Freelance writers love to write about themselves. I’ve rarely seen navel-gazing essays by engineers or designers or teachers or anyone, really, other than writers. Here’s a long piece from The Awl:
When people say they want to get into freelancing but don’t know how to do it, what I tell them is: OK, fine, you don’t know how to freelance because you’ve never done it before, but take something you do know how to do—dating—and just use the same rules. Freelancing is basically just courtship, but the freelancer-editor relationship is nothing more than friends with benefits. The editor likes you because you remind the editor of when they had enthusiasm and appetite and vision and so you make the editor feel powerful in the way that nostalgia empowers people.
But the editor will never choose you over the publication to which they are married. It will not even be a fleeting thought in the editor’s mind. The freelancer can have a lot of fun, but is ultimately the editor’s plaything. And any one freelancer is, above all things, unnecessary and replaceable. I always felt like the most fumbling juggling act in the industry.
Freelancing is an adventure the way “Locked Up Abroad” is an adventure. Journalism even at its best is already a fairly caustic and draining experience. All the qualities that make you a great journalist make you a terrible person: gossip, urgency, obsession, noisiness, theatrics and hysterics. I help anyone who asks for it. Just this past Friday, I got an email at 3:38 a.m. from a Pulitzer-winning friend who wanted my help with a New Yorker assignment; I called their cell at 3:39. I never wanted to be one of those broken, bitter people. Why would anyone want to lose friends and alienate people?
The writer now has a real job, with a desk and colleagues and a regular paycheck.
Freelancing is a weird way to make a living. Others out-earn you by a factor of three or five or ten and you wonder if it’s done with mirrors. You’re all writers. You’ve all written for Really Big Magazines. Do they…never sleep? People think you’re out-earning them so they don’t want to help or offer help because you don’t need it and they do, but in fact you really do but if you admit you do you’ve lost face.
One of the anecdotes in the Awl story rung especially true for me as well, when an editor at The New York Times, after he’d already been writing for them for five years, suggested he try elsewhere. The Times is like a very large cruise ship. My sweetie works there and I’ve gone to the cafeteria, (which is gorgeous, with window walls and turmeric-colored plaster and very good food) and introduced — the grubby freelancer — one editor to another who had never met, even after years working there. I’ve written for eight sections of the paper (so far!) and every editor is like Everest. Bring Sherpas! You have to persuade every single one of them that, yes, even after decades writing for their colleagues, you are still capable of producing accurate material.
I wonder if it’s like this in other fields where people must sell their skills over and over and over and over. It is so much less about what we finally produce, a pile ‘o words, than the daily quest for smart, good people who pay decently for work we want to offer them. Morgan says he found four such editors in seven years. I’d say that’s about right.
I’ve been working with the same editors for years, a few for decades. They’re not big fancy outlets, but the work is enjoyable and Con Ed doesn’t care where the money comes from as long as I pay them on time.
Thanks to a variety of forces, pay remains abysmal. I pitched a Times editor recently and was offered $250 less than for the same material two years earlier. When I read in the Business section how the Times has regained profitability, I sure know one reason why.
For now, I’m still in this game. There are few ways to earn a living that offer, at its best, the freedom and fun of journalism. It’s corporate enough to know the check (usually) will arrive in time and clear but loose enough you can find places to still be your quirky self.
Is your field like this?