Notes to a new freelance writer

I spent half of last week at the American Society of Journalists and Authors conference in New York. While conferences are supposed to be about professional education, I usually don’t go with that in mind. I go to meet people and say hello to people I know only virtually. And I did a lot of that! But this year, I did use the occasion to think about my career and to reflect on what I’ve learned about the writing business over the past decade or so.

The first thing I’ve learned? It really does get easier, because surviving as a writer is both about your network and your skills. Your network becomes more robust as you meet more people and as the people you know move up in the world. This is often not a linear process, but good people do rise over time. Be nice to that editor who was let go in a massive purge! She will be running your dream publication in 4 years. And as for skills, this is just a matter of growing more comfortable with your craft. You know what a good quote sounds like. You know who is a good “expert” and who is not. You know what constitutes a grabby anecdote. And you know that starting three sentences with a parallel structure works but four is really pushing it — which is why I started this sentence with “and” and not “you.”  

Other tips:

  • Achieving Zen as a freelancer often involves having one or two anchor clients. These are hassle-free projects that pay regularly and pay enough to cover your basic expenses. Ideally, they take up less than half your time, so you’ve got the other half to take on more exciting assignments.
  • Blog. For two reasons. One is that it gives you lots of practice writing, and craft is about volume and feedback. Second, it’s an instant portfolio. People who are starting out often ask how they can get their first clip. Well, these days, you can publish your own. And then you can point to it as an example of your raw writing. If it’s good, that speaks volumes.
  • Think about rhythm. When people are reading your writing, they’re actually saying it in their heads. So good writing tends to be writing that could be read aloud. The sentences aren’t too long. The words aren’t too flowery. And you get that parallel structure thing again — sort of like a preacher does.
  • Anecdotes aren’t evidence, but people love them. So invest the time in finding good ones. Often it helps to ask interview subjects “and then what happened? and then what happened?” Get as many details as possible. I often do this by presenting the interviewee with two choices: “Did you think that was a good idea or were you worried about the decision?” (Or many other equivalent questions). This seems to make it easier for people to choose, or to tell you that both options are wrong. But either way, you get more fodder.
  • If you’re interviewing an A-list celebrity, their publicity person will call you four times to reschedule the interview and if it’s a phone interview, it will probably happen while the person is racing between an elevator and a car. Just be prepared for this.
  • If you’re working on a piece and it’s coming out pretty good, make it really good. I got this tip from the narrative journalism panel run by Katherine Lewis at ASJA. One amazing article trumps 6 mediocre ones in terms of landing future work, because you have a go-to portfolio piece. I like my Korean Greengrocers piece from City Journal quite a bit. (It was good enough that the New York Times ran their own version of the same story a few months later — linking to me, which was nice).
  • When you can’t stop thinking about a topic, that’s a sign that there might be a longer work in there. Maybe a book!
  • Book writing is its own beast. Someday I’ll write a blog post about book proposals. The key thing to keep in mind here is that you want to convince a publisher that your book idea is brilliant AND that you are the right person to write it AND that you already have an audience. A good title helps too. It’s publishing lore that The 4-Hour Workweek first came to all the major business publishers called “Drug Dealing for Fun and Profit.” Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated almost went to the printer as “The Myth of the Natural.” You want a title that does a lot of heavy lifting for you.
  • Book writing probably shouldn’t be your anchor client. Even a decent advance often comes in four chunks: signing, manuscript delivery, publication and paperback. This can be spread over 3 separate calendar years. Six figures sounds like a lot of money, but it’s less money when you consider the multi-year commitment. And most advances aren’t six figures.
  • I’m not a member of Freelance Success, but I keep hearing good things about its forums for new writers. People are helpful and give good tips. I recommend the ASJA conference each year as well.
  • If you’re trying to transition into a new subject area, try pitching a few pieces that have an intersection between your current focus and the one you’d like. But don’t stress about this too much. I often call myself a business writer, just because I want to. There’s no special certificate anywhere giving you subject matter endorsement.
  • Many print publications pay “per word.” One of the idiotic things people who aren’t writers say is “oh, are you tempted to pad out the word count then?” No. It’s assigned at a certain length, and “per word” is just a short hand way of getting at the project fee, understanding that the work is often proportional to length. Many online publications are paying a per post rate these days, though, since length is less tightly prescribed.
  • Blind pitching is a game with bad odds. Try to meet or get an introduction to anybody you plan to pitch. Best is when they call you.
  • Write tight. Omit needless words! Buy Strunk & White’s Elements of Style.
  • Calculate what rates you’ll accept based on what you’ll earn per hour. If it takes you 7 hours to write a column that pays $700, then your per-hour rate is $100. That’s the number to keep in mind. If someone offers you $300 for a 400-word story, but you know you can crank it out in an hour, that’s a $300/hour rate — even better.
  • Preserve time for fun writing. Even a cool job like “writer” can become a grind if you let it, as you feed the content beast. Do some work just for the sheer pleasure of it. Why not? You’re the boss!

I’d love to hear any other writing tips people have.

6 thoughts on “Notes to a new freelance writer

  1. Great tips!! Here’s another tip: Think broadly and narrowly at the same time and reuse research. In other words, once you have a topic, keep it narrowly focused for the article at hand, but always have in the back of your mind other angles you can pitch. You shouldn’t reuse quotes, but maybe there was a quote you didn’t use for one article that you can use for another. For example, a topic like Korean greengrocers can be turned into articles on Korean immigration, the history of New York ethnic groceries, a profile / day-in-the-life, a guide to the best Korean greengrocers in a particular neighborhood, etc.

    1. @Stephanie- good idea. Sometimes I talk about “using all parts of the buffalo.” Ideally, you can make one run of research into multiple articles.

  2. Great post with excellent tips! You included a version of one of my favorites: read your work out loud to check for awkward phrasing, flow of words, and so on.

    I suggest that beginning writers keep a file or a list of works and queries submitted–even if the work is not accepted and published, at least you have a record of what you’ve done and often you can track your progress and development as a writer.

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