Why work freelance?

By Caitlin Kelly

Here’s a powerful reminder that some jobs scar us for years, written by an HR expert I really admire and follow on Twitter, Katrina Kibben:

Trauma is the only way to describe what happens when managers go out of their way to demean and shrink their team’s confidence. Nothing is the same. The safety humans need to thrive, especially at work, is gone. Three years into owning my own company, those bad managers still influence how I lead my team every minute. I go to extremes to make sure I’m never like those bad bosses.

I will spend hours writing and rewriting a coaching email to ensure that people know I see them. Why? Those moments when someone you admire makes you feel small are seconds you never forget. When the shame happens on a daily cycle, it’s a whole new world of mind games. I can’t do that to people.

I know first-hand that the mind games don’t end because you quit your job either. After I walked away from my worst managers, I caught myself questioning the intentions of everyone with feedback. Let me tell you – that is not a good way to live your life. I still get coaching on feedback to make sure I deliver and receive it with empathy.

I’ve been doing Zoom sessions with American high school journalism students and really enjoying it — so far, with Florida, Michigan, Ohio, California and with Texas and Pennsylvania ahead.

One of the questions — why freelance?

What are its advantages?

My first reply?

Intellectual freedom!

I enjoyed aspects of my three staff newspaper jobs — at the Globe & Mail (Canada’s national newspaper), the Montreal Gazette and the New York Daily News.

But each job carried some truly heinous challenges as well: cut-throat internal gossip and competition, stupid or lazy or rote-minded management, sexism.

I loved breaking stories (i.e. getting them ahead of all my ferocious competitors).

I loved the crazy adrenaline rush of reporting and writing on deadline.

I loved learning so many new things and having tremendous experiences — from meeting Queen Elizabeth to visiting a rural Quebec commune to flying into an Arctic village of 500 people.

I loved knowing that my work was being read by so many people and could, occasionally, prove helpful to them.

The Daily News job, as Katrina writes, was the last straw for me. I won’t bore you with all the details but here’s one — I started in June and by late September my direct boss stopped speaking to me. He never again spoke to me until I was laid off about a year later.

As the unofficial company motto said — Sink or Swim!

So I’ve since stayed freelance, which is basically intellectual piecework. We joke that we eat only what we kill — i.e. no paycheck or pension or paid sick days or paid vacation.

Holidays? Hah! Only when we can afford the time and cost of using them.

But it also has freed me from working with and for bullies and brutes, a huge advantage for me.

I’ve also found a few communities of fellow independents on Twitter and participate in weekly Twitterchats, like #remotechat (Wednesdays, 1pm EDT) and #FreelanceChat (Thursdays, at noon EDT.)

The range of people on them is terrific — with people arriving from across the U.S., Canada and Europe. It makes us feel less lonely!

I also really enjoy the wild variety of my work.

In the past year, I’ve written on:

— STEM education (for an engineering magazine)

— pancreatic cancer research (for the Lustgarten Foundation)

— A Finnish energy executive (Neste)

— Why some long-resident foreigners in the U.S. choose not to become citizens (The Conversationalist)

All of these are on my website.

Working on your own — as so many are now doing because of the pandemic — is challenging, and next to impossible for women trying to manage multiple small children (800,000 have left the American workforce!)

It means being super-focused and self-disciplined, and not having an office with an appropriate chair, desk or lighting. (I write on a laptop on our dining table.)

It can also mean working to others’ needs and schedules — not, as some fantasize, sleeping til noon. My husband, a freelance photographer and photo editor, works freelance and his hours can start at 6:00 a.m. and sometimes go until 2:00 a.m.

But we enjoy it.

How to be a successful writer: my video

By Caitlin Kelly

Here’s a new video, thanks to Abby Lee Hood, who generously included me in her ongoing series of writer interviews.

It’s 1:08 and we talk about how to (re) define success in a world that too often equates making a LOT of money with being “successful”. I argue there are other metrics, as writers and as human beings.

Hope you enjoy!

The fallow field

IMG_5301We all so badly need time to just rest!

 

By Caitlin Kelly

When you work wholly freelance, it tends to be feast or famine — so much work at once you’re pulling 10 to 12+ hour days, working nights and weekends and not taking a vacation — or panicking because the work has dried up but the bills keep coming.

The pandemic has exacerbated this problem.

 

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Thrilled to have won this in an online auction from the NYC auction house Doyle. It’s a vintage kilim, a flat-weave Caucasian wool rug in perfect condition.

 

We are grateful and lucky to both have a lot of work, enough to even finally add some needed, costly and nice things to our home, like a new sofa, a vintage rug scored at auction, and hiring a painter to do a badly needed repair to the (sigh) cracked walls in our living room, an annoying and ongoing feature of living in a 60 year old building.

But we’ve had only taken four days’ vacation in six months and we’re whipped. We usually take a two or even three week break — doing no work at all — and travel back to Canada or overseas to rest and recharge.

Not this year.

The fallow field is one that isn’t being worked, and is being quietly replenished.

It’s resting, as this writer posted in 2017:

 

 

So there are days now I just do…nothing.

It’s not really nothing, because I’m usually reading for hours and hours, trying to wade through piles of magazines and newspapers.

But I’m reading more books for sheer pleasure.

I’m watching movies and bingeing on Netflix.

I’m taking an hour’s nap pretty much every day.

Unlike a farmer with three fields I only have one weary heart, mind, soul and body.

I have no “extra” brain to keep using for work —- while the other one just rests!

And with almost nowhere safe to flee to because of this damn virus, a change of scenery in every way, it’s even more enervating to try and wind down in the same small space you work in.

We’re very lucky in New York as finally, all our museums are re-opening.

I can’t wait to “waste time” looking at old beautiful things again.

 

A rough week

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So tired of financial thin ice

 

By Caitlin Kelly

By December 15, any American who doesn’t have health insurance has to sign up for it.

If you want to change plans, same.

I had to make four separate calls to get the information I needed. We are keeping our plan — now going up to $1800 a month.

There are no bargains.

 

If your plan costs less per month (and I’m talking $800 a month, not $200 to $400), you’re hit with huge “deductibles” — more money to pay out of pocket.

A plan that would offer dental “coverage” would limit us to basic care, and charge us a $25 co-pay every time we actually used it.

This is absurd, and our dentist is fine letting us pay over time. No co-pay.

American health insurance, when you work for yourself and it’s not subsidized by an employer, is a crippling cost. We’re reduced now to using retirement savings for it…wasting our hard-earned money to stave off potential bankruptcy.

I’ve recently been told to add two new medications, so a comprehensive plan is essential.

Having grown up in Canada, this “system” is just barbaric. But I left Canada seeking better work opportunities, and until recently, this was true.

Journalism, now, is in free fall.

Freelance pay rates are one-third of the 1990s.

And this is not the time or place to suddenly re-train for some whole new career. Just not going to happen.

Plus this week offered a nasty surprise financial disclosure that stunned me, not in a good way.

Not feeling the holiday spirit at all right now.

 

Ten tips for freelancers

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At its best, time for a long lunch out! This is L’Express in Montreal

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Some call it — ugh! — the “gig economy” as if we were all hep-cats pounding some drum-set in the basement.

Freelance life, if it’s your sole income, really means self-employment, running a small business. While freelance sounds hip and cool and breezy — being a small business owner sounds, and is, much more serious.

I’ve been full-time freelance since 2006, but have done it for long stretches before that.

Some tips:

 

Choose your clients very carefully

It’s tempting, especially when you’re starting out, to lunge at every opportunity. It’s not a good habit to develop. People can smell desperation and will, sadly, take advantage of it with low rates, slow payment, awful contracts and abusive behavior. Do your due diligence whenever possible so you can avoid these toxic monsters.

 

 

Cultivate a wide, deep network of peers, fellow professionals whose work, work ethic and character you know well.

 

See point one! Without a network, how would you know? With a network, you will be more able to pick and choose which opportunities are best for you and your skills. Once you have a posse, you can safely refer work to them when you’re swamped, and vice versa.

 

 

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Keep at least three months of basic living expenses in the bank or have access to a line of credit.

Very few clients pay quickly. The best will pay 50 percent up front, or one-third, but this varies by industry. Late payments are a huge source of stress.

 

Know your legal rights! Read every contract carefully and amend them whenever possible. In New York State, the law protects freelancers who get stiffed.

 

Some contracts have become virtually unmanageable. Worst case? Walk away.

 

Negotiate. Every time.

 

No one is ever going to just hand you bags ‘o cash. Ask for more money, more time, a larger travel budget, social media boosts, etc.

 

Keep growing and building your skills.

 

Your competitors are!

Attend conferences, take classes and workshops and get some individual coaching. Listen to podcasts and Ted talks and YouTube. Read books. Take a college or university night class. The wider and stronger your skills, the more options you have to earn multiple revenue streams.

Yes, I coach!

 

 

 

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Get out into nature. Slow down. Rest.

Take time off!

 

Without rest, recharge and respite, burnout is inevitable. For all the putative freedom — no commute! work in a T-shirt! — this is often a highly stressful way to earn a living. Some people with “real” jobs, some of whom have paid vacations and paid holidays and paid sick days, get time off.

Freelance? The only people who know when it’s time to take a break is us.

 

Set clear boundaries between work and rest. Keep them!

 

I don’t work nights or weekends. If I do, I take time off in recompense. I keep a fairly standard work schedule, 10:00 a.m. to 5pm. I don’t like early mornings so will only schedule something before 10:00 a.m. if it’s really urgent — like working with someone in Europe (five to six hours ahead of me in New York.)

Get out of your lane!

 

I hate this new admonition — stay in your lane! All it does is ensure we don’t listen to, look at and engage with others who are different from us, in politics, interests and vocation. If all you ever do is talk to other writers or fellow freelancers, you’ll quickly die of boredom! Go to museums and parties and gallery openings and concerts and stuff your kids are into (Fortnite!) to keep your brain open to new ideas and ways of thinking.

 

 

 

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Remember in your heart of hearts that your skills and work bring value

 

Freelancing can be really lonely and really isolating. If you work alone at home for years, and have no kids or pets and your partner or spouse works out of the home, it’s very easy to start to feel feral and ignored. Make an “attaboy” file of every bit of praise and kindness so on days when everything gets rejected you recall why you’re good at this stuff and things will improve.

Here’s a recent interview with an American freelance writer, a woman of color.

The writing life, this week…

malled cover LOW

Still hoping to sell a third book proposal…

 

By Caitlin Kelly

Whew.

My livelihood, like that of many full-time freelancers, is intellectual piecework. Instead of sewing pockets on jeans in a factory, I chase assignments, negotiate fees and conditions (some now paying 60 days after invoice), read, sign and amend contracts, fill out the paperwork to get paid.

I also…oh thatwrite.

The past week has been a really exhausting roller-coaster.

After agreeing to a shitty fee of $750 for 1,400 words, (ironically for an outlet focused on journalism), I turned in my story, which required six interviews and reading a new book on the subject of the piece. Endless email mis-communication ensued until the very young female editor called me — at 4:55 on Friday afternoon — to find out what was going on.

Thanks to texting and emojis and a life lived only screen-mediated, many young editors and writers now exhibit a bizarre and pronounced fear of speaking by phone. Some simply don’t know how to react, civilly, in real time.

This did not go well.

She was rude, condescending, dismissive, constantly interrupting me. Two hours later she killed the story, costing me the entire fee.

Since that shitshow, I successfully pitched another idea, an essay, to a website, got a quick rejection for a New York Times op-ed, accepted three more assignments from a specialty magazine and — to my amazement — got a green light on a story that had been widely rejected for months.

I also pitched the Financial Times, allure.com, another NYT editor and Real Simple (no go) — and wrote that time-sensitive essay in 2 days.

Losing $750 I expected means postponing a dental visit, getting a new pair of glasses, paying down credit card debt. It’s not a joke. This is not a hobby.

One of the greatest challenges, for me, is just moving on after a really bad experience. That baby editor’s behavior was appalling — but it’s not my issue.

I know the excellent skills I offer. I know the people who value them.

Whatever happens, the bills keep showing up, every month, thousands of dollars needed to pay them all, in full, on time.

Like regular people.

 

This is not a life for the fragile.

Where do story ideas come from?

 

 

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Love this bookstore kitty! Sometimes my best ideas come to me from taking a hooky day, fleeing the apartment and computer

 

By Caitlin Kelly

By this, I mean ideas for blog posts and for journalism and non-fiction.

Broadside now has more than 2,000 posts, beginning on July 1, 2009, when I chose to make reference to my native Canada, as it’s Canada Day.

Since then, as longtime readers know, I’ve touched on a wide range of subjects; the two posts readers choose every day (!?) are about my meeting Queen Elizabeth aboard the Royal yacht Brittania at the end of my covering a Royal Tour as a Globe & Mail reporter and what it was like to be sent away to boarding school when I was eight, the youngest child at my Toronto school.

My theory about why those two are so steadfastly popular, day after day, year after year — both are highly specific life events many are curious about and few, certainly meeting the Queen, will experience.

I blog a lot on writing, journalism, travel and how and why people behave as they do, inspired by pretty much anything: an overheard remark in a cafe, a walk in the woods or a conversation with my husband.

My goal, here, is to engage you and, when possible, spark a bit of lively conversation.

Some of my journalism work arrives as assignments, i.e. an editor chooses me to write a story for them. But much of the time it’s up to me to gin up some fabulous idea and sell it to someone with a decent budget, for me usually no less than $1,200 to $1,500. I do occasionally write for less, but it has to be quick and easy.

 

 

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Our recent trip to Santa Fe gave me some fresh ideas

A few stories I came up with and how:

 

In June 2018 I got a diagnosis of DCIS, an early and treatable form of breast cancer. Like many events in my life, it became fodder for several stories. This one, in The New York Times, about medical touch and this one, on the UK website, The Pool, about how many people have no idea how to talk to people who get cancer.

I watch Jeopardy a lot and enjoy the variety of contestants; one man mentioned a highly unusual Brooklyn children’s charity he volunteers with; I recently sold a story about it to The New York Times about an after school program focused on boat building.

 

 

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As someone who loves to travel but hates turbulence, I did a lot of deep research on it for this piece (again) for The New York Times’ travel section. I got the idea because, as they say in journalism, three’s a trend — and I’d noticed three recent reports of commercial flights having to divert from their original destination because of turbulence.

For Marriott magazine, I focused on one of my passions, setting a beautiful table for entertaining.

And, because so many journalists get fired — 1,000 lost their jobs recently across a number of digital platforms and print media — I pitched this fun piece about the long-standing friendships that often evolve and last for decades from these crazy workplaces. It ran on the website for the Poynter Institute, which teaches journalism skills to working professionals. It came about because my very first staff job, in my 20s, led to a friendship with the now only remaining staff photographer for the Globe & Mail — when the building we’d worked in together was torn down (of course) for new condos, Fred grabbed a souvenir white brick for me.

I’m still trying, so far without success, to sell a fantastic story from rural France, about a family run manufacturer in business 155 years.

In the past week — whew! —  I pitched five story ideas: one came out of a personal experience (what’s called a “service piece”, not very alluring but of service to the reader through practical tips) to Real Simple magazine; a personal health-focused essay to Self; a big deep dive (i.e. lots of original reporting) to American Prospect; two ideas to The New York Times Magazine and another to a Times editor in the Metropolitan section.

I also did six interviews by phone for my first story for cjr.org, the digital side of Columbia Journalism Review; the idea came out of a new book my former book editor tweeted about.

Taking a breather

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By Caitlin Kelly

People fantasize about freelance life — no boss! no meetings! no cubicle! no commute!

All true.

Also — no steady income! no security! no workday!

One great pleasure, though, is disappearing when we can find the time and money to do so.

So we’re off to Jose’s hometown, Santa Fe, New Mexico, my first visit there in 20 years, right after we met.

We’ll visit childhood friends, hike, get a massage at 10,000 Waves, play golf.

Relax.

Jose just finished photo editing for the U.S. Open, held in Pebble Beach, California — sitting in the hallway of our one-bedroom New York apartment. His workday stretched from 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. for a solid week. I don’t know where he gets the stamina!

I’ve spent the past week pitching a lot of stories, all of them to new-to-me markets, and now await (I hope) a few assignments to come back to.

In American life, workers feel lucky to even get two weeks’ paid vacation, while Europeans are accustomed to five. Working freelance, we generally take five or six weeks, although three-at-once is the most we can do because of Jose’s work.

So ready to recharge!

Can women handle 10,000 words?

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Frozen out…

By Caitlin Kelly

Just a taste of the obstacles so many women writers still face.

This, from Vox, quoting the editor in chief of The Atlantic magazine, Jeffrey Goldberg, which is considered one of the most prestigious outlets in American journalism:

 

It’s really, really hard to write a 10,000-word cover story. There are not a lot of journalists in America who can do it. The journalists in America who do it are almost exclusively white males. What I have to do — and I haven’t done this enough yet — is again about experience versus potential. You can look at people and be like, well, your experience is writing 1,200-word pieces for the web and you’re great at it, so good going!

That’s one way to approach it, but the other way to approach it is, huh, you’re really good at this and you have a lot of potential and you’re 33 and you’re burning with ambition, and that’s great, so let us put you on a deliberate pathway toward writing 10,000-word cover stories. It might not work. It often doesn’t. But we have to be very deliberate and efficient about creating the space for more women to develop that particular journalistic muscle.

 

I really don’t have a lot to add to this.

I will say that any woman, like me, who has already written and published a non-fiction book — mine are each around 100,000 words — is fully capable of producing a terrific magazine piece one-tenth that length.

This kind of gate-keeping is annoyingly prevalent, and the magazines still deemed career-making in choosing and promoting their writers are extremely difficult to penetrate. When top editors are male, many keep choosing the guys they know already, not the fantastically talented proven women beyond their narrow purview.

His comment, not surprisingly, provoked a torrent on Twitter. The women writers I know, admire and respect flung up their hands…business as usual.

Here’s an analysis of it from The Cut:

You don’t even need to leave the Atlantic’s archives to see how wrong it is to believe the journalists in America who do this Very Special Thing are “almost exclusively white males.” (It’s Sisyphean to list all the writers out in the wider world he’s overlooked.) But it is also sadly true that Goldberg’s record on this front is better than the one that preceded him, when, of the 17 issues directly before his tenure, only three of the cover stories were written by women. That’s fewer than the number of men during that same time period who wrote cover stories AND attended Yale at some point during the 1980s, as did the magazine’s then-editor-in-chief James Bennet. (Boola boola to you, Messrs. Haidt, Beinart, Frum, and Rauch!)

It’s also painfully obvious that some of the most interesting magazine-style journalism is happening, of course, at places that don’t have cover stories. The Atlantic is the most Establishment of the Establishment magazines, and the fixation on a print cover story as the sacred, locked tabernacle to which only a few are granted a key is revealing of a certain value system. (As is the notion that high word count correlates with quality or importance.)

 

If this issue is of interest to you, to see how many women are getting their work published, read the VIDA reports; VIDA is a 10-year-old organization founded on the principle of getting more women published.

 

 

The creative Lazarus

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

The thing most of us crave, (certainly living in the U.S. where falling into or staying in poverty is terrifying), is financial security. No one wants to not be able to make rent, buy groceries, buy a bus pass or gas the car, clothe their kids or pay off those miserable student loans.

So many of us will lunge toward the first job that offers us a steady income because….steady income.

 

It’s the fortunate few who have the time, energy and fiscal freedom to slow down and decide to focus on what they really hope to creatively accomplish. When you work for others, you de facto work to their needs, budget and deadline.

 

People have told me I’m an artist…I think I’m more of a tailor. You want your trousers hemmed two inches (intellectually speaking)? I can do that. You want a navy gabardine suit size 42R? No problem. I know how to work quickly and efficiently and give people what they ask me for.

I’m no Phoebe Philo nor the late Karl Lagerfeld nor my favorite fashion designer, Belgian Dries van Noten.  Occasionally, yes, I come up with a wholly creative idea and am able to sell it.

Jose recently had an idea that will literally make history. I am so proud of him! We can’t share what it is for a few months, but he realized that a specific annual event of great cultural importance had (?!) never before been documented visually. He knew its administrator and pitched the idea to her and he suggested a budget for it and she said yes.

 

 

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The New York Times newsroom

 

 

He spent 31 years as a photographer and photo editor at The New York Times, a place of prestige and power, and it gave him a source of challenge, steady income with a union-protected job and a pension. All good.

But.

Very little creative freedom.

Those outside journalism may fantasize about its creativity but the wage slaves within it know better; too often the thinking is stale and the formulation of coverage cliche. Those who keep coming up with new and interesting and untried ideas — as Jose did many times — can be ignored, dismissed and just give up.

When he took the buyout they offered in 2015, I was scared. How would a guy with a desk for 31 years thrive as a full-time freelancer?

 

 

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In an Irish cottage, taking the kind of break that fuels our creativity…

 

 

He has, because his creativity is finally being rewarded, both financially and professionally.

At an age when some people have retired and hung it up, he’s tootling along, impressing the hell out of new clients and, best of all, seeing the fruits of his labors.