There are few worse feelings than finding out someone who does the same job as you makes a billion times more money than you. There are also few pettier people than the people who write for the internet, and this week, a certain article became a perfect storm of both of these things.
The article, called “I Get Paid $6,000 a Day to Write Inspirational Quotes for Instagram,” was published on the Time magazine vertical Money in September and went slightly viral this week (likely thanks to a Money reshare on Twitter) for exactly the reasons you’d expect, given the headline.
Responses from writers and other people who work in media ranged from debates over whether its author was a hero or a villain to your standard internet nihilism.
Is this person who charges Instagram grifters $950 an hour to write the inspirational quotes in their captions *also* a grifter, or are they a hero who takes from the grifters? https://t.co/ihygOgZDTX— Tom Gara (@tomgara) November 12, 2018
FUCK I will absolutely write stupid pablum for half that https://t.co/z0IQ1dnFfM— Brandy Jensen (@BrandyLJensen) November 12, 2018
But comb through the article and it’s not as eyebrow-raising as the headline suggests. The author, Laura Belgray, is the founder of the copywriting agency Talking Shrimp and has nearly two decades’ worth of experience writing for businesses and television. It’s the kind of professional background that can command Belgray’s rate of $950 an hour, which is where that “$6,000 a day” number comes in.
And, she told me, she tries to keep her client hours to one day a week, and most of that time isn’t spent writing Instagram quotes. It’s the other stuff: website copy, promos, and other social media.
Belgray is just one member of the growing cottage industry that is writing optimized captions for Instagram. A recent story on the Ringer touches on how lucrative this space has become, with young people launching entire agencies devoted to the art of the perfect Instagram caption.
Quotes, meanwhile — the artfully designed phrases atop cute images that are designed to be shared and reshared endlessly — are a separate beast. Specific posts can go super-viral (like the omnipresent “I Love Fridays Like Kanye Loves Kanye”) simply because they look good on an Instagram grid, even though many are taken from Pinterest, and even though many of them are terrible.
I spoke to Belgray over the phone about the reaction to her piece, what she thinks makes a bad Instagram quote, and what “good copy” is. And for those still seething over her enormous paycheck, she swears that any writer can do it. The following interview has been edited and condensed.
Your piece inspired a lot of envy from journalists on Twitter the other day, some of whom were like, “I want to fling myself into the sun.” What was your reaction to that?
[Laughs] That’s kind of how it originated, because I pitched it with the number and Adam [Auriemma], the editor of Money, was like, “Really, that much?” Like, “Shit, I’m in the wrong business.”
I hope that the story inspires people, especially people who can write, [to realize] that there’s so much work out there. All the words out there that we use for business or marketing or otherwise have to be written by somebody, and that creates a lot of work for writers. There’s just so much opportunity, and a lot of people who’ll pay good money if you will help them make more money or feel more proud of their presence online.
You said you just happened to fall into the Instagram quote-writing game, but how big is this space? How lucrative is it?
I would say that the title is a bit misleading because I make up to that much per day. I don’t work all day, every day at all. I do all kinds of writing for clients, whether I help them with their website, their Facebook posts, [or] their video scripts. [Instagram] isn’t my full-time business. But I think it could become an industry.
What kinds of Instagram quotes are the most annoying to you?
That’s a tough one because they’re not memorable. Nothing is coming to mind because they’re not well-phrased enough for me to remember them. For me, the one that makes me laugh that I find ironic is “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken,” that everyone posts over and over. Anything about originality that everyone posts over and over feels ironic to me.
The ones that drive me the most nuts are success quotes posted on top of Leo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street, who’s Jordan Belfort, who is a criminal. Then [there are] a lot of quotes about coffee — that “But first, coffee,” which we’ve seen enough times. To me, it is super basic. Quotes about coffee and quotes about wine, those kind of drive me crazy. It’s an easy go-to that’s not that funny.
It’s like you’re talking about these “vices” that aren’t really that edgy or interesting.
Right. And the wine one doesn’t take into consideration — not to get too PC about everything, but people who really struggle with that as a problem, and it’s making light of it. If you substituted heroin for any of those, you’d be like, “Oh, that’s not very nice.”
Do you have a favorite one you’ve written?
My favorite one that I wrote for myself is “I empower women to stop saying I empower women.” I like writing observational quotes about all the bullshit in the business in the online space. I go very meta.
How long does it take you to come up with snappier versions of quotes that your clients send you?
I would say we usually get through maybe 10 ideas in an hour.
You talk about this in the article a bit, but what makes bad copy? What are common mistakes people make?
Especially in a quote on Instagram, [good copy] is making it super clear, not too wordy, and ending on the punchiest word. You want to end on a word that you’re emphasizing. Always save that word for last and try to make it a surprise.
The key to writing with personality is sounding like a person. If it sounds like writing, you rewrite it.
How do you know when an Instagram quote is working?
I usually go by likes and engagement. If you have tons of either, then it’s a win. If I feel like people save them, that’s an extra win, or if they tag each other.
What’s your advice for young writers who feel like their options are a low-paying job in a dying industry or a low-paying job writing boring marketing copy?
I think because of the internet, you don’t have to settle for a low-level job for very long. If you practice a lot and start getting your name out there, which you can do by just getting into Facebook groups, you can pretty quickly build a reputation and a career for yourself. Every day, someone starts a new business — thousands of people do, maybe millions — and those people all need help. There are so many businesses and so few people who can write the words they need, so there’s a ton of work out there.
You can make up a website on Squarespace, you can start your own blog or write articles for Medium, you can start a list[serv] and write to them, offer them services, and eventually people will start paying.