The writer’s life — MIA sources, LOIs, the quest for ideas

By Caitlin Kelly

The New York Times newsroom
The New York Times newsroom

As some of you know, I make my living as a full-time freelance writer, with work published many times in The New York Times, in Marie Claire and Cosmopolitan, and on-line for Quartz, Rewireme.com, Investopedia and many others.

Samples of my work are here, if you’re interested. I’m always looking for new clients!

The first quarter of 2015 has been seriously weird.

While in England in early January, I reported two fun stories for Our Minutes, a website devoted to watches. I also went out to High Wycombe, a suburban town 45 minutes from London, to report on a well-established social service organization, one that their major funder considered extremely innovative. I spent a full day there and interviewed six people, plenty of data for an 1,800 word story.

This was to have been my first piece for a major international magazine. A big deal. A chance to impress a new client.

The editor, as is typical, had a few questions after reading my story, which I sent along to my sources. They failed to answer two of them — so I persisted.

Silence.

Multiple emails and phone calls went un-returned. This was a bizarre first for me in 30 years of journalism.

I finally emailed their funder, reluctant to embarrass the group, but stymied.

They had shut down.

BUSINESS OF FREELANCING

That would have been difficult and unlikely enough, had a similar thing not happened a month earlier with a different story, a long (3,500 word) feature for a major American women’s magazine. I’d spent weeks on it, eight hours alone with the profile’s subject, a woman with a long and impressive track record in her field. I’d spent more hours interviewing a dozen of her family, friends and colleagues.

The editor liked my first draft and we were set to start on revisions when I saw a story about the woman in The New York Times — being investigated by the mayor for an ethical breach.

Boom! That story?

Dead — in magazine parlance, literally, killed.

I was, as is only fair, paid in full for my work; I can’t control the ethics or behaviors of the people I cover. I choose people and groups with a proven track record. I’m neither naive nor gullible.

But this? Two stories exploding in two months, both before (thank heaven!) publication?

Now I wonder how much tougher I’ll need to be with every single person, company and organization I think is worth covering.

I interviewed 104 people for this book -- all original interviews. Yes, they're real people!
I interviewed 104 people for this book — all original interviews. Yes, they’re real people!

For someone who — like Scheherezade — stays alive only by telling story after story — this is a daunting prospect.

I’m not sure what’s happening these days, but wrangling sources — i.e. finding real people to talk to me and be quoted and/or photographed for a story — is getting tougher. Even those who agree tend to disappear on deadline. Failure is not an option! Without sources, I have nothing to write, sell and get paid for.

People who fantasize about freelance writing full-time picture a life of ease — up at the crack of noon, Auntie Mame-style, noodle about, make some calls, write something the editor loves, prints and promptly pays for.

Riiiiiiight…

20131111171501

I enjoy what I do, but it is, always, a hustle: for new clients, for more work from existing clients, finding interesting stories to tell, finding sources willing to speak on the record.

The Times, for years an anchor client of mine, recently severely slashed its freelance budgets, cutting loose several people with columns that had run there for years.

So I’ve been sending out LOIs — letters of introduction — letting editors who don’t know me or my work know that I’d love to work for them.

The problem?

Pay rates can be laughably low for even the most august and putatively well-off, so when they write back, (if they do), you discover, for example, that Harvard’s alumni magazine offers — wait for it! — 50 cents a word.

That’s $500 for 1,000 words, a story that would pay $2,500 from a Conde Nast publication, possibly even more.

Harvard’s current endowment? $36.4 billion — as of June 2014.

You have to laugh, really.

Then move on.

My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)
My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)

One of the interesting challenges of writing journalism is that of playing man-in-the-middle — finding and wrangling good sources while also pleasing your editor(s.) Writing skills matter, of course, but terrific people skills, the willingness and ability to negotiate diplomatically for everything from contract terms to whether someone is on or off the record, are also paramount.

When these two stories headed for the delete pile, I kept my editors in the loop every step of the way to let them know this might happen.

Personally, I was deeply embarrassed, worried, stupefied by my hard work simply going to waste through no fault of my own. But I couldn’t just focus only on my many feelings — these editors have magazines to fill, deadlines to meet and demanding bosses of their own to please.

When you work alone at home, year after year, often never even meeting your clients face to face, it’s too easy to forget that you’re part of a team, only one link in the editorial supply chain.

Writing journalism means remembering that you’re one domino in a long line — and if one falls, others will as well.

If you’ve been following the Rolling Stone debacle (?)…

It all begins with trust:

— trust that your sources are being truthful

— that they (if you’re interviewing by email) are in fact the people you think they are

— that you, the writer, have done your due diligence and aren’t handing over a pack of lies to your unwitting editor.

It’s a big responsibility and one I never take lightly. At lunch a few years ago with a fellow veteran, we discussed the very few times we had made an error in our work — and how physically ill it made us feel. If you’re not a perfectionist, this isn’t the job for you.

Here’s a recent popular post I wrote about this life.

20 thoughts on “The writer’s life — MIA sources, LOIs, the quest for ideas

  1. When I see an author published in a magazine, I often think how lucky that person is. You’ve given me a whole different perspective. I know writing is hard work, but all that vetting is something I never really thought about. Kudos to you for the successes you’ve had and I wish you all the best (luck has nothing to do with it) in finding reliable places that value your work.

  2. Everyone is in too much pain to comment.

    A corporate blogging client of mine actually asked me to write marketing material for an escort company, for $20 an hour. Not even kidding. He still doesn’t know why I quit. He just can’t wrap his head around it.

  3. this sounds like a huge challenge and must be very frustrating at times, to say the least. especially when you are willing to put in the hard work and the story never comes to fruition, through no fault of your own. i applaud your resilience.

    1. It is what it is!

      These explosions have been unprecedented — thank heaven. I still have to haggle with the second magazine to make sure I get my full fee from them. That’s the part I hate.

      But thanks…:-)

  4. I wish I could have a life like you — being able to write so good, and being published on some of the world’s best publications. But then again, I’m not the only one who wishes…

  5. Pingback: [LINK] “The writer’s life — MIA sources, LOIs, the quest for ideas” | A Bit More Detail

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s