my job search, I was able to assess several options at once and held the power to make a decision. After my interviews, I was confused because I could truly see myself at all three companies. And I hoped that I would be able to choose the right job for myself without feeling tormented by the opportunity cost.
The path ahead became clearer to me when the offers came in. In the end, I decided that it was high time that I leave fashion copywriting for the editorial world because there will be more room to develop my skills as a writer. I was bound to write copy for brands in my articles anyway. It was rather easy to decide which editorial role to accept because I would have to take a substantial pay cut for the second lifestyle site, which was something that I would like to avoid as it would probably set me back for future salary negotiations. Although I had to forgo writing about socio-cultural topics at my day job, I was willing to do so as I knew I could cover them through freelance gigs and wildchild.
Even though my decision to accept the job offer by the larger digital media company was ultimately guided by the remuneration, I find the amount of selling out involved bearable. It’s possibly because I’m still staying relatively true to myself by pursuing lifestyle writing. Maybe in the future, I’ll look back and feel differently. But I think I’ll still have empathy for the person that I was, a younger creative with little say on how to make money within a capitalist framework. For now, I’ll have to accept my fate as a cog in the content machine and establish myself as a writer in hopes that someday, I’ll be fortunate and privileged enough to avoid selling out at all.
Feature collage by Sherryl Cheong