After all, America is an open society, in which everyone is free to make his or her own choices about where to work and how to live.
Everyone, that is, except the 30 million workers now covered by noncompete agreements, who may find themselves all but unemployable if they quit their current jobs; the 52 million Americans with pre-existing conditions who will be effectively unable to buy individual health insurance, and hence stuck with their current employers, if the Freedom Caucus gets its way; and the millions of Americans burdened down by heavy student and other debt.
The reality is that Americans, especially American workers, don’t feel all that free. The Gallup World Survey asks residents of many countries whether they feel that they have “freedom to make life choices”; the U.S. doesn’t come out looking too good, especially compared with the high freedom grades of European nations with strong social safety nets.
While some Americans are convinced that life in the U.S. represents the acme of personal freedom, in practical reality, it often doesn’t. Especially when it comes to finding and keeping paid work.
When you move to the U.S. from a nation with a stronger social safety net, let alone one with powerful unions and laws protecting workers, the lack of government oversight here is shocking.
To name only one example, many states legally only offer “at will” employment: a company can fire you at a second’s notice for no reason at all, with no severance. People who’ve worked for years, or decades, can be out on the street with nothing but six months’ unemployment benefits to get them, they pray, to the next job; New York State benefits are only $1,600 a month, (taxable income), less than the monthly rent for a tiny Manhattan apartment.
Few nations are as obsessed with the words freedom, liberty and justice — yet Americans’ muscular free-market capitalism and high-spending lobby groups who fight daily on Capitol Hill to protect the wealthy and their corporate interests ensure that the playing field is very far from level.
Some of the many challenges facing American workers include:
Virtually no vo-tech training or government/business partnerships to train, or re-train blue-collar workers into well-paid and badly-needed jobs requiring technical skills. Unlike, say, Germany.
The cost of college or training is too often crippling, even out of reach. When a college degree, let alone certifications to work in technical fields, is unattainable, frustrating, dead-end, low-wage service work looms.
If you desperately need affordable health insurance for you and/or your family, you may take and cling to a job you hate, in an industry you wish to flee but can’t — because market-rate health insurance is unavailable or, if unsubsidized by your employer, unaffordable.
The three-chair hair salon I use, its self-employed owner bedeviled by ever-rising rents, Grove St., New York City
Unions are weak, and the smallest they’ve been in American history. With fewer union members than ever, amidst tremendous income inequality, no one is there to fight, collectively, for workers’ rights and needs. When every man has to fight for himself, it pits individuals against one another — a great way to distract us all from how the rich are getting richer and too many of us are getting nowhere.
Non-compete clauses. Here’s a study that found even lower-level employees are getting caught in these snares, sometimes preventing them from finding work in their field for years. Once you leave an employer, having signed one of these, possibly under duress, you’re stuck with skills and experience you can’t use. Fair? Nope.
My husband and I both work full-time freelance, self-employed creatives; he’s a photo editor and I’m a writer and writing coach. We pay $1,800 a month for our health insurance — a sum ensuring healthy profits for the company selling it since we’re both, for now, in excellent health.
It’s the cost of self-employment.
The millions of us now working without a corporate safety net — no paid sick days, no paid vacation days, no family medical leave, no maternity leave — have no public policies to address our specific needs.
We earn less than we probably would in full-time staff jobs, but we’re also free from a tiring and expensive daily rail commute into New York, office dramas or emails at 2:00 a.m. demanding an immediate reply.
Our greatest freedom is deciding who to work with — and whom to avoid.
Since most of us will spend most of our lives working, we hope to find satisfaction in it, when possible, beyond income.
“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money”
— Samuel Johnson (died 1784)
Few subjects will so quickly divide a room than writers talking about how much money they make from their work.
If you write blockbuster fiction, made into Hollywood movies, you might own a lovely home, or several, and shiny new cars.
If you write non-fiction that hits a cultural or political nerve — like over-rated “Hillbilly Elegy” — you might also hit it big.
If you write poetry, you might get “paid” with a copy of the journal that deigned to accept your work.
If you’re a full-time freelance writer, as I am, you probably earn a fairly wide range of fees, unless you’re primarily writing for Hollywood, or the elite tier of top-flight magazines and/or producing a Niagara of material, with very little time off.
There’s also a steady oversupply of people desperate to say: “I’m a writer!”
Blogging doesn’t pay most of us, (unless sponsored.) And yet, blogging here since July 1, 2009, has brought me more than $10,000 in income, teaching my skills to others. (I offer webinars.)
I began writing for money — for national magazines and newspapers — in my second year at university, in Toronto, where I was doing an English degree. It’s the center of Canadian publishing, home to most major newspapers and magazines. I just had to gin up the nerve to start approaching them, and one of the magazine publishing houses was, literally, a block south of campus.
I got my first assignment for a national women’s magazine after writing a furious letter to the editor, asking them to run better material. That editor, (bless her!) called me in for a meeting, and said: “I’d rather have you writing for us than to us.”
Yes, a hugely lucky break.
But I already had two years’ experience writing every week for our demanding university newspaper, so I brought developed skills.
The money I earned writing helped put me through university and paid my rent and groceries, living alone from the age of 19 in an apartment.
That taught me to negotiate for better pay, early and often.
I also overheard an editor pleading with a fellow writer, (a man, older than I), out-earning me for the same kind of weekly column by 50 percent, not to quit.
So when I see — and I see it every day — writers accepting shitty pay, or no pay, and refusing to even try to negotiate for more, or to build their skills to a level they can ask for more and legitimately get it, I lose it.
I also see some Big Name Writers telling the world they have no savings and no money put aside for retirement, as if to glorify the de facto penury of being a writer.
If you have no savings and are perpetually broke, even while earning your full-time living as a writer, consider:
Your skills are weak and no one will pay you properly for them — since so many competitors do it better, or say they can.
You’re unwilling or unable to negotiate higher rates.
You’re living beyond your means, possibly sabotaged by high rent/mortgage in an expensive city; (Toronto, New York, London, San Francisco, Vancouver.)
You didn’t realize that writing for a living is no less serious — and often just about as glamorous — as sanitation work. Just because you enjoy it doesn’t mean it isn’t work. (Sanitation workers, at least, have a union, paid sick days and a pension.)
You haven’t done enough work yet to acquire a consistent track record of achievement, when it’s more reasonable to ask for higher pay rates..
You have a weak or inexperienced network — or people don’t like and trust you enough (yet) to refer you to their decently-paying contacts; most of my work now comes through referrals.
You need to improve your marketing and sales. While people think writing for a living means actually writing, about 75 of my time and energy is spent finding and qualifying new clients.
You need more help with domestic chores or other tasks. It takes time and energy to find well-paid markets for your work, often in addition to teaching.
You write only for low-paying outlets, almost all of them digital, offering $50 or $100 or $300 for long, reported stories, (some writers think this is a lot of money). No one can earn a living at these rates, or work a healthy number of daily/weekly hours to do it. Aim for a higher-paying mix — agency work, print work, non-profit or custom publishing or branded content.
You might need a job, part-time or full-time, until you have a decent financial cushion and can turn down low-ball offers. You can’t refuse lousy jobs and terrible payment if you’re always desperate for the next gig.
You’re too slow! You have to know your minimum hourly rate and stick to it. If you waste time or work inefficiently, you’re cutting into your profit margin. It’s a business!
Caitlin Kelly, an award-winning non-fiction author and frequent contributor to The New York Times, is a New York-based journalist. Her one-on-one webinars and individual coaching, by Skype, phone or in person, have helped writers and bloggers worldwide; details here. Contact: email@example.com.
I’ve been working full-time freelance, alone at home, since 2006. You’ll notice how little time I actually spend writing –– compared to marketing, follow-up, networking and admin.
I sure don’t sit around awaiting my muse — the UPS guy, maybe.
To the post office, sending off, sometimes via snail mail, LOIs, aka letters of introduction. Their goal is to introduce me to a new-to-me editor or client, enticing them into working with me.
The return rate, i.e. paid work, isn’t terrific, but it must be done. I sometimes enclose a copy of my latest book, along with my resume, letter and business card. Sending one package from New York to London (I sent two), would have cost me $22 (!) each. I argued with the postal clerk and got it reduced to $10.
That’s a business deduction.
I have a new ghostwriting client, for whom I produce two blog posts a month. Staying on top of invoicing is key, since some clients take forever to pay, even “losing” your invoice. Working carefully, I now avoid most deadbeats, and have used lawyer’s letters when needed to successfully get the payment I was owed.
I teach writing classes here to professional designers — I attended school here in the 90s
The necessity of freelance journalism, for all but the fortunate few, is pitching — i.e. coming up with ideas and finding markets to pay you (well) for producing them. That also means sifting through dozens of email pitches from PR firms, most of them completely useless and of zero interest to me.
Pitched two ideas to a university alumni magazine, one of which piqued their interest, but hasn’t yet produced an assignment.
I find most of my ideas through pattern recognition — noticing cultural, social and economic trends and offering an idea when it’s timely and in the news. Stories without any time hook are called “evergreens”, and are harder to sell.
Pitching also means plenty of rejection. A health magazine said no to three ideas, (asking for more.) A psychology magazine ignored my pitch for a shorter essay and asked if I’d write it at twice the length — but insisted I show clips (published work) just like it, which I don’t have. An editor I’ve already worked with hasn’t replied to two more pitches.
Pitching also means following up, dancing the razor’s edge between being annoying (too soon, too often), and being ignored.
We rely fully on my income as well, so I can’t just sit around hoping for weeks on end.
Offered a brief, easy assignment, into the city to cover an event for a trade magazine in another state. They offered one fee. I negotiated it 30 percent higher.
Negotiation is always nerve-wracking, but it’s essential. Many women writers fail to ask for more, and end up broke and annoyed because we don’t.
Have a phone meeting next week with a new-to-me editor in Canada, so need to read her website’s work carefully to make sure my ideas are a potential fit.
I’m heading to Europe in June for four to six weeks, and already have several feature ideas I want to pitch, so I can write off some of the expenses, dig deeper into that country’s culture in so doing and earn some income to offset the costs of the trip.
Without some solid data and proven contacts, it’s harder to sell a story, at least one worth $5,000 or more, a very rare bird to catch these days.
I’ve already found an interpreter in Budapest, so that’s a start.
Have been chasing a PR official in Europe on a story for more than three weeks, my deadline long past. The editor is easy-going so we can wait, but the income I relied on for a finished/accepted/invoiced story? That’s now weeks away.
My favorite activity. A new blogger hired me to coach him, and we worked via Skype from my apartment in suburban New York to his European home, a seven hour time difference.
I also worked with a four-person team at a local art film house to help them better shape their pitches and press releases to journalists.
Two newspapers every day. Twitter newsfeed. Social media. Books. Magazines. Websites. (Plus NPR, BBC radio.)
If I’m not reading constantly, I don’t know what’s going on and could miss something crucial I need to know to pitch and write intelligently.
The least of it!
Blogging keeps me writing between assignments.
Without which, nothing happens.
Connected with an editor in Canada (thanks to a referral.)
Connected with a Toronto entrepreneur (we met through Twitter) with whom I hope to do some long-distance coaching for his clients.
Connected with a fellow writer I met last spring at an event of fellow writers who all belong to the same on-line group — she might have assignments to offer.
Spoke to a freelance photographer in California about writing and editing her new website.
Spoke to a PR exec in Seattle about possible blog writing and a white paper.
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 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.
OK, laugh…but I do, occasionally, read self-help books, especially those focused on business.
I’ve been working full-time freelance, alone at home, since 2005, and have done so several times in my career. Which means I have no boss or manager to, ideally, train and guide me, or mentor me or help me get better at what I do.
And being a freelance writer is — very rarely — about the quality of your actual writing, but about your ability to sell, close deals, hustle, to create and sustain profitable new relationships.
So I need to seek, and to find, people and ways to help me stay fresh, smart and sharp.
A classic of the business self-help genre is Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Successful People”, originally published on August 15, 1989, which I read and enjoyed.
Sharpen the Saw means preserving and enhancing the greatest asset you have–you. It means having a balanced program for self-renewal in the four areas of your life: physical, social/emotional, mental, and spiritual. Here are some examples of activities:
Beneficial eating, exercising, and resting
Making social and meaningful connections with others
Learning, reading, writing, and teaching
Spending time in nature, expanding spiritual self through meditation, music, art, prayer, or service
As you renew yourself in each of the four areas, you create growth and change in your life. Sharpen the Saw keeps you fresh so you can continue to practice the other six habits. You increase your capacity to produce and handle the challenges around you.
Those of you who read this blog regularly know how deeply I believe in and evangelize for a life filled with joy and connection and rest, not just a hard charge from cradle to grave.
In that spirit, I’m heading to D.C. this weekend for a firehose of data on writing about retirement. I’ve been writing often for Reuters Money on a variety of personal finance topics, from taxes to how to establish a scholarship. This three-day D.C. fellowship, offered to 20 journalists from across the country, will, I hope, better prepare me to pitch and write smart, incisive stories.
While in Washington, I’m also meeting editors at two major publications and hoping for new work from each of them.
I’ll take three days to rest, recharge and enjoy the city, which I’ve visited many times; favorite spots include the Old Ebbitt Grill and the Sackler Museum, the elegant, serene Asian art wing of the Smithsonian.
I’ll get home, have a day to unpack and repack, then fly to Toronto, my hometown, to attend the wedding reception and brunch of one of my dearest and oldest friends, a woman marrying after decades of independence and financial success running her own business.
I’m super excited for her and her fiance, a distinguished author and professor, and thrilled to be there to share their joy; she spoke at my second wedding, in September 2011 in a small church on an island in the Toronto harbor.
She has known me, and nurtured me, from the very start of my journalism career, when I — a wildly ambitious writer in Toronto — apparently (!?) pestered her for free tickets to the ballet, which she represented for years as their press officer.
We quickly became good friends, and she has welcomed me into her home many, many times. I later wrote several times about the National Ballet, and had some great adventures as a result; I was honored to write an essay for their 35th anniversary souvenir program as well.
She is more family to me than anyone to whom I’m related.
It’s also been a busy spring with no out-of-state travel since early January, so I’m really ready for a break, physically, emotionally and intellectually.
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!
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 writer who moderated a panel in Maryland now sits as an audience member in Manhattan.
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.
As some of you know, I make my living as a full-time freelance writer, with work published many times in The New York Times, in Marie Claire and Cosmopolitan, and on-line for Quartz, Rewireme.com, Investopedia and many others.
The first quarter of 2015 has been seriously weird.
While in England in early January, I reported two fun stories for Our Minutes, a website devoted to watches. I also went out to High Wycombe, a suburban town 45 minutes from London, to report on a well-established social service organization, one that their major funder considered extremely innovative. I spent a full day there and interviewed six people, plenty of data for an 1,800 word story.
This was to have been my first piece for a major international magazine. A big deal. A chance to impress a new client.
The editor, as is typical, had a few questions after reading my story, which I sent along to my sources. They failed to answer two of them — so I persisted.
Multiple emails and phone calls went un-returned. This was a bizarre first for me in 30 years of journalism.
I finally emailed their funder, reluctant to embarrass the group, but stymied.
They had shut down.
That would have been difficult and unlikely enough, had a similar thing not happened a month earlier with a different story, a long (3,500 word) feature for a major American women’s magazine. I’d spent weeks on it, eight hours alone with the profile’s subject, a woman with a long and impressive track record in her field. I’d spent more hours interviewing a dozen of her family, friends and colleagues.
The editor liked my first draft and we were set to start on revisions when I saw a story about the woman in The New York Times — being investigated by the mayor for an ethical breach.
Boom! That story?
Dead — in magazine parlance, literally, killed.
I was, as is only fair, paid in full for my work; I can’t control the ethics or behaviors of the people I cover. I choose people and groups with a proven track record. I’m neither naive nor gullible.
But this? Two stories exploding in two months, both before (thank heaven!) publication?
Now I wonder how much tougher I’ll need to be with every single person, company and organization I think is worth covering.
For someone who — like Scheherezade — stays alive only by telling story after story — this is a daunting prospect.
I’m not sure what’s happening these days, but wrangling sources — i.e. finding real people to talk to me and be quoted and/or photographed for a story — is getting tougher. Even those who agree tend to disappear on deadline. Failure is not an option! Without sources, I have nothing to write, sell and get paid for.
People who fantasize about freelance writing full-time picture a life of ease — up at the crack of noon, Auntie Mame-style, noodle about, make some calls, write something the editor loves, prints and promptly pays for.
I enjoy what I do, but it is, always, a hustle: for new clients, for more work from existing clients, finding interesting stories to tell, finding sources willing to speak on the record.
The Times, for years an anchor client of mine, recently severely slashed its freelance budgets, cutting loose several people with columns that had run there for years.
So I’ve been sending out LOIs — letters of introduction — letting editors who don’t know me or my work know that I’d love to work for them.
Pay rates can be laughably low for even the most august and putatively well-off, so when they write back, (if they do), you discover, for example, that Harvard’s alumni magazine offers — wait for it! — 50 cents a word.
That’s $500 for 1,000 words, a story that would pay $2,500 from a Conde Nast publication, possibly even more.
Harvard’s current endowment? $36.4 billion — as of June 2014.
You have to laugh, really.
Then move on.
One of the interesting challenges of writing journalism is that of playing man-in-the-middle — finding and wrangling good sources while also pleasing your editor(s.) Writing skills matter, of course, but terrific people skills, the willingness and ability to negotiate diplomatically for everything from contract terms to whether someone is on or off the record, are also paramount.
When these two stories headed for the delete pile, I kept my editors in the loop every step of the way to let them know this might happen.
Personally, I was deeply embarrassed, worried, stupefied by my hard work simply going to waste through no fault of my own. But I couldn’t just focus only on my many feelings — these editors have magazines to fill, deadlines to meet and demanding bosses of their own to please.
When you work alone at home, year after year, often never even meeting your clients face to face, it’s too easy to forget that you’re part of a team, only one link in the editorial supply chain.
Writing journalism means remembering that you’re one domino in a long line — and if one falls, others will as well.
— that they (if you’re interviewing by email) are in fact the people you think they are
— that you, the writer, have done your due diligence and aren’t handing over a pack of lies to your unwitting editor.
It’s a big responsibility and one I never take lightly. At lunch a few years ago with a fellow veteran, we discussed the very few times we had made an error in our work — and how physically ill it made us feel. If you’re not a perfectionist, this isn’t the job for you.