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From the Periodical Writers Association of Canada

The Fifty-five Cent Question

By Frances Backhouse

I first heard of the Periodical Writers Association of Canada (PWAC) in 1990, six years after I began writing as a freelancer. Curious, I read the organization's promotional literature and wondered whether joining would be a worthwhile investment. I liked the idea of meeting fellow professional scribes and learning more about the trade, but beyond exchanging my old manual typewriter for a computer, I had never spent much money on my writing career. It had never occurred to me that my low earnings from freelancing might be a result of neglecting my career, rather than an excuse for neglect. I had accepted the stereotype of the impoverished writer without a second thought.

Then, one sentence in the brochure I was reading stopped me in my tracks. "Membership in PWAC," it said, "costs less than buying your daily cup of coffee and it's tax deductible too." Fine, I thought, if I'm not willing to give up one cup of coffee a day in order to make writing more than a sideline, then maybe I'm not really serious about pursuing this goal. I checked out the membership criteria. I saw I had enough points to become an associate member and I would have twenty-four months to upgrade to professional status. I decided to give it a try for two years and see what happened.

To make a long story short, what happened was that I started learning more than I ever thought possible about being a professional writer and I haven't stopped learning - or applying the lessons - yet. At chapter gatherings and annual general meetings I met colleagues who became friends, mentors and sources of inspiration. In national and chapter newsletters and on PWAC-L (our on-line discussion group) I read about issues that affected me as a writer, promising new markets, markets to avoid, and tips on everything from buying a good tape recorder to self-syndication. Following the advice I received, I gave up writing on spec and discovered I could sell just as many stories when I insisted on having a firm assignment. I reconsidered the value of my work and sought out higher paying markets. I diversified beyond magazine writing, yet still found time to increase my output of magazine stories. After years of shying away from the challenge, I submitted a book proposal to a publisher and ended up writing a book that is now in its fifth printing. The money I invested every year when I paid my annual dues, came back with interest.

My experience is not unique. I know many writers who will tell you PWAC transformed their writing careers. Of course, it doesn't work for everyone. I've seen people sign up, sit back and wait for results, and depart disappointed a few years later. Like most things in life, you gain in proportion to what you put in. Even for the least active member, however, the many benefits include: news, wisdom and support through chapter meetings, personal contacts, newsletters and PWAC-L; access to professional development materials such as the copyright information kit; discounts on services and products; free enrollment in CANCOPY; advice and assistance from the mediation team; a listing in the PWAC directory; and, perhaps most important, being part of a collective voice addressing critical legal, political and business issues that affect all freelance writers.

All this for only 55 cents a day. When was the last time you bought a decent cup of coffee for that price?

Frances Backhouse is National Membership Chair of the Periodical Writers Association.

This article originally appeared in Sources #41, Winter 1998.

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