Saturday, January 25, 2014

saying goodbye to a golden goose

Remember that nearly $60,000 job offer? Yeah... that's not going to happen. I just went through my second experience of working with that company in a freelance capacity, and to put it politely, things weren't that great.* My contact with the company, who was also my project supervisor—we'll call her Ms. Park—turned out to be a micromanager of the highest order. I should have known that things weren't going to go well when Ms. Park began our business relationship by saying she didn't trust me. Here's how she put it in an email:

From experience I now learned to look before you leap. That's the best way to avoid wasting time and energy. So I would like to expand our partnership gradually. First, I would like to have some assurance that I met the right writer. Then, I would like to try your other writing skills. Let me know your thought, Mr. Kim.

That's not the best or most diplomatic foot on which to start a "partnership." Ms. Park is basically saying, "Thanks to long and bitter experience, I'm now skeptical of everyone I meet, so it's up to you to prove that you're worth my while." Actually, Ms. Park, it's up to you to prove that you're worth my while. More on that in a bit.

I had been asked to write an article on Topic X, which was to be part of the textbook that Ms. Park was working on. The textbook supposedly targets motivated students who will eventually take the TOEFL exam, and I was asked to write my articles as if they were in the tone of The Economist. Ms. Park gave me a file with ten sample essays in it; the purpose was to convey a clearer idea of what she considered acceptable writing.

What I saw, when I looked at those ten essays, was a confusing jumble of tones and styles that had almost nothing to do with the serious prose found in The Economist. Some of the sample essays, with interjections like "Yikes!" scattered within them, were positively infantile, and Ms. Park was praising these pieces as good examples of what she was looking for. The collection was a mess—scattered and inconsistent. That, too, should have been a hint as to what sort of person was now supervising me. Nevertheless, I shrugged and began.

I spent several hours researching on my own, arriving at my own insights and conclusions in order to come at the subject matter from a fresh angle. I found some TED Talks on the topic in question, found some news articles, and pounded out an essay that I thought was clear and well-organized. At the same time, I had already figured out that Ms. Park was extremely hard to please, so I knew my first draft would likely be rejected.

When the rejection happened, it wasn't a surprise, but some of the comments and critiques seemed so out of left field that I had to wonder whether Ms. Park had actually read my article. She felt my tone was too serious and academic (which is bullshit: I had perfectly captured the tone of an Economist article), and she attached some online-news articles to show me both what the desired tone was and what she wanted in the essay. Essentially, she was saying, "I already have an idea in my head of what sort of essay I want. Your job is to write what's in my head, not what's in yours." That, folks, isn't writing: it's having a hand up your ass and being used as a puppet.

Another of Ms. Park's complaints about my draft was that "the level of vocabulary was too low." I was flabbergasted when I read that: anyone who reads this blog knows of my fondness for the sesquipedalian, and that fondness naturally bleeds into my freelance writing. But then I read Ms. Park's clarification: "not enough idioms, such as 'X is in the driver's seat.'" So when Ms. Park was referring to the difficulty level of the vocabulary, what she really meant was "toss in some entertaining idioms." Anyone familiar with the TOEFL knows that TOEFL isn't about mastery of idioms; like the SAT, TOEFL is more about overall reading comprehension and vocabulary knowledge. Idioms come and go, which is why many language teachers are reluctant to focus too much on them. TOEFL's designers understand this.**

"Make it like The Economist, but with entertaining idioms" and "write this on your own, but use all the material I give you" weren't the only contradictory directives I received from Ms. Park. She had complained, at the beginning, about how other writers before me had gone over the mandated word count (850-950 words). But when my second draft was rejected, Ms. Park again sent me several articles whose content she wanted included in my essay. There was no way I could include everything she wanted and still get the whole thing under 950 words. The situation was becoming ludicrous.

So I pounded out a third draft, then sat there seething over the fact that I had done 12 to 15 hours' unpaid work for this lady. The pay was W200,000 per accepted article; no mention was ever made about drafts. Lesson learned: from now on, if I do freelance work, it'll be on my terms and I'll be charging for every goddamn bit of labor. None of this "work 15 hours for peanuts" nonsense. In dollar terms, W200,000 comes out to $182. Divide that by 15, and you get an hourly wage of $12. With the distinct possibility that I'd need to write a fourth draft, that pay rate would descend to $9 an hour.

At some point, every man has to ask himself whether the pay is worth the ass-fucking. To what extent do you let a company use you? How long do you allow the company to dangle the carrot of eventual pay in front of you while you slave away, unpaid?

So I had to call my future into question. Is this what working for the company would be like? I mused. If I were hired, would I spend my time working with Ms. Park, or with someone like her? The answer was a probable yes, and given what this one project was doing to my sanity, I knew that I'd have to say no to signing up full-time.

You may recall my earlier essay, in which I turned this job offer over in my mind, weighing potential pros and cons. The company was offering plenty of money—5 million won a month, which would have meant close to $60,000 a year. I had been vague, in that blog post, about what dangers I saw ahead, framing the problem in terms of "corporate culture" and such. I can be more specific now: could I spend my days working for a scatterbrained, micromanaging harridan, drafting and redrafting the same article four or five times, article after article after article? And the answer was a clear no: sanity, as I've written before on many occasions, comes first. Sanity always comes first. If you're not sane, you can't enjoy the money you're making. It's better, then, to keep your sanity, even if it means occupying a lower income bracket.

So I've written valedictory emails to Ms. Park and her boss, explaining my position in polite terms and doing my best not to make Ms. Park lose face by blaming her too strongly (I wrote only that she was "particular"). I mentioned the utilitarian calculus I had gone through, i.e., that it wasn't worth it to work 12-15 unpaid hours for the prospect of modest pay that would arrive only eventually. I made an effort not to sound bitter. Or used. It was tempting to write about how raw my asshole felt after that reaming, but I kept it civil.

While this means the hewing-off of one branch of the tree of possibility, all is not lost. I still have my KMA work to look forward to, and that job, at least, seems to be one at which my efforts are actually appreciated. I'm also going to apply for work at a different, better-paying university; if that gamble pays off, I'll be earning W45 million per year, which isn't too far under the original W60 million. The dream of enjoying more income isn't dead.

*My first experience was just fine. No complaints. I actually had the chance to sit down with the gentleman who supervised me, and we hit it off... which is what makes the current state of affairs so regrettable.

**TOEFL's designers also make no effort to write entertaining prose. A true TOEFL-prep textbook would be composed of serious-sounding essays featuring complex sentence structure, high-level vocabulary, and ideas academically presented in clear, logical form, ruthlessly following an outline. The collection of ten essays that Ms. Park had shown me was garbage, if the standard of judgment is TOEFL.



  1. So what happens when you happen to see one of your "unacceptable" draft articles used as a final product?

  2. I already told "Ms. Park" that, if my third draft is also unacceptable, she's free to have her team of editors rework my writing as they see fit, and she doesn't have to pay me a single won, but I'm not doing a fourth draft. So I burned that bridge pretty thoroughly.

    I did, however, experience the very problem you describe when I was a teacher at Sookmyung U.: I had been asked to develop short, paragraph-long problems for the school's MATE exam (funny acronym: Multimedia-Assisted Test of English), and I would be paid at a rate of W10,000 per problem. I enthusiastically developed over 50; all but 10 were rejected, and instead of being paid for those 10, I was told that I would be compensated 10 hours to make up for the fact that my schedule, that semester, was 10 hours short of the minimum required number of work hours. So I got paid jack shit after all that effort.

    The whole thing felt suspiciously coincidental to me (I'm 10 hours short, and 10 problems get accepted), and I later found out from a coworker that the MATE ladies were using some of my "rejected" material in their new test write-ups! Bitches. So I felt pretty thoroughly raped, and there was nothing I could do except say "no" when the MATE ladies came to me again to ask for help.

    It's been years, but I'm still pissed off about that. Some employers here really like to use people. In this most recent case, I decided to nip the problem in the bud, as this was only the first article I'd been asked to write for the company.

  3. Bill Keezer comments:

    I think you did the right thing, and you will be a bit more gun-shy in the future, which is good. Experience is expensive but of great value. I often use a line similar to: Wisdom is what you get by doing the things you wouldn’t do if you had wisdom.

  4. You could have always asked to work again with the first gentleman by informing the powers that be there that Mrs. Park was not working out and explained why. Sometimes deadwood gets ingrained in a company and TPTB aren't aware of just how rotten that wood has become. They may have been very appreciative of your honest feedback even if it meant the loss of her face because it is causing the company to lose face (and money) by having "her" not working well with others and putting out shoddy materials under the company banner.

  5. The first gentleman is Ms. Park's boss; he's the head of the department.

    I don't know; it could be that Ms. Park needs to be weeded out, but I have no idea how well she clicked with my predecessors. My tentative impression, given her statement of mistrust, is that she's already gone through a line of writers who have proven unsatisfactory to her. Perhaps from their point of view, working with her was a difficult experience, too. When you think the entire world is crazy, it's probably you who's the crazy one.

    If the gentleman writes me back to ask for clarification, as he might, I'll be frank with him about Ms. Park, although a nice-guy part of me will be tempted to add, "Go easy on her; she's just doing her job."



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