Hack writer is a colloquial and usually pejorative term used to refer to a writer who is paid to write low-quality, rushed articles or books "to order", often with a short deadline. In a fiction-writing context, the term is used to describe writers who are paid to churn out sensational, lower-quality "pulp" fiction such as "true crime" novels or "bodice ripping" paperbacks. In journalism, the term is used to describe a writer who is deemed to operate as a "mercenary" or "pen for hire", expressing their client's political opinions in pamphlets or newspaper articles. So-called "hack writers" are usually paid by the number of words in their book or article; as a result, hack writing has a reputation for quantity taking precedence over quality.
The term "hack writer" was first used in the 18th century, "when publishing was establishing itself as a business employing writers who could produce to order." The derivation of the term "hack" was a "shortening of hackney, which described a horse that was easy to ride and available for hire." In 1728, Alexander Pope wrote The Dunciad, which was a satire of "the Grub-street Race" of commercial writers who worked in Grub Street, a London district that was home to a bohemian counterculture of impoverished writers and poets. In the late 19th century, Anthony Trollope's novel The Way We Live Now (1875) depicts a female hack writer whose career was built on social connections rather than writing skill.
Many authors who would later become famous worked as low-paid hack writers early in their careers, or during a downturn in their fortunes. As a young man, Anton Chekhov had to support his family by writing short newspaper articles; Arthur Koestler penned a dubious Dictionary of Sexuality for the popular press; Samuel Beckett translated for the French Reader's Digest; and William Faulkner churned out Hollywood scripts.
A number of films have depicted hack writers, perhaps because the way these authors are "prostituting" their creative talents makes them an interesting character study. In the film adaptation of Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949), author Graham Greene added a hard-drinking hack writer named Holly Martins. In Jean-Luc Godard's film Contempt (1964), a hack screenwriter is paid to doctor a script. In the film Adaptation. (2002), Nicolas Cage depicts an ill-educated character named Donald Kaufman who finds he has a knack for churning out cliché-filled movie scripts.
The term "hack" has been adopted by UK journalists as a form of humorous, self-deprecating self-description. The term was popularized in the UK by Private Eye magazine, which refers to male journalists as "hacks" and female journalists as "hackettes."
In the US, the term "hack" is used as a pejorative attack, among writers, journalists, bloggers, and comedians.
- Accreditation mill • Diploma mill • Ordination mill • Contract cheating / Essay mill
- Author mill • Vanity publishing
- Puppy mill
- Ghostwriter, a writer who is paid to write books or articles that are credited to another person
- Essay mill, a ghostwriting service that provides university students with essays and term papers for a fee
- Content farm
- Robert Fulford (19 August 2003). "When hacks attract: Serious artists are drawn to tales of mercenary scribes". The National Post.