Archive for the ‘books’ Category

What it takes to be a professional writer

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, work on October 22, 2015 at 3:38 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

The New York Times newsroom

The New York Times newsroom

It looks so easy.

Write, hit send.


In an era when we’re inundated with a veritable verbal Niagara — blogs, websites, Twitter, legacy media (i.e. newspapers and magazines), television, radio and, oh yeah, books — writing looks like such an easy-peasy way to make your name quickly.

I’ve been doing this for a living since my undergrad years at the University of Toronto, where I started learning my skills — yes, really — writing for the weekly school newspaper. I never studied journalism, then or later. But I worked for demanding, smart editors. A lot.

I’ve since produced two works of nationally-reported non-fiction, won a National Magazine Award and worked as a reporter for three major daily newspapers; my website has details, if of interest.

The late, great NYT media writer David Carr, a lively and funny speaker

The late, great NYT media writer David Carr, a lively and funny speaker

Here are some of the skills and behaviors you need as a professional writer of journalism and non-fiction:


Without it, don’t even bother. If you’re the person who drove your teachers nuts — and maybe you still do! — with endless questions, this is a great skill. You’re not just being annoying. The best writers are endlessly fascinated by the world and the people around us, whether the woman sitting next to you in a cafe or the homeless man on the corner or the neighbor who never, ever smiles.

What’s their story?

This group of young men, the topic of a recent documentary, The Wolfpack. The film-maker had to win their trust to move ahead with the project

This group of young men, the topic of a recent documentary, The Wolfpack. The film-maker had to win their trust to move ahead with the project

Tact — aka wrangling strangers

I tell would-be journalists that our job is much less that of writing well (which matters, of course!) than the ability to wrangle strangers. If you can’t make a total stranger immediately comfortable in your presence, whether face to face or over the phone or Skype or email, you won’t be able to gather the information, color, detail and compelling anecdotes your story needs to come alive.

Many people are afraid of, or even hate, journalists and their nosy questions. People are shy or scared and/or fear they’ll be misquoted or taken out of context.

It’s your job to soothe their fears — ethically! — and allow them to share their story.


No functional journalist can do a good job without it. No matter who your subject is, or how different they are from you, you must seek to understand and convey their experience of the world.

The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015. Get out into the world! Take notes!

The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015. Get out into the world! Take notes!


We live in a noisy and distracted world. The greatest gift you can offer someone now is your undivided attention — and you theirs. People have much to tell us, but in order to hear them clearly we need to listen attentively.

Put down your phone!

Shut the door and eliminate all possible interruptions (dogs, kids, coworkers) while you’re conducting an interview.

Read others’ writing

Every ambitious creative makes time and spends money observing the best of their field — musicians, dancers, film-makers, artists. How else to appreciate the consummate skill and technique they’ve honed?

I now see younger writers sneering at the antiquated notion they actually need to learn their craft. They do.

I read many magazines and newspapers, a few longform websites, (Aeon, Medium, Narratively) and many works of non-fiction. I’m still hungry, even decades into my own successful career, to watch others being excellent and to learn what I can from them.

My first book, published in 2004

My first book, published in 2004

Listen to others’ interview techniques

Like the legendary NPR host Terry Gross; here’s a recent profile of her.

Social capital — aka connections


It’s not as difficult as some imagine to forge connections with writers, agents, editors, even those with a lot more experience than you have right now. Attend every conference you can, like this one — for women only, in New York City, November 7 and 8.

Create and carry with you everywhere a handsome business card and be sure to collect others’.

When you meet someone whose work you admire, let them know. If you want to break into this world, reach out to other writers on Twitter, through their blogs, at classes and seminars and workshops.

Writers can be shy and introverted but no one makes it alone.


No one, I guarantee you, is an “overnight success.” You may only see their front-page byline or NYT best-seller tag, but it probably took them years to achieve the social capital, skills, experience and insights to get there. I weary of newer writers stamping their feet and expecting it all to happen on some accelerated timeline.

My second book, published in 2011

My second book, published in 2011


Both of my books, (well-reviewed), were each rejected by 25 publishers before a major New York house bought them, the first by Pocket Books, (a division of Simon & Schuster) and Portfolio, (a division of Penguin.) My agents (two different ones for each book) did not give up.

Many successful writers face tremendous rejection along the way to eventual success.

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

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

Attention to craft

I can’t say this too strongly.

Learn your craft!

Take a class, find a mentor or coach, read books on how to write well — there are many, from Stephen King to Anne Lamott to Roy Peter Clark.

It’s arrogant and naive to think that simply pushing hard on the heavy doors of the publishing and journalism world will gain you access.

If they do swing open, you’d better bring a strong set of skills!

And now that editors are busy and overwhelmed, very few have the time, interest or energy to mentor you or help you improve your writing and reporting along the way.

So….how to conduct a terrific interview?

How to gather the reporting your story most needs?

How to come up with great, timely, salable ideas?

I offer webinars, (individually, scheduled at your convenience) and have coached many writers worldwide to improved skills and confidence.

One of them, a 22 year old Harvard grad traveling the world alone by bicycle to gather stories of climate change, hired me to get her work into The Guardian — with no prior journalism experience.

Here it is.

Why there’s no such thing as a low-skilled job

In behavior, books, business, culture, journalism, life, U.S., work on October 8, 2015 at 3:17 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Many people in New York working low-wage jobs need a food bank to feed their family. Fair?

Many people in New York working low-wage jobs need a food bank to feed their family. Fair?

Great op-ed recently in The New York Times:

Most people walking through casino employee hallways — janitors, housekeepers, retail workers — are categorized as unskilled laborers, and the laws of capitalism clearly state that we are all easily replaceable: Anyone can be trained to do our jobs.

Headlines tell us that “College Graduates Are Wasting Their Degrees in Low-Skilled Jobs,” that “Skilled Workers Are in Short Supply.” We’re raised, in the culture of American capitalism, to believe certain things, without question, namely that the value of work is defined by the complexity of the task and not the execution of it, that certain types of work are not worthy of devoting a lifetime to…

Like an athlete, a worker completing the same task for the thousandth time knows that muscle memory and precision are powerful tools. But in the workplace, there are no advanced graphics or slow-motion replays highlighting the efficiency of movement, the prioritizing of tasks or how a more meticulous approach can mean the difference between a chaotic shift and a seamless one.

Instead, the routine, repetitive nature of these jobs is perceived to define workers’ limitations, rather than their capabilities. And although most low-skill work requires a constant interaction with people, because of its low-paying status it is deemed a dead end, rather than a testament to an individual’s ability to acquire, adapt and specialize.

This is a subject I feel passionate about, selfishly, because I lived this experience when I moved, after losing my well-paid professional reporting job at the New York Daily News, then the nation’s sixth-largest daily, into a part-time $11/hour retail sales associate position.

malled cover LOW

The recession hit journalism hard and early; by 2008, 24,000 of us had lost our jobs and many fled — into other industries, to teaching. Lucky ones retired early and many of us, like me, went freelance; huge drop in income but complete control of my workload and schedule.

I hadn’t earned so little since I was a teenager, a lifeguard in high school in Toronto. But it was the stunning lack of respect I felt behind the counter, wearing my plastic name badge, that stung more.

Working retail was like entering a whole other world, as I wrote in this New York Times essay:

Sometimes I feel like Alice slipping through the looking glass, toggling between worlds. In one world, I interview C.E.O.’s, write articles for national publications and promote my nonfiction book. In the other, I clock in, sweep floors, endlessly fold sweaters and sort rows of jackets into size order. Toggling between the working class and the chattering class has taught me a lot about both: what we expect of ourselves, how others perceive us, ideas about our next professional step and how we’ll make it.

The contrasts between my former full-time job and my current part-time one have been striking. I slip from a life of shared intellectual references and friends with Ivy graduate degrees into a land of workers who are often invisible and deemed low-status.

In journalism, my workplaces often felt like rooms filled with balloons, enormous and fragile egos rubbing and squeaking up against one another until, inevitably, several burst with a bang

In retail, divas are fired or soon quit. In journalism, I’ve had managers who routinely shrieked abuse. In retail, I’m managed by a man who served in the United States Air Force in Mogadishu and who wears his authority comfortably and rarely raises his voice.

What became obvious to me within a few weeks of working retail was how difficult and physically grueling it is. (Like food service in any capacity as well.)


But that’s not a big surprise, right?

What was striking to me was how crucial people skills — aka EQ — were to selling successfully and getting along with a team of 14 co-workers, a very mixed bag.

Hardly a low-skill job!

Nor is food service, waitressing or bar-tending. Any job that’s deemed “customer-facing” — and which adds the exhausting component of bending, stretching, carrying, reaching and standing for hours plus staying calm and pleasant (aka emotional labor) is not low-skill.

My retail job pushed me to my outer limits, physically and emotionally, while being intellectually deadening. Not a pretty combination.

But I saw how many unrewarded skills it took:

There’s no college degree in patience

There’s no MBA in compassion

There’s no Phd in common sense

There’s no MA in stamina

I saw much less common sense and EQ among some of the college students I taught, teenagers paying $60,000 for a year of formal education at a fancy private school, than among the young people I worked retail with — almost all of whom had a college degree or were working toward one.

The “low-skilled.”

Demeaning and financially undervaluing these skills — the same ones that keep the U.S. economy humming as much as any Wall Street billionaire — completely misses the essential contributions that millions of low-paid, hard-working people make every day.

Have you worked a low-wage, “low skill” job?

How did it — or does it — affect you?

My writing workshops Oct. 17 and 18, near New York City

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, education, journalism, Media, work on September 25, 2015 at 12:10 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

The New York Times newsroom

The New York Times newsroom

Some of you are already writing non-fiction, memoir, journalism, essays.

Some of you would like to!

Some of you would like to find newer, larger, better-paying outlets for your work.

Some of you would like to publish for the first time.

Maybe you’d like to write a non-fiction book, but where to start?

I can help.

My first book, published in 2004

My first book, published in 2004

As the author of two well-reviewed works of nationally reported non-fiction, Blown Away: American Women and Guns and Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail, winner of a Canadian National Magazine award and five fellowships, I bring decades of experience as a writer for the most demanding editors.  I’ve been writing freelance for The New York Times since 1990 and for others like More, Glamour, Smithsonian and Readers Digest.

My website is here.

I’ve taught writing at Pace University, Pratt Institute, New York University, Concordia University and the Hudson Valley Writers Center — and have individually coached many writers, from New Zealand, Singapore and Australia to England and Germany.

My students’ work has been published in The New York Times, The Guardian, and others.

Here’s one of them, a young female cyclist traveling the world collecting stories of climate change.

malled cover LOW

On Saturday October 17, and Sunday October 18, I’m holding a one-day writing workshop, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at my home in Tarrytown New York, a town named one of the U.S’s 10 prettiest.

It’s easily accessible from Grand Central Station, a 38 minute train ride north of Manhattan on Metro-North Railroad, (round trip ticket, $20.50), plus a five-minute $5 cab ride to my home — we have an elevator so there’s no issue with mobility or access.

Coming by car? Tarrytown is right at the Tappan Zee bridge, easy to reach from New Jersey, Connecticut and upstate.

Each workshop is practical, tips-filled, down-to-earth and allows plenty of time for your individual questions. The price includes lunch and non-alcoholic beverages.

$200.00; payable in advance via PayPal only.

Space is limited to only nine students. Sign up soon!


Freelance Boot Camp — October 16

What you’ll learn:

  • How to come up with salable, timely story ideas
  • How to decide the best outlets for your ideas: radio, digital, print, magazines (trade or consumer), newspapers, foreign press
  • How to pitch effectively
  • Setting fees and negotiating
  • When to accept a lower fee — or work without payment

Writing and Selling a Work of Non-Fiction — October 17

What you’ll learn:

  • Where to find ideas for a salable book
  • The question of timing
  • What’s a platform? Why you need one and how to develop it
  • The power of voice
  • Why a book proposal is essential and what it takes
  • Finding an agent
  • Writing, revising, promoting a published book

Questions or concerns? Email me soon at learntowritebetter@gmailcom.

You’ll find testimonials about my teaching here, as well as details on my individual coaching, (via phone or Skype), and webinars, (by phone or Skype), offered one-on-one at your convenience.

Want to register now?


Email me at and I’ll send you an invoice and share travel details.

More simple pleasures…

In antiques, art, beauty, behavior, books, domestic life, life on September 1, 2015 at 12:30 am

By Caitlin Kelly

That low, golden, slanting light of autumn

Lying by the pool, snoozing, listening to the symphony of cicadas, planes buzzing overhead and sprinklers

Dinner on the balcony at sunset

Frozen yogurt with sprinkles

Blueberry pancakes with bacon and maple syrup


Watching “Casablanca” for the umpteenth time — “Of all the gin joints…”


Maple syrup — on almost anything


A stash of my favorite Canadian candy: Big Turk, Crunchie, Mackintosh toffee and Crispy Crunch

An icy gold gimlet, (expertly made by my husband)

Our balcony garden


And its shadows


Sitting at an oak table made 300 years ago, wondering who else has sat there over the centuries

Listening to Joshua Bell playing Mozart at Lincoln Center

Having my hashtag go viral — #MissingTheZero — because too many Big Name Publishers are paying us pennies now

Candles flickering, tapers and votives and lanterns

We love to have dinner on our balcony, a pleasure we eagerly await all year long

Dinner on our balcony

A cotton vintage tablecloth


Savoring a book I like so much I don’t want it to end (The Goldfinch)

A new pair of pretty shoes

Freshly ironed pillowcases

A cool breeze

Lighting a fire in the fireplace

Playing co-ed Saturday softball with the same friends for 15 years

Writing a story I know will make a difference, like this one

And you?

The boundaries of journalism

In art, behavior, books, culture, domestic life, entertainment, film, journalism, life on August 6, 2015 at 2:06 am

By Caitlin Kelly

The New York Times newsroom

The New York Times newsroom

I recently watched two terrific films — one a feature, one a documentary — that raise interesting questions about when, how, why and where we, (I’ve been a journalist for 30 years) decide we see a story and decide we want to tell it.

Must tell it.

The feature, based on real life, is called True Story, and is quite extraordinary. I remember, even 13 years ago when it happened, the downfall of a then Golden Boy of journalism, Mike Finkel.

It’s a very rare journalist who gets to write a story, let alone multiple pieces all-expense paid to travel to some distant country to do original reporting, for The New York Times Magazine. It’s considered a real pinnacle for ambitious writers — and one I have yet to scale, even as I enviously read friends’ work being published there.

What Finkel did, combining several characters to make one more compelling, is completely taboo in news journalism, which is mean to rely wholly on verifiable, truthful fact.

But the pressures to stay well-paid and widely admired and respected by editors with the power to make or break our careers? Relentless. It’s only worse now in an age of social media, as my friend Karen Ho knows — her recent Toronto Life story about a murder-for-hire has won huge attention and kudos from the toughest editors in the business.

Yet she’s still working, for the moment, for a small and remote news outlet.

Ambition is crucial for a successful journalism career. But so are rigorous fact-checking and tight ethical boundaries — as the editors of Rolling Stone have also learned after the fiasco of a story about rape at the University of Virginia that rapidly fell apart and has resulted in firings and lawsuits.

In “True Story”, which features a chilling performance by James Franco as Christian Longo, who murdered his entire family, the mutual manipulation is quite amazing to see. (Another fine film examining this issue is Capote, starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as author Truman Capote.)

One of the many issues I found so compelling about TS is how it lays bare the ravening ego of a writer who’s fallen from grace — and how desperate he was to redeem himself professionally. Like throwing meat to the lions, he calls every editor he knows, all of whom now worry that he’ll just lie to them as well.

It’s also a painfully truthful film for anyone who’s still lusting to reach the higher rungs of the ladder of writing success — which is almost everyone!

You’ve just won a Pulitzer? Your best friend has a Neiman. You won a Neiman? Your college room-mate won a MacArthur “genius” grant or your former intern won a high six-figure advance/Hollywood contract/three-book deal/NYT best-seller list.

It’s a world of insecurity, self-doubt and perpetual status anxiety.

Yet — without credibility — even the most talented and hardworking journalist has nothing.

The documentary, The Wolfpack, is an astounding film, about six brothers — wearing dark sunglasses, waist-length glossy black hair and some very sharp suits — who grew up sequestered in one of the world’s largest cities, Manhattan. The Angulo brothers (they also have a sister) were essentially held hostage by their father, the only person with keys to the door of their huge apartment in a public housing project on the Lower East Side.

The pathology of his marriage to their mother, a gentle, soft-spoken Midwestern woman, is equally mysterious. Only one moment, and it’s brief, hints at even darker issues.

Darker than keeping your seven children locked up for decades?

As one of them tells film-maker Crystal Moselle, they’d leave their home maybe nine times a year — or one year, not at all.

The men are funny, engaging, stylish and blessed with extraordinary imaginations and empathy. It’s hard to even imagine their life before Moselle discovered them, and their story, on a city sidewalk.

From a recent review:

The Wolfpack is mesmerizing but not because it has stunning cinematography or dazzling effects: the footage is grainy, resembling home movies. Moselle’s camera is surprisingly non-judgemental, especially considering that the film’s subject matter screams “child abuse” and “domestic violence.”

Nevertheless, I couldn’t look away, and each cut felt like a cliffhanger, leaving me with questions that I had faith the filmmaker would answer (or at the very least, acknowledge). However, the documentary leaves many questions unanswered, and I couldn’t help but wonder why this family would volunteer to put their life on display considering the legal and moral questions the film was bound to raise.

In a press release, Moselle claims that she never felt the need to intervene, and that she sincerely believed that the children were well cared for. Perhaps the idea that all is well in the Angulo household is more clear to her than to the average viewer — she did spend years with the family — but a little on-camera reassurance (perhaps by a lawyer) would’ve made me feel slightly less uneasy.

It’s the boundary between voyeurism and value, between finding and telling an astonishing story and feeling squeamish knowing — as we do — that “astonishing” often means “bizarre” or “terrifying”.

One of my first national magazine stories

One of my first national magazine stories

Those of you working in journalism may have already heard this:

“Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”
Janet Malcolm

I sometimes wonder how much of that is true.

Time to up your writing or blogging game?

In blogging, books, business, education, journalism, Media, work on July 29, 2015 at 12:53 am

By Caitlin Kelly

One of my first national magazine stories

One of my first national magazine stories

As some of you already know, I make my living as a full-time freelance writer, with clients ranging from non-profits like WaterAid to journalism for The New York Times and many others. I’ve been writing for national magazines and newspapers since my days at the University of Toronto, was a staff reporter for three major daily newspapers, a magazine editor and now work from home for a wide range of clients.

Here’s my website, with many published articles, including the one which won me a National Magazine Award.

Whether it’s a personal essay, a reported story, an investigative piece — or a blog post — I know how to do it and can help you do it better!

The basics of great writing never change: clear thinking produces clear writing. But sometimes you need a smart and helpful editor to talk it through. That’s me.

I love teaching and coaching and take great pride and pleasure in my students’ progress.

This year I taught freshman writing at Pratt Institute, a private college in Brooklyn, and also taught blogging — where my students’ blogs helped them win prestigious internships and polish their writing and social media skills.

I also teach writing at the New York School of Interior Design in Manhattan, and recently helped six designers better understand the world of publishing and social media in my class “How to Catch an Editor’s Eye”. My classes there start again September 23.

Time to make some money with your writing?

Time to make some money with your writing?

As someone who’s been writing for demanding editors in Canada, Britain and the U.S. for decades — also author of two well-reviewed non-fiction books — I’m able to help newer or less-experienced writers refine their pitches, conceptualize ideas for a book proposal, think through your next steps in building a writing career.

My second book, published in 2011

My second book, published in 2011

As I did for this piece, I can also read a first draft of your story, offering many helpful, constructive editing comments, (tone, reporting, structure, etc.)

I met its young author at a conference in New York a few years ago and, since we’re both from Toronto, stayed in sporadic touch. She sent me a draft of her challenging and complex piece — about a murder by a former high school classmate of hers — and I helped her with it.

It’s since gotten a lot of attention, including from the Washington Post, Jezebel and others.

My first book, published in 2004

My first book, published in 2004

I often coach fellow writers — in person, by phone or Skype — as I recently did for one English journalist when I was on holiday in Dublin; I charge $225/hour (U.S.), payable in advance by Paypal to focus on anything you’d like advice on: blogging, journalism, online writing, non-fiction writing, pitching…

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

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

My webinars, which I can do by Skype or phone, are $150 for 90 minutes and I schedule them according to your convenience one-on-one — you’ll find testimonials from satisfied students from New Zealand, Australia, Germany, the U.S., Canada and England.

I learned how to canoe at camp -- useful when we went to Nicaragua

On assignment in Nicaragua for WaterAid


Email me at and let’s get started!

Moving from staff to freelance? Ten crucial tips

In behavior, blogging, books, business, education, journalism, life, Money, photography, US, work on May 30, 2015 at 1:17 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

The New York Times newsroom

The New York Times newsroom

Are you (yet) a member of “The Precariat”?

It’s also known as The Gig Economy.

From the Alternet:

I caught up with Gerald Friedman, who teaches economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and has written about the gig economy, to find out how this trend happened and what it means to workers and our increasingly unequal society.

Lynn Parramore: How did the shift away from full-time employment to the gig economy come about? What forces drove the change?

Gerald Friedman: Growing use of contingent workers (in “gigs”) came when capitalists sought to respond to gains by labor through the early 1970s, and in response to the victories capital won in the rise of the neoliberal era. Because contingent workers were usually not covered by union contracts or other legal safeguards, employers hired them to regain leverage over workers lost when unionized workers gained protection against unjust dismissal, and courts extended these protections to non-union workers under the “implicit contract” doctrine.

Similarly, the rising cost of benefits due to rising healthcare costs and government protection of retirement benefits (under the 1974 ERISA statute) raised the cost of full-time employment; employers sought to evade these costs by hiring more contingent workers…

GF: Talk of “microentrepreneurs” presents a favorable view of the rise of the gig economy, one consistent with liberal values of individualism and opportunity, even while ignoring the oppression and poverty-wages many find in the gig economy.

There are certainly some who enjoy the uncertainty of irregular employment. When unemployment rates fell to levels traditionally associated with full employment in the late-1990s, however, we saw how workers really feel about gig jobs: they rejected them and the contingent economy contracted.

Given a choice, workers choose careers and jobs, not freelance gigs.

By removing any social protection, the gig economy returns us to the most oppressive type of cut-throat and hierarchical capitalism, a social order where the power to hire and fire has been restored to employers, giving them once again unfettered control over the workplace.

I recently participated in an hour-long discussion of this, with Friedman as the opening expert, on WNPR; I speak in the final seven minutes and this is a link to that broadcast.

Rue Cler, Paris, where I spent 2 weeks. Vacation, for a freelance, is whenever and wherever you like

We stayed a block from the Rue Cler, Paris,  in December 2014. Vacation, for a freelance, is whenever and wherever you can afford to go. Some people choose to live overseas and work from there.

The American workforce is now one in which an estimated 40 percent of us work with zero safety net, beyond that which we create: (six months’ basic expenses saved, a separate emergency fund, a low-interest line of credit, disability and life insurance.)

Knowing how to survive thrive without a steady paycheck is a crucial new skill.

My husband recently left a secure, well-paid job at The New York Times.

Madness? Perhaps.

But, after 31 years there as a photographer and photo editor, having done almost everything one can do in a career,  (including helping them win a team Pulitzer Prize for their 9/11 coverage), and offered a healthy buyout package — which gave us the requisite six months’ of expenses cushion of savings –– he decided to leave a month or so ago.

While he seeks another full-time staff job — which he may not find — he’s discovering how pleasant life can be without a 2-hour train commute, (costing $300 a month), fighting his way crosstown through aggressive crowds and having to book vacation in the first week of January due to seniority issues.

It can be a huge adjustment, no matter how desired, to move from the relative security of a salary that arrives on schedule and is predictable in size and due date to the roller coaster life of the self-employed.

Jose has seen me work freelance since 2005 and knows I know those ropes.

Now he’s learning them as well.

I liked this piece about moving to freelance work from The Guardian — and her realization that giving away your time without financial compensation, even barter, however friendly and helpful — is something no full-time freelancer can afford.

Here’s a comprehensive and helpful guide from the Freelancer’s Union.

And five tips from Time magazine about readying yourself for that leap.

You can catch a midweek matinee!

You can catch a midweek matinee!

A few of the lessons I’m teaching him:

Don’t rush to say yes to every offer

Just because the client is prestigious and/or your bank balance is running low this month, don’t just leap at any offer you get. Is the client a good fit for your skills, experience, temperament? Have you done your due diligence on that client’s track record of payment and ethical behavior?

Don’t say no to what looks like a lousy offer; consider its every possible benefit

The hourly or day rate might be lower than ideal. It might be a low-prestige gig that pays well, or quickly, or both. The gig might introduce you to a new market and possibly expand your skill set, in effect paying you (even if not very well) to learn on the job.

Never agree to a gig without a clear, written agreement as to the scope of work

One major non-profit recently advertised for a photo editor freelance job, with a long list of responsibilities — with no clue how many hours a day or days a week or weeks per month they were offering. They just kept asking “What’s your day rate?” Nope. Avoid low-balling yourself before you know what they expect in return.

We started one of our days dancing from 7 to 9:00 a.m. All the office folk headed out early. Not us!

We started one of our days dancing from 7 to 9:00 a.m. All the office folk headed out early. Not us!

Never agree to a gig without a clear, written, signed agreement/contract

Things go south: your editor quits or gets fired; the budget is suddenly cut; your client hires a new assistant who hates everything you produce. You need protection. Spell out all your responsibilities, all their needs and the dates when you will be paid. It must be signed by both parties.

Everything is negotiable — including your decision to turn down a gig or leave one mid-stream

No one, ever, wants to walk away from a (well) paying client. Sometimes, though, it can be a wise choice to politely recuse yourself from a quicksand scenario where one client is sucking up all your time, energy and patience. Life is too short. (See: emergency fund.)

Negotiate! When someone offers you X fee, always ask for more. It’s been statistically proven that men almost always do, and often get it, while women just say “Thanks!” and get taken cheaply.

Your best sources of work are referrals from people who know, like and respect you and your work

It’s completely counter-intuitive that the fellow professionals with whom you’re now competing for freelance work can be, in fact, your best sources of good opportunities. In an office setting, you can face politics, nepotism, favoritism, seniority, sexism. For every ally and work-wife/husband, you might face a Game of Thrones-ish power struggle with someone.

Freelance life can offer plenty of stress, but if you have a strong, sturdy network of skilled, smart and ethical people who you help as often as possible! — you’ll never starve.

On assignment in rural Nicaragua...Gin up some paid adventures!

On assignment in rural Nicaragua…Gin up some paid adventures!

A ferocious work ethic — even if you wake up at noon and work in sweatpants — matters more than ever now

No missed deadlines! No slacking off!

You are selling your time, skills and experience. Never underestimate their value

Every freelance dollar you earn must now 100 percent fund your healthcare, retirement, sick days and paid vacations. You’re also on the hook for paying the full 15 percent of your income to fund Social Security, (employers usually pay 50 percent.) Boost your rates accordingly.

Stop...enjoy life's beauty. Put a fresh flower on your desk

Stop…enjoy life’s beauty. Put a fresh flower on your desk

You must take breaks, both in  your workday and your year

Without exercise, friends, face to face meetings and pleasure, you’ll quickly burn out. It’s isolating and lonely to work alone every day all day. It’s also tempting to work far too many hours instead of shutting off all electronics and access to email at a set hour so you can enjoy a full life, not just a new form of wage slavery.

Follow my friend Wendy’s three rules whenever possible as you choose (or refuse) a job:

Is it fun? Will I learn something new? Is it well-paid?

It should hit two of three.

Have you moved from a staff job to freelance life?

How’s it going?

What else would you advise a newbie to this way of working?

It all began with…

In aging, behavior, blogging, books, business, journalism, life, Media, work on May 27, 2015 at 12:01 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

Some of you want to become journalists or non-fiction authors.

Some of you have just graduated from college or university, wondering when your career will begin.

It will.

I recently found a piece of my early career that I’m so glad I still have, as so many of my other clips have been thrown away by accident or deliberately as I’ve moved around.

Today, with everything available on-line, it’s hard to recall a time when print was it and paper clips — (pun intended!) — were crucial to getting more work, carried around physically in a large, heavy portfolio case.

Here it is.

A story about testing cosmetics and other products on animals. Very tough stuff!

A story about testing cosmetics and other products on animals. Very tough stuff!

The reason this clip matters so much to me?

I was three years out of university, with no journalism training, but ferociously ambitious and already writing for national magazines before I graduated.

Without editors willing to take a chance on a writer in her early 20s, I’d never have gotten started, or so young. That trust meant everything!

I was lucky on a few counts:

I already lived in Toronto, Canada’s media capital; there were then many such magazines, several of them well-respected weekly supplements to newspapers, and they paid well; editors were willing to give me assignments, and more assignments.

And I had the cojones to walk into those glossy offices and make my pitches, sometimes even overcoming their doubts.

I wrote about the (then!) new fashion of wearing running shoes as casual wear, and the warring German brothers Adi Dassler (Adidas) and his brother, Rudolf, who founded Pumas. I also learned to pronounce the name of their town, and never forgot it — Herzogenaurach.

I got to watch a lady parachutist, hoping like hell not to fall out of the open aircraft door myself.

I got sent to Flint, Michigan to watch teen girls play a form of hockey called ringette.

More than anything, I was paid to learn my craft from some of the best, people old enough to have been my parents or professors.

The testing story came to me via a local activist, a woman I still run into when I go back to Toronto and visit the flea market, where she sells terrific jewelry. She was then a passionate advocate for animal rights and told me about the testing, some of which I saw done on cats in a downtown hospital.

It was pretty soul-searing.

But it also set the tone for much of the work I would later tackle as a journalist, whether visiting a cancer hospice in Quebec or writing a book, decades later, about women and guns.

I wanted serious intellectual and emotional challenge from my work and I still do.

This story appeared in March 1982 — the year my career took off after I won, in June 1982, an eight-month fellowship in Paris. I would spend Sept. 1982 to June 1983 in a group of 28 journalists from 19 nations, including Togo, Japan, Brazil, Ireland, New Zealand, Italy and, of course, the U.S. and Canada, with eight of us from North America.

The year was astounding. We traveled as a group to Germany and Italy. We also took off on solo ten-day reporting trips. I went to Copenhagen to write about the Royal Danish Ballet; to Comiso, Sicily to write about Cruise missiles, (speaking not a word of Italian!); to London and Amsterdam to write about squatters and an eight-day trip from Perpignan to Istanbul with a French truck-driver who spoke not a word of English.

I’m still friends with several of these fellow journalists, looking forward soon to seeing my Irish friend and meeting her two daughters, one of whom is now also a serious and ambitious journalist.

When I came back to Toronto, with the glittering dust of a recent fellowship gilding my resume, I got my first staff job at The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper. I had never written to a daily deadline in my life.

I stayed there 2.5 years then went to the Montreal Gazette, to work in French and enjoy Montreal. There I met my first husband, an American medical student finishing up at McGill, and followed him to New Hampshire, then to New York, where I’ve stayed ever since.

I hope to retire within the next few years and for now would like to focus all my energy, ideally, on writing non-fiction books, long-form stories and teaching. I love telling stories but also want to travel longer and further away than a deadline-driven life allows.

Journalism is an industry in a state of upheaval — usually politely termed disruption — and I’m grateful beyond words, (ironic for a writer!), that I was able to find staff work at three major dailies (my last staff job was at the NY Daily News, then the sixth-largest in the U.S.) along the way.

If there’s a more fun way to see the world and learn about it and tell others about it — and talk to everyone from Admirals and Prime Ministers to convicted felons and Olympic athletes — I’ve yet to discover it.

This long-defunct national Canadian magazine nurtured some of the nation's best writers, thanks to brave editor, the late Jane Gale Hughes

This long-defunct national Canadian magazine nurtured some of the nation’s best writers, thanks to brave editor, the late Jane Gale Hughes

Toughen up, buttercup!

In behavior, books, education, journalism, life, parenting, photography, work on May 23, 2015 at 1:51 am

By Caitlin Kelly

A French laundromat washing machine...quite incomprehensible.

A French laundromat washing machine…quite incomprehensible.

Have you seen this interesting list of the seven habits of the mentally tough? From Inc. magazine, it includes no whining, acting as if you’re in control (even when you’re not) and refraining from the bad habit of freaking out endlessly over…everything.

It seemed quite a contrast from this post, from a blog about what it felt like for this writer when her agent wasn’t wild about her finished manuscript, from Women Writers, Women’s Books:

The sounds you just heard were my dreams and confidence being blown to bits.

Super Agent’s opinion – and she was right – was that I needed to do a major rewrite. The story concept was strong, but the story structure didn’t work at all. She said that she knew the audiences the editors who are interested in me are selling to, and the manuscript as I wrote it wouldn’t be a good fit. In publishing, not being “a good fit” is a death sentence.

You, shakily: But what about the betas, they liked it a lot. [My note: a “beta” is a “first reader”, someone you’ve asked to read your book before your agent and/or editor do.]

Super Agent, calmly: Betas know writing. Agents know the market.

I’m going to be honest with you. This was a very dark day. My lips and hands trembled. For weeks, my breathing would be shallow and intermittent…

It was a Thursday. By Monday, I had pulled myself together. This is not because I’m some kind of hero. I’m not. But what choice did I have? There are only two: leaving it wrong or making it right.* I love my story and my characters. I have big dreams for my career. Super Agent was right on every count. There was only one thing I could do. Write it again. I wrote her an email thanking her.

Then I dedicated myself to taking my magnum opus apart, scene by scene, word by word. It was excruciating, but that wasn’t the only problem. Firstly, I had no idea how to put it back together any better than before. Cue the panic. Secondly, my heart was still in pieces…

I found myself talking to a writer-friend who happens to be an award-winning, bestselling author..when I abruptly spilled to her what had happened and how I felt…

That is when I heard the words that put me back together. She said to me, “This is how it goes.”

I had a similar moment when I received the notes on my second book. “I really liked Chapters 11 and 12,” said my editor. Um…what about the first 10?

I felt the same panic, that I wouldn’t be able to make it good enough. Like the author above, I called a calm friend who said six fateful words: “You’re the mechanic. Fix the engine.”

So I did.

My husband began his career as a news photographer working for a small town newspaper. He had a mentor, a highly accomplished older professional with national experience to whom Jose would proudly mail copies of his published photos.

A manila envelope would return — filled with confetti. Jose’s work. (He went on to a 31-year career at The New York Times as a photographer and photo editor, and helped them win a team Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of 9/11. Here’s his blog.)

But what if he had given up?

Sugar helps!

Sugar helps!

Maybe journalism self-selects people who can withstand pretty harsh criticism, even if it’s painful.

It certainly comes with the territory — our editors, highly-competitive colleagues, determined competitors from other outlets and readers are all quite delighted to tell us when we’ve screwed up. Our ass-whipping is also relentlessly public, whether in comments on a blog or website, nasty Amazon reviews or letters to the editor.

And newsrooms are rarely warm, nurturing places where someone will hand you a tissue if, ego battered, you start crying. No crying!

One super-talented award-winning friend of mine in his mid-40s recently won a prestigious and well-paid year studying, thanks to a fellowship. It was his third attempt.

My first book -- 25 publishers rejected it before Pocket Books said yes

My first book — 25 publishers rejected it before Pocket Books said yes

He did not give up.

I’ll probably re-apply for a similarly difficult-to-win fellowship this year, for the third or fourth time. It’s annoying to keep putting my hand up and never winning, but them’s the breaks.

As someone who’s competed at a national level as an athlete, I know what mental stamina it takes to just keep going in the face of frustration, exhaustion or disappointment.

So I really find it sad and surprising to see how fragile some young women are in the face of fairly standard forms of bullshit — sexism, chauvinism, rejection.


They freak out when people don’t admire their work or quickly promote them or don’t answer their emails quickly or don’t “like” their posts on social media.

Toughen up, buttercup!

I was sent off to boarding school at the age of eight, surrounded night and day by strangers, a place where comfort was elusive, at best. So maybe this is just a habit learned early.

I’ve been fired from jobs. I’ve been mercilessly bullied, in high school and in several workplaces. I’ve survived divorce, four orthopedic surgeries within a decade, criminal attack.

25 publishers said no to this one, too!

25 publishers said no to this one, too!

Both my books, both well-reviewed, were rejected by 25 publishers apiece before they finally found a home.


To some people, I appear mean and impermeable. I’m neither.

But I do know how to armor up.

How many things can you do well at once?

How many things can you do well at once?

It’s an essential skill for anyone who hopes to thrive professionally, and, often, personally. It’s essential to anyone doing creative work, whose income relies on the subjective opinion of others.

Oh, yeah…like…everything.

Here, from the brilliant blog Brain Pickings, is a post about Henri Rousseau, the French painter who worked as a toll collector, taught himself to paint and was nastily dismissed for decades. Without his persistence, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy his gorgeous, complex and mysterious paintings.

Are you mentally tough?

The tribe meets…

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, education, journalism, work on May 4, 2015 at 3:32 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

The late, great NYT writer David Carr, a lively and funny speaker at many such events

The late, great NYT writer David Carr, a lively and funny speaker at many such events

1. A unit of sociopolitical organization consisting of a number of families, clans, or other groups who share a common ancestry and culture and among whom leadership is typically neither formalized nor permanent. 

Whether you write poetry, fiction, journalism — or unanswered emails — writers’ conferences are the place where the tribe finally meets.

In the past few weeks alone, there’s been AWP, the AHJC, The Washington Independent Review of Books and ASJA.

You might be a high school student trying to choose a college writing program, or her mother, seeking advice after decades of experience, like the Texas woman I mentored.

You might be a Toronto tech writer teaching us all how to use Twitter by tweeting with a few astronauts in the International Space Station.

You might be a legendary biographer telling us how gender affects your choices.

Legendary celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley and I at a recent books festival in Bethesda, Maryland, where we were both speakers. She was so much fun!

Legendary celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley and I at a recent books festival in Bethesda, Maryland, where we were both speakers. She was so much fun!

We meet to compare scars — rejected manuscripts, lousy agents, silent editors, killed stories, the-fellowship-we-didn’t-win (again!).

We meet to celebrate triumphs — the fellowship finally won, the grant, the residency, the award(s), the teaching position(s.)

We meet to fiercely hug people we’ve only spoken to, for months, maybe years, by email or Skype or in writers’ online groups.

We meet to learn how to (better) use social media, how to conduct research more effectively, how to sell to trade magazines, how to avoid being sued and having to sue a deadbeat publisher.

We meet to hear how to win a fellowship that, as one dear friend said so well, will pay us more to not write a word for a year than a year’s hard work writing.

We — professional observers — get to see who arrives wearing cowboy boots or a very large hat or a silk floral dress.

We — paid to listen carefully for our living — hear who offers a loud monologue to a polite-but-bored fellow writer.

Like every ambitious professional — whether 10 minutes into their career or decades — we’re all eager to learn new skills and polish the ones we have. We want to hear what the latest technology tools can do to help us work better/faster/more efficiently.

My first book

My first book

It is a very small world, and one where an incautious word chattered in a hallway, or over lunch or in the ladies’ room, or tweeted in haste, can haunt you years later.

A powerful player who shared my lunch table in Bethesda a week earlier — where I spoke on a panel at the Washington Independent Review of Books meeting — passes me in the Manhattan hotel hallway a week later at the annual conference of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, which just ended and which I also attended.

A writer who moderated a panel in Maryland now sits as an audience member in Manhattan.

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

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

The rooms are perfumed with that writer-specific blend of insecurity/ambition/ego/nerves/excitement/hope/dread/fear…

We’re bound to — as I did — run into the woman whose fellowship I have applied to three times (so far) but never won.

We’re bound to run into the younger writer we taught or mentored whose career has sky-rocketed while our has not — offering them, our brightest smile tightly fixed, our congratulations.

We’re bound to run into a colleague we love and admire who finally, deservedly, got a fantastic fellowship — and the one we’ve loathed for years now crowing over her six-figure advance and/or annual income.

Like other creative fields — acting, art, film, dance — there is no level playing field. Even if we never publicly acknowledge it, we all know it; talent does not guarantee financial success. Hard work may never produce the results — prestige, respect, national attention — some of us so crave.


People you love personally may flail for years creatively while people you find socially vile thrive and chest-beat via social media to remind us all how amazing they are.

All the academic credentials — the costly BA, MFA, even (maybe especially), the Phd — can’t protect a writer from a book that just doesn’t find a publisher or fails to net glowing blurbs or reviews from the right people.

The tribe knows that.

You can, always, hide deep within its folds.


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