I’ve been slinging words for a living, since my sophomore year of university.
I’ve never formally studied writing, except for a degree from a demanding faculty in English lit.
I originally wanted to be a radio DJ, but knew I wanted to write for a living from a very early age, maybe 12 or so. Over my career, I’ve worked as an editor for three magazines and a reporter for three major daily newspapers, all of which has helped me think more clearly and write (I hope!) better; my website, if you’re interested, has some of my work.
In 1998, I won a National Magazine Award in Canada for a humor essay about, (what else?) my divorce.
I’ve derived so many pleasures from writing, for decades, including:
As Broadside heads into its eighth year, I’m grateful for everyone who makes the time to come by, to read, to comment, and to return, some year after year. I know you’ve got many other ways to spend your time and attention, so thank you!
I first posted here on July 1, 2009, terrified. I write for a living, but thought no one would ever bother to read my own private thoughts. But we’re now at 16,635 followers.
Broadside has also been chosen for Freshly Pressed six times, a real honor.
Civil, lively conversation
One of the main reasons I write this blog, and continue to enjoy producing it. While I do wish more people “liked” and commented, I really value those who make time to speak up.
The Internet is so full of verbal violence. Not here!
Ongoing readership for my two books
I grew up in Canada, which runs something called the Public Lending Rights program, essentially royalty payments made by Canadian libraries to books registered through their program. Every year they send me a check, usually about $450, based on how often my books are borrowed and read, which tells me readers are still reaching for my work and still finding value in it.
That’s why writers write: to find readers!
Here’s a link to Blown Away; and one to Malled — if you have a book club that would like to read and discuss either of them (i.e. buying at least a dozen), I’ll Skype in for a Q and A.
I recently went out for lunch in Manhattan with a friend who’s 20 years my junior, a woman who now lives in London but who was working in Bahrain when I first spoke to her, as a source for a New York Times business story.
She seems to live in an airplane, but we share unlikely passions, like fragrance. It’s a rare thing, but sometimes a source becomes a pal, as have some fellow bloggers, as have many of my colleagues throughout the years, whether staff or freelance.
Learning about the world
I get paid to learn.
It’s a real privilege to meet or speak to such a range of people, from a British female bank CEO to a female Admiral to Olympic athletes to convicted felons to a Prime Minister to a neurosurgeon to an FBI firearms instructor.
Journalism is no way to become wealthy, but the joy of encountering so many different people and hearing and sharing their stories is worth a lot to me.
Being of service
It’s not waitressing or working retail, but journalism really is in many ways a service industry — if what we produce isn’t useful or meaningful to our readers, viewers and listeners, it’s time to hang up those skates!
I’m delighted when I hear from readers that they’ve learned something new and useful from my work; one Canadian woman said a story of mine had saved her life, as I covered a weird side effect of a medication that doctors kept dismissing when patients complained. Her mother read my story and shared it with her daughter who pushed back harder on her physician.
Telling great stories
The world is simply brimming with hundreds of amazing, untold stories.
Some are deeply unsettling, and it’s our role as reporters to bear fearless and intimate witness to war, crime, natural disaster, social injustice, racism.
Others are lying inside people who have simply never before been asked to talk to a reporter. Their untold tales are powerful, bursting with the energy of something finally unleashed.
It’s a huge responsibility to try to carve story from the raw material of reality — choosing the right characters, setting scenes, evoking emotion, choosing just the right words, in the right order, at the right length.
It is never easy.
It never should be.
Not every journalist can count on a life of adventure, but it’s there for the taking if you choose your jobs and assignments carefully.
For work, I’ve been to the Arctic circle, to visit a tiny Inuit village, spent eight days in a truck with a French trucker going from Perpignan to Istanbul, taken class with the Royal Danish Ballet, have climbed the rigging 100 feet up and worked on a foot-rope aboard a Tall Ship, taken the helm of a multi-million America’s Cup contender.
I’m grateful for all these paid adventures and hope to have a few more before I’m done.
As some of you know, the industry of journalism is in deep, widespread and massive disruption; The New York Times is about to get rid of 200 more of its staff and is making other significant internal changes to cut costs and boost revenue. I write freelance for the Times, producing three stories in 2016 for them, one on turbulence, one on a Broadway stagehand and one on real estate, which I’m researching this week.
But the life of a freelance writer is now, more than ever, like that of a polar bear on a small, melting ice floe. One of the most successful freelance writers I know sends out 10 to 25 marketing pieces every single week. Out of sight means out of mind — and broke.
Most of my colleagues are either clinging to staff jobs, working now in public relations, teaching or producing “branded content”, i.e. writing copy for corporate clients.
Here’s some of what this year brought:
Working on two book ideas, both non-fiction
People think. “How hard can it be? Look at all the books in bookstores.” Yeah, well…It really depends on a variety of issues. How much money do you want or need to earn from researching, writing and revising a book? (It can take years.) How large a potential audience can you offer a publisher? How timely is your idea? How well-covered is the subject? What credentials have you already established?
Realizing how essential a strong network is
Two of my very best gigs came from people I know through an blogging project we all worked in in 2009. I haven’t even met one of them, although we’ve also both freelanced for the Times as business writers. Both contacted me with lucrative, ongoing work, and I’m so glad they did! Both know the quality of my work and chose to offer opportunities to me, not to any one of the 100’s, let alone 1000’s, of my competitors.
Some very slow and frightening months
That’s unusual for me, and was crazy stressful, as our monthly health insurance costs are now an insane $1,800. Our fixed costs don’t suddenly shrink or disappear if I or Jose are having a slow month, or few months. Thankfully, my husband, also now full-time freelance after 31 years at the Times, has three steady anchor clients.
A stiffer spine
As I mentioned here in an earlier post on fleeing toxicity, I finally dropped an ongoing project that was making me really unhappy. I usually find it difficult to quit working on something I’ve committed to but this one, from the very start, was far too much work for far too little income. The way I was spoken to, consistently, felt rude and dismissive, on top of that. And (of course!), days after I finally said “enough!”, several much better-paid projects showed up to replace that lost income.
Loving being a generalist
I’m really proud of writing for the Times, (100+ stories since 1990), but also for three different sections this year on three utterly different topics, all of which I pitched. Most freelancers (and, yes, this costs me lost income), specialize narrowly on medicine or parenting or personal finance. I have so many interests and experiences, I’m much happier roaming around intellectually. As long as I can find a decent price for my idea, I’m cool with that.
Part of The library of Congress — spectacular!
Tossing my hat into competitive rings
I won a fellowship in June in D.C. to study retirement and its various challenges. That gave me three intense days listening to 19 speakers, introduced me to more smart writers in the group, (one of whom became a very good friend) and allowed me a brief vacation. I later applied for another fellowship, on the same subject, that would allow me the income and time to do a deep dive into a specific aspect of the issue.
Meeting a few editors face to face.
They’re sort of like unicorns now, out there somewhere but elusive. I met with several, including one at National Geographic Traveler and one from Elle. Neither has resulted in an assignment, but it was a thrill anyway.
Today being “a writer” means a lot more than writing, at least if you hope to earn a living doing it. It means being flexible, learning new skills, constantly marketing yourself, paying attention to industry shifts, happening daily.
Knowing, more than ever, how much real journalism — fact-based, deeply reported on firsthand knowledge — matters now
Stop consuming fake news! It is a disgusting disaster, enriching liars and cheats.
Read this great piece about why copy editing matters so much, still. It’s true. When “the desk” has a question, your heart stops.
Here’s to a great writing year for those of you who do it as well!
It is absolutely foundational to my belief system and everyone who studies, teaches and works within fact-based journalism.
Some of its most basic tenets:
You talk to real people — and verify their identities.
You review long, tedious complicated documents, whether court records, committee proceedings, internal reports, and make sense of them for your audience, who need and deserve clear, cogent summaries of what we find. Jargon and obfuscation are efficient ways to hide all kinds of abuse. Our job is to find it and expose it.
You get yelled at, threatened with lawsuits by people with wealth, power and $1,000/hour lawyers at their beck and call…and you keep digging.
Contrary to all economic logic, your goal is not to rake in huge piles of cash pumping out falsity — but to uncover, analyze and explain a complex and confusing world to those who share it with us, no matter their age, income level or race. At its idealistic best, it is inherently democratic.
Back to fake news for a moment.
Let’s start with the ethical quicksand of lying for living.
Let’s move on to the gullibility/laziness of the people consuming this toxic bullshit and thinking it’s true.
Then let’s pause to consider that some of the most reliable (yes, they’re biased, I get that) news organizations are cutting back their staff — outlets like the Wall Street Journal and New York Times.
Every passing year means losses in advertising income and a shift to consuming news in digital form.
I’ve written for both papers, (and many others), and easily acknowledge that both have tremendous weaknesses as well as strengths.
But the bottom line of journalism is this: if what you are telling your audience is untrue, you are not a journalist.
You are, moreover, destroying whatever shreds of faith remain in what we do produce.
If you read/watch/listen to “fake news” and take it to be truthful, you’re making economic, social, professional and personal decisions based on lies.
Maybe it affected your vote.
Maybe you didn’t even bother to ask if the source of your “news” is legitimate.
Here’s one quick clue…look for the name of the writer. Then Google them. Look for their LinkedIn profile, website, blog, resume.
Real journalists have public, provable, verifiable track records of accuracy. We’re not that difficult to find.
This trend is Orwellian, Huxley-esque.
In an era of stunning, growing income inequality, as utterly unqualified billionaires are soon to make up the Cabinet of the United States, it’s a matter of the deepest urgency that Americans know what is going on.
The rise of “fake news” is coinciding with a sharp drop in pay for writers like myself, pushing the most desperate into 17-hour days and seven day weeks, into cranking out…lots of words.
Are they accurate?
Every time you swallow another fake news story — and compulsively share it on social media — you enrich a liar, an immoral charlatan delighted to make rubes of everyone within reach.
The most recent story I produced for The New York Times took weeks of digging and reporting, fact-checking and review — it went through 12 versions before appearing for public consumption.
The reason it took so long? It was reviewed by multiple editors, male and female, asking me more and more questions, challenging me repeatedly to check my facts and my assumptions, to review my choice of language and tone.
If I got something wrong, (real journalists’ worst nightmare), it would be hastily corrected — with a public, permanent note to let readers know that.
The payment? Nowhere near what you might think or expect.
It started — of course — as a term in medieval Latin; posse meaning power.
Today, it’s a group of people, more commonly, you can turn to for help and aid, people who literally have your back.
In the military, there’s a great expression — “I’ve got your six” — from fighter pilots who had a fellow flyer behind them.
I’ve been working alone from home since 2006, and have done it many times in my career. It can be lonely! It can feel isolating!
There are days when the millions of us working independently think — HELP!
Which is why, more than ever, you gotta have a posse!
They’re not fighter pilots, nor do they wear spurs and Stetsons, but they’re people I like, trust and admire, people I turn to for all sorts of advice — how to find a mortgage broker, what to charge for a seminar, how to wrangle a testy editor two years out of college.
They call me, too. I had a long phone conversation yesterday with a younger colleague as she drove from Alabama to Tennessee. We met earlier this year at a writers’ conference and immediately liked one another, sitting in the bar for hours.
Today I’ll be Skyping with another posse member who lives an ocean away.
I find it, literally, heartening and encouraging to hear how others are doing, helping one another through our inevitable ups and downs. Those of us who work without any safety net, (unemployment insurance, paid sick days or paid vacation days, a company-matched retirement plan), really need one another’s wisdom and insights.
My posse — and I as one of theirs — is global, thanks to social media.
But the essential elements remain timeless. You only want people you trust absolutely, who are discreet and smart. They can be decades younger or older. They can, (and often should), be someone from a very different background or industry.
Fresh eyes. Fresh insights.
When you don’t work in an office or belong to an organization, with coworkers, managers, HR and set policies, (no matter how frustrating they can be sometimes), figuring it out is all up to you.
When you work independently, you’re the cook, janitor, CIO, CFO, CMO and CEO, switching roles constantly.
When you work alone, it’s even more essential to know what’s going on in your industry — how to read (and alter!) a lousy contract, how to negotiate rates, what others are being paid, which deadbeat clients to avoid.
Much is being written about the “gig economy” (a phrase that makes me crazy every time I read it) — but very little about how difficult it is to do everything by yourself.
Sometimes you just need a smart, tough brain to bang up against, to test out a theory or see if you’re really brilliant this time, or heading off a potential cliff.
I enjoy my autonomy but there’s still a lot I don’t know and a lot I can help my peers with.
You pick up the newspaper, or a magazine, or you may just scan something on your phone.
No matter what the story is, it came from somewhere!
Some come from writers’ own observations, (like my New York Times’ piece on turbulence, which I pitched after noticing reports of three scary in-flight events in fairly quick succession, and knowing that many other travelers, like me, loathe turbulence.)
Some are suggested by a writer’s sources or family or friends.
It can be something we overheard or saw.
Then there’s every reporter’s dream (and one that happened to me when I was a reporter at the Globe & Mail) — getting a confidential document sent to you in a brown envelope.
I walked to my mailbox and spotted a manila envelope, postmarked New York, NY, with a return address of The Trump Organization. My heart skipped a beat.
I have been on the hunt for Donald J. Trump’s tax returns. Mr. Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, has broken with decades-long tradition and refused to make his returns public. I have written extensively about his finances, but like almost every other reporter, I was eager to see his actual returns.
The envelope looked legitimate. I opened it, anxiously, and was astonished.
Inside were what appeared to be pages from Mr. Trump’s 1995 tax records, containing detailed figures that revealed his tax strategies.
What makes something a “story”?
— it’s new
— it’s making a ton of money for someone
— it’s the first time this event has ever happened
— it’s affecting thousands, if not millions, of people (often voters)
— wealthy/powerful people (aka “celebrities”) are doing it
It’s a profile of Jennifer Diaz, a young New York woman whose promotion after 15 years’ hard physical labor (and calm demeanor!) helped her make stage management history:
Now, at 34, she has made history, becoming the first female head carpenter of Local 1 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. The local’s 3,351 members work in spaces from the Met to Carnegie Hall, at Radio City Music Hall and Madison Square Garden, and in every Broadway theater — including the Walter Kerr, which is where she was one morning in September, overseeing the load-in for the musical “Falsettos.”
With a head of thick dark curls and a ready smile, Ms. Diaz is a self-described tomboy, a blend of low-key authority and quiet confidence. “My name has a lot of clout in this business,” she said. “I have people on my side and in my pocket I can turn to.”
She works in a short-sleeve shirt, shorts and sturdy sneakers, a delicate silver necklace barely visible. Married to a fellow Local 1 stagehand, she sports a tattooed wedding ring in place of a traditional metal band, the palm-side of her ring finger worn clean from years of ungloved manual labor.
My former editor messaged me on Facebook to tell me about her, and I started sending emails and making calls.
Key to this piece? Serendipity!
I met two total strangers who helped me understand this industry, one of whom gave me an essential source.
In New York City, a city of 8.4 million.
The odds I would meet two people I needed most exactly when I needed them most?
The first guy sat beside me in the 3-chair hair salon I go to in the West Village. The other was a guy who sat beside me while eating lunch on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx; working in the same industry I was covering, he gave me the phone number of someone I would never have found on my own.
It was a real pleasure to meet Jen and to get a glimpse of backstage life.
I’ll never see a Broadway show quite the same way again!
Content, with the emphasis on the second syllable, is what I used to be to work in journalism.
See also: happy, pleased, satisfied.
Today it’s about content — i.e. kawhn-tent — with the emphasis on the first syllable.
This is where I thump my cane and start shouting “Kids, get off my lawn!”
Or some similar shriek of frustration.
Truth is, of course I’m a “content provider”, in that I write words on demand to specific lengths that I sell to others for their use.
I guess it’s a nice little catch-all. Sadly, though, there’s nothing in that phrase to connote, oh you know, history, ethics, values, quality.
It’s like calling the sun a “light provider” or the ocean a “fish (and many other creatures) provider,” reducing what journalists once offered to a pile ‘o words, delivered as fast and cheaply as humanly possible.
But the irony of an industry in disruption is that there are now many more people working in public relations — trying to sell stuff — than there are journalists. I get pitches every single day for things I couldn’t care less about from people who clearly couldn’t care less that they’re wasting my time deleting them.
Content marketing is currently “in,” and brands are finding it’s surprisingly difficult to create compelling content that actually draws in readers. So they’re opening their pocketbooks and are willing to pay for content creation, and if you’re well-positioned with some decent writing credits, you’ll find that there’s plenty of work to go around. There are several freelancer job sites popping up where brands can advertise for these positions.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve likely noticed the news industry has struggled in recent years. Newspapers and magazines have endured thousands of layoffs and freelancers have found, in addition to facing shrinking budgets, news organizations are paying significantlyless for digital stories compared to what they paid for print.
And a cheerful piece about why journalism students don’t even want to consider a job doing what the job used to mean — actual reporting.
I have several friends who teach journalism, both undergrad and graduate level, and find a scary trend — students who sit at their desks, Google and think that’s journalism. My friends have to shove them out of the building to actually look at stuff and talk to strangers, some of whom are intimidating as hell and two to three times their age.
It could be funny, perhaps, if all those PR people weren’t being paid to make everything look and sound shiny.
It could be funny if the people being hired to pump this stuff out weren’t really young and utterly inexperienced, like the editor who sent me an email I literally could not understand.
This is the person being paid to edit me, two years after leaving college.
Journalists get paid, (less and less and less), to tell real stories about real people — about crime and poverty and graft and corruption and politics and the environment. The stories are often dark and depressing and often crazy-complicated and have multiple furious gatekeepers insisting: “There’s no story here!”
Which always means there’s a hell of a story to be told — if there’s a place to publish it and someone to pay us to do that.
Are you content being offered a steady diet of content?
In June, I participated in a National Press Foundation fellowship on retirement, and its many challenges: physical, financial, emotional. We had 19 (!) speakers in three days, so I’m still processing it all.
I’m a generalist, and write about almost everything, (not science, tech, parenting, beauty.)
If you need help with a writing or editing project or can refer me to someone who does, let me know!
I’ve also worked with the Consulate General of Canada, the New York School of Interior Design and WaterAid America to craft their messages.
This week has been crazy; for a story, I spent a day in Manhattan visiting the new Westfield mall next to the 9/11 memorial, interviewing a few shoppers — including, in French, a couple visiting from Brittany.
I hadn’t been down there since 9/11 and I deliberately avoided even looking at the memorial. I know some tourists love it, but the memories are, even, 15 years later, too painful and weird to re-live.
Using a cane right now for balance, (my right knee has bad arthritis), slowed me way down but I hopped a city bus and headed back uptown to 48th Street to meet and interview a young woman for a Times piece.
I hope some of you will make the trip over to check it out and, if you like it, Facebook and tweet it.
I’ll be writing five posts a month.
A reminder that I also teach and coach fellow bloggers and writers, and have done so with people worldwide, from Singapore to New Zealand to Germany to Maryland, often via Skype.
I charge $225/hour, (payable though PayPal), with a one-hour minimum and my time and skills are yours; you can ask me for whatever help you need: reading a pitch, reading a story draft, advice on blogging, how to sell a non-fiction book…been there, done that!
His play — written in 1777 — is still being performed…He, of course, died in poverty.
For many people, “being a writer” is one of their cherished dreams.
Some do it, through a blog, a self-published book, journalism, a commercially published book, of fiction, poetry or non-fiction.
Some write for digital outlets, at payments of $50, $100, $200.
Some write for major magazines with payments of $8-12,000 or more per story.
There’s a continuum from blog to commercially agented/published book.
There’s a continuum from a 700-word personal essay to 5,000-word reported story.
There’s a continuum from your first paid-for piece of writing, and your last.
Having written for a living since college — more than 30 years — here are some truths about this business, some less palatable than others:
It takes talent
Yes, it does.
Simply stringing together 1,000 or 10,000 words on….whatever amuses you…then trying to find someone who wants it and give you money for it doesn’t guarantee anyone else will find them compelling.
Just because you feel an urgent need to share a story doesn’t mean it’s de facto riveting.
It takes training
You don’t have to spend a fortune to attend journalism school or obtain an MFA, although many people make that choice. By doing so, they put their work in front of others’ eyes, and learn to take (or ignore or filter) feedback and criticism.
They learn structure and form and voice and genre and narrative. They learn how to create characters.
They learn a crucial element of being a writer — your work is going to elicit reactions, and not always the ones you want or expect.
The world is full of on-line writing classes and your city or town likely has some as well. If you’re truly serious about your craft, invest some time and money in learning and perfecting it. Attend writing conferences and talk to other writers.
It takes practice
I see many younger writers desperate for instant fame and fortune.
They watch women and men their age, or younger, nabbing big book deals, television series and lucrative movie deals with the naive assumption they too, can have this — and quickly.
We all crave success and admiration.
It might take longer than you prefer. In the meantime, you’re getting better.
It takes social skills aka charm
Maybe some people can bully or bulldoze their way to publishing success.
Charm is an under-rated skill.
Talk to the person in line for coffee at the conference.
Talk to the person who’s friendly to you at an event. You never know who they know.
Be someone people genuinely like, respect and want to help — not Mr./Ms. Needy and Demanding.
It takes skills
If you are fortunate enough to get a story assignment, or a book contract, you’ll need to actually know how to produce the commercial product they are expecting from you.
You are not An Artist here.
You’re a tailor being paid to make a suit to a specific size and shape.
You’re a stylist asked for a bob — who doesn’t dye your client’s hair purple because it just feels like a better choice for you somehow.
We’re hired help.
Stories get “killed” all the time because the end product is weak and boring, and years of work on a book manuscript can be dismissed by your editor as “unpublishable.” It happens.
Being able to sell a sexy version of your idea is only the start.
For a major magazine or newspaper story and certainly for a non-fiction book, you’ll need to find sources, interview them intelligently, research the larger context of your story, write, revise, write and revise.
You need to create a narrative structure and characters we care about.
If all this feels terrifying or insurmountable, work on your skills.
I also coach writers and offer individual webinars; details here.
This gripping memoir by a Canadian writer is one of my recent favorites…
It takes studying the greats
“You can’t write without reading.”
If you’re not devouring a steady diet of excellent work in your genre — and hopefully outside of it as well — you’re toast.
Read tons of terrific writing to try to discern why it works so well.
It probably means finding at least one (probably several) sources of reliable, steady, non-writing income, no matter the source
It doesn’t matter what the work is.
T.S. Eliot worked in a bank.
Poet William Carlos Williams was a doctor.
J.K Rowling survived on public assistance when she needed to.
If you’re hungry and cold and can’t get a decent night’s sleep and terrified of a medical emergency, get a job and build up your savings so that writing isn’t such a high-wire act.
Forcing writing to be your end-all and be-all, both emotionally and financially, can kill you.
It takes patience
No one writes a perfect first draft.
It means being edited
If you freak out at the thought of someone questioning your: diction, structure, tone, opening, middle, closing, length of sentences and paragraphs…let alone the factual veracity of your journalism, go away now.
Just don’t even bother.
Work that appears unedited (yes, here, too!) is rarely as good as that which has faced others’ tough, incisive questions.
A writer needs an editor, often many. Find several you like, trust and respect, and be ready to learn from their demands.
A smart editor is the valuable — essential — intellectual equivalent of a demanding personal trainer.
How badly do you want to improve?
It means being read
That means your mother, sister, ex(es), a lot of strangers.
You can’t predict or control what others will think or say of your most private and intimate thoughts — after you’ve retailed them publicly.
A thick skin is key.
It means being — publicly –critiqued
Few reviews have been as nasty as this one, which recently ran in The New York Times Book Review, and which prompted much social media discussion among fellow writers about its meanspiritedness:
Now, I write empty, high-minded claptrap all the time. I also delete 90 percent of what I write. About an hour ago, for instance, I cut the entire 215-word opening sequence of this review. A boss of mine once said, of an article I had drafted over several months, that I had done a terrific job of catching myself up to a conversation the world had been having without me. Now I had to delete it, and start over from where I’d ended — from where the world didn’t yet know what it thought. Tillman’s meditations on the Big Questions often read like those of someone trying to catch up to the world’s knowledge while selling that world her notes for $26.
The critic, a well-established man, shreds the first-time author, a young woman.
(Several other reviews were much kinder.)
It means being able to tolerate rejection without panic or despair
Rejection to a writer is like blood to a surgeon — a messy and inevitable part of every working day.
It means being lucky — or not
This is a field — like many in the creative world (fashion, music, fine art) — where the goodies are rarely distributed “fairly”, equitably or when we most crave or need them.
It might be getting a full ride for an MFA or J-school or an awesome advance you can actually live on for a year or more without doing anything else.
Maybe they won the prestigious award or fellowship you’ve tried for multiple times.
It might be winning a stellar review or getting your work optioned for a film or television pilot; (my book Malled was optioned by CBS television, and earned me an additional $5,000 as a result — taken out of my advance.) It was also published in China, and that paltry sum also went toward paying down my advance.
(See a pattern here?)
It might well be, (try Googling the ancestors of some Big Name Writers) they’re sitting on a boatload of inherited or family money — like one New York writer whose family name graces a Manhattan concert hall.
Maybe they married a high net worth partner or husband, allowing them to do nothing but focus on work-for-pleasure.
The fact is, this is often — and long has been — a deeply unfair business.
Allowing yourself to marinate in a stew of envy and insecurity won’t improve your writing one bit.
Sadly, many of us — certainly those with 20+ years’ experience — are starting to feel like whaling ship captains in the new era of steam, offering terrific skills that fewer and fewer publishers want or can afford to pay for.
The British daily The Independent recently killed its print editions and thousands of journalists are losing their staff jobs all over the world.
I still ply my trade freelance, publishing online and in print, for outlets from the Case Foundation to The New York Times.
The terrific new film “Spotlight” won this year’s Oscar for Best Picture, about the investigative team at the Boston Globe and how it uncovered sexual abuse within the Catholic church. Here’s my earlier post about it.
Here’s a radio interview on CBC, (18:20 minutes in length), with the female member of the real Spotlight team, Sacha Pfeiffer, about what it’s like to work in investigative journalism — and to be observed and portrayed by an actress on film.
And those of us who do it professionally, especially within news, know there are many other people whose skills help us get it done safely and accurately, from translators to fixers to unnamed but well-placed sources.
By the time you see or hear a story online, on radio or television or in print, hundreds of decisions have been made about it and decisions made by dozens of professionals. Journalism remains very much a team sport.
Here’s some of what happens before you ever see or hear a work of journalism:
Someone gets an idea
It happens in a variety of ways.
It might be from a press release, sent out by a professional agency whose job it is to promote their clients and their interests.
It might be something we noticed — an ad, an overheard conversation on the bus or at the dog run or while in a doctor’s waiting room. I saw something this week in a local drugstore, a new and unusual product that’s a direct reflection of recent cultural change. It might be a story.
It could be something we read or saw, yes, already produced by another journalist — but not in depth or not for an audience we know well.
It might be a wire service story our editors want deepened or localized; if too local or regional, maybe looking at it nationally or globally.
Many reporters work a specific beat, (like a cop’s beat, an area they are meant to know intimately), and stay in close touch with sources in it, whether aerospace or retail or philanthropy.
Much traditional reporting, (a weakness in its conceptual narrowness), focuses on institutions of power and its players: the schools, courts, police, Wall Street, Big Business, Parliament or Congress or its various committees. The ideal is to hold the powerful accountable for their decisions, many made in secret and many using taxpayers’ money or affecting public policies.
Smarter thinking considers ideas more broadly and in ways that intersect across disciplines — design, gender, technology, culture, labor, belief systems.
A freelance writer, who survives like Sheherezade by telling/selling story after story after story, also needs to decide who’s the right market for which idea:
a trade magazine? A major newspaper? An overseas website? A women’s magazine? A men’s?
The reality is now that digital sites are ravenous for copy — and most pay crap — $50, $100, $200 for stories that can still require significant skill, experience and lots of time to report and write.
Young writers are lining up for it, and beating their ambitious wings against the locked doors of print publications.
Print pays a lot more. Not a lot of money, ($2,00o to $10,000+ per story for the truly fortunate), but enough to eat and pay bills.
I live in an expensive part of the world — the New York City suburbs — and most of my work is either produced for print or paid at print rates.
What’s the story — and who cares?
Journalists are cynical, skeptical, dubious.
We’re paid to question authority, (even if we often fail to do so in an era of concentrated media ownership and few jobs.)
As the saying goes, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
So what is the story and why should anyone else make time to read or listen to it?
Who are the main characters? What’s new or different?
Does it reflect a trend?
What expertise or insight can you bring to it?
Is it even really worth doing?
Here’s a great blog post by a science journalist who decided — as we all do sometimes — to drop a story after she realized it was bogus.
We try to sell the idea to an editor, either someone who’s our boss (and their boss) or a freelance client
Much of what we do requires the delicate art of persuasion. We have to feel passionate enough about each story — ideally — to do the work of reporting, interviewing, researching, writing and revising it.
But we also have to have skills and expertise not to make a mess of it. Do we have the right contacts? Do we speak the lingo of that industry?
If freelance, is it even worth doing financially? It can take days, weeks or months to properly research a story and we have to budget our time carefully.
What if it requires travel expenses — plane/train/car rental/hotel/meals? When budgets are tight, every additional penny must be justified.
Which is why so much lazy, crappy reporting is now done by phone, email and Skype. It’s cheaper.
What’s the best way to tell this story?
One of the joys and challenges of producing quality journalism now is the decision process when presenting it — a video? a podcast? a broadcast? A 3,500 word feature? A Q and A?
The goal should always be to engage the reader, to bring him or her with you into the places you’ve been to gather the material — the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures.
How soon do we need to jump on it?
In an era of Twitter, Vine and Periscope, the rush to be first is exhausting and getting worse.
What if one of our many competitors gets it before we do?
Who do we need to include to tell this story?
This is where so much journalism remains weak — still depressingly filled with white, male voices and few women and/or people of color, as this story points out.
I usually write nationally-reported stories and try to find a mix of people in age, race, geographic location and profession as sources.
Once we’ve figured out our possible list of sources, we need to consider possible conflicts of interest; (does their brother own the company? Did they attend that school?), and decide who’s most likely to give us time and how much of it.
There’s a distinct pecking order to whose calls and emails will get returned the fastest; if you’re writing for a trade magazine instead of a Big Media Outlet, be prepared to make a lot of return calls. For freelancers, time is money and every wasted minute costs us income.
How much reliable accurate information can each source give us?
This is the hidden 90 percent of the iceberg of every story you’ll ever read or hear, and one that “Spotlight”, unusually for a film about our biz, explains well.
It means actual legwork — sometimes physically venturing into neighborhoods or places we already know are unwelcoming, and maybe unsafe.
Knocking on doors. Calling people who never call back. Sending dozens of emails.
Accessing public documents, maybe filing a FOIA — Freedom of Information Act — when we’re stonewalled.
If you’re working in a foreign country, you may need a bodyguard, a fixer, a translator and a driver. You also have to find them, trust them with your life and pay them.
What do you need to take with you? War reporter Janine di Giovanni recently told the Financial Times her kit always included a morphine syringe, a tourniquet — and a little black dress because, you never know!
I know two seasoned female reporters who recently went into dangerous territory (Mexico, researching narco-terrorism) and South Sudan (researching famine) for their work. That’s normal. That’s what some of us do.
How much time before you’re done?
I recently proposed a story that I knew would be complicated to do well. Hah! It took me eleven interviews, each 30 to 75 minutes long, to understand it well enough to write it for a general newspaper audience. Then I still needed time to write it.
The worst thing to do is rush and skimp. I call the result Swiss cheese journalism, full of holes.
Does it make sense?
This is where the best and toughest editors are our saving grace. It’s their job, even when we resent it, to question our thinking, decisions and sources, the structure and tone and length of what we’ve given them.
It’s very easy, after spending a lot of time working on a story, to completely forget that — for the viewer or listener — it’s all new to them!
My recent interview with this author, posted here, was conducted by email, a Q and A
For those of you who work in journalism, or need to interview someone.
For some people, the idea of actually having to question another human being is terrifying and which — to their professional detriment and the weakness of their stories — they try to avoid.
But very few pieces worth reading are constructed without interviews, whether they provide fantastic sound bites or simply (not simply!) the essential foundation for understanding a complex issue so you can explain it cogently to your readers.
I conduct many more interviews than may actually appear in my published stories; while I typically need three to four interviews per 1,000 words, that’s not a rule.
I’m writing a 900-word story this week and have already done more than 10 interviews, several of them 45 to 60 minutes each.
Why not use them all?
Sometimes the quotes are boring, but the information was important. Maybe what they said they sent me hurtling off in an unexpected, new direction.
Conducting an interview takes forethought, planning, skill and considerable emotional intelligence. You can’t just go down a laundry list of your questions and not, as it’s happening, respond and react to what you’re hearing.
These have included a female admiral, a Prime Minister, Olympic athletes, convicted felons, crime victims and victims of torture. It doesn’t matter who you’re interviewing — what matters most is how you approach them and your time with them.
Do your damn homework!
Read as many boring long detailed government, policy, non-profit scientific or academic reports as needed before you start asking silly, elementary questions.
Watch videos and listen to broadcasts and podcasts on your subject so you know what the hell they’re talking to you about. Get up to speed!
Because every interview you conduct is a potential and crucial link in your reporting chain; if you impress each subject with your preparation and ability to handle yourself well, they can lead you to the next one, and possibly with a key introduction.
I’ve won national exclusives this way. We are being evaluated every single time. Never forget that.
It means paying careful attention.
Who to speak to and why? What do you need from each person? How available are they — or will you get stuck with a spokesman from their PR department instead?
Will the interview be conducted by phone, email, Skype or in person?
In person is almost always the best, giving you a chance to closely observe their dress. grooming, demeanor, reactions, silences, body language and surroundings. If by phone, be sure neither of you will be interrupted by pets, children, co-workers, and block out at least 15 minutes or more — you’ll get very little of value in only five minutes.
Some interviews work well by email, especially if your subject is traveling and/or in a distant time zone; the risk is that their replies will feel stilted or, worse, be written by someone who’s not your subject. Skype can work well for subjects too far away to reach in person or by phone.
What do you want from this interview? Facts? A great anecdote? A terrific quote? Confirmation of others’ opinions — or denial? Analysis of a complex issue?
Is this interview on the record — i.e. will you be able to quote this person and use their full name, age, location and profession? If not, you need to negotiate — before they begin to speak! — if they are speaking not for attribution, on background or off the record. Only before someone speaks should this agreement be made, not afterward when they suddenly regret something they have told you. Be sure you both understand the terms of the interview before you begin.
Take notes or tape? Both? Use a laptop for note-taking or pen and paper? To me, these are highly individual choices, although some clients will insist, as part of your contract, that you not only tape record but provide them with a full transcript of your notes. I use pen and paper. I find laptop note-taking noisy and intrusive. It’s important to be able to look your interview subject in the eye! Don’t be a robot.
What’s the tone and mood of your interview? Confrontational? Insistent? Humorous and relaxed? Deferential? Just because your topic is serious doesn’t mean you have to be leaden and tedious. Think through the best way to make your interlocutor feel most comfortable and go from there.
Where will you conduct the interview, if meeting in person? Ideally, their home or office, as a space potentially filled with intriguing clues about their interests and passions. But if they’re traveling or a celebrity, you’ll likely be stuck in a hotel room or restaurant.
How much time will you spend with them? I rarely allow less than 30 minutes for my interviews. It takes time for your subject to feel at ease with you and for you to develop some rapport with them. If you’re writing a profile of them, be prepared to spend a lot of time around them to get a feel for their character and behavior patterns — I once spent eight hours (four two-hour sessions) with one woman I was profiling (plus many additional hours speaking to her family, colleagues and former colleagues.)
When will you ask the tough(est) and most challenging questions? You can’t just wimp out for fear they’ll get angry or yell at you (they might) or hang up or say “That’s the stupidest question I’ve ever heard!” While working on a fantastic national piece for the New York Daily News, I knew I’d hit pay dirt when a Homeland Security flack sneered: “There’s no story here!”
Structure your interview time thoughtfully and be sure to get those harder questions asked, even if you have to repeat them multiple times and/or rephrase them. Yes, typically, we save them for close to the end.
The snowball effect, it’s called in sociology. Ask: “Who else should I be speaking to next about this issue?” If you’ve done your homework, conducted the interview sensitively and intelligently, they’ve enjoyed it, and you, and will send you on to your next great source.
Still need some help?
I coach individually at $225/hour, with a one-hour minimum, via phone or Skype, and also offer several terrific webinars, which we schedule at your convenience, at caitlinkelly.com/classes.