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.
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.
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?
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.
Just saw a great new film starring the fab Melissa McCarthy, in a serious role, as the late New York City writer Lee Israel, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
More than any film I’ve ever seen, it shows the reality of life for an ambitious-but-stymied writer in a city full of the inevitable confrontations with those who are glitteringly and gloatingly more successful. In one scene, she attends a party filled with them and her simmering rage is palpable.
I still remember the woman, (living as an adult in her parents’ townhouse), who ran into me at some NYC writing event and cooed: “Are you still with the Daily News? Haven’t seen your byline much recently.”
Israel, who found forging literary letters her financial salvation when her career stalled, also had a prickly personality that guaranteed her few allies and alienated the few who tried to get close to her.
The scenes where she both confronts and begs her agent to get her a deal are painful to watch — and so honest. The inequities here are legion, like the Classic Six, (a huge, much coveted style of Manhattan apartment) her agent inherited; Israel lives in a dingy walk-up with her cat.
Writing for a living is often a deeply frustrating path to frustration, envy and low wages. Those who tell you otherwise are hoping to make some money from your idealism and naievete.
Since I generally update you on my writing life, here’s the — cheerful! — latest:
— Nice reception for this essay published on The Pool, a UK website, about the odd reality of getting a cancer diagnosis and having to keep explaining it to people who know nothing and can’t be bothered to Google your condition.
With so many medical appointments and seven physicians, and tests and treatments that would consume more than five months, I kept trying to flee cancerland whenever possible. Where I live, though, it’s almost impossible to avoid being confronted by ads on radio, TV, buses or even a debit-card machine for a cancer hospital or drug. When healthcare is a competitive, for-profit enterprise, the word “cancer” is annoyingly inescapable, leading some who’ve yet to face it to think they understand what those facing the disease are going through.
One of the many lessons I learned quickly is how deeply individual breast cancer and its treatments are. At the radiation clinic, where I lay face down for 48 seconds a day for 20 days, I made two new friends – none of us with the same condition or treatment regime.
— Loved the chance to report and write this piece, a profile of the new coach for the New York Rangers, a hockey team that practices in my suburban town. The coach, David Quinn, was warm, down-to-earth and had his dreams of the NHL or the Olympics dashed at 20 when he discovered he is hemophiliac.
Ice as unyielding as concrete. Razor-sharp blades whizzing past with abandon. Slap-shot pucks flying through the air. Boards dented and dinged from bodies slammed hard into them during every game. Ice hockey and hemophilia are not a good match. But for David Quinn, an ice hockey rink is where he feels most at ease. On one hand, this is no surprise. Quinn, 52, is the new head coach of the New York Rangers, one of the National Hockey League’s most storied franchises. On the other hand, it’s a bit startling, because the rookie NHL head coach and former hockey player has hemophilia B.
— Wrote my first piece for a new website aimed at people in their 50s and 60s, considerable.com, after meeting its editor for a long lemonade this summer. It’s so rare these days anyone makes time to meet writers face to face; I’m now working on my second piece.
— Coached a writer who hopes to sell to The New York Times, discussing and refining her pitch.
— Coached a D.C. college journalism student in her final year, who found me on the Internet and hired me to work on her skills. It’s an interesting relationship and a challenge to try and transfer decades of knowledge, but fun and gratifying. We’re meeting face to face in New York for lunch this week.
— Started work on my first piece for an engineering magazine, which will be the fourth time (!) I’ve written about engineering education. As someone who didn’t enjoy most of my formal education, am fascinated by the skills and aptitudes required to succeed in that field.
—– Negotiating with several new clients and editors for work in early 2019. When you’re wholly freelance, paying (soon) $1700 a month for health insurance, it’s a constant hustle to find (and ideally keep) new relationships with people who pay well, pay quickly and don’t drive you insane with demands.
Last September Jeff and I spent a week in Greece and it was one of the most relaxing and restorative breaks I’ve ever taken in my life. It may be a silly thing to say about a fairly standard holiday, but it felt like a profound experience at the time. I needed it badly, felt great after I got back, and the sense of refreshment stayed with me a long time. When I was back in London I was emotional balanced, better at my work, and much better equipped to handle the flow of projects. We were in our 30s and this was the first holiday Jeff and I had ever taken that didn’t involve family or friends of some kind. There was no agenda, no purpose to the trip except to press pause on life for a moment and the positive effect of doing so was intense.
And then, like an idiot, I waited nearly a year to take significant time off again. It showed. I was getting anxious and overwhelmed by things that would not have phased me in a more rested state.
It’s not easy to take a proper holiday when you live far away from your family, losing a day each way to travel, (driving or flights, usually), plus cost.
You only get so many paid vacation days and then…they’re gone!
It’s also difficult if you’re burdened with debt, have multiple children and/or a very tight budget.
A holiday doesn’t have to be luxurious, but it does mean time for farniente — literally do nothing.
People like Jose and I work freelance, which means that every day we don’t work we don’t get paid — and our bills don’t magically drop in size and volume. (Our health insurance alone is $1,400 every month, more than our mortgage payment.)
Even so, I usually take at least six weeks every year to not work, even if it’s just sitting at home.
American work culture isn’t as bad as Japan’s where karoshi — death from overwork — is real. But its savage demands of low wages, a thin social safety net, precarious employment, almost no unions — plus the insane costs of a university education — combine to keep too many Americans working with few breaks.
The United States is, famously, the only First World country that does not mandate employers give employees paid time off. (That includes Christmas and Thanksgiving.) In Canada and Japan, workers must receive at least 10 paid vacation days, and the Canadians also enjoy a number of paid official holidays. The European Union mandates all employees receive 20 days off annually — and that also does not include paid holidays. But in the United States? Nothing.
Instead, the wealthiest among us boast of their work habits — both Rupert Murdoch and Ivanka Trump (before her recent work-life family balance makeover) bragged that they would stop in their offices on Sundays to encourage their workers to do the same. Sheryl Sandberg urged women to lean in by going home and having dinner with the kids — and then signing back on the computer to catch up. At the same time, we all but demonize those who don’t have employment or can’t get by on what they earn.
I still enjoy writing, but I’ve been doing it for a living for decades and no longer seek the career-boosting thrill of a Big Magazine byline.
I’d love to write a few more books, but this year has been dis-spiriting — both of my book proposals, (which cost unpaid time to produce), have each been rejected by more than three agents. Not sure if I’ll keep trying with the second one.
Negotiated with three different teams of PR people to set up a phone interview with (shriek!) shoe designer Manolo Blahnik. They shift the time of the interview, meaning I have to suddenly shift three competing events in my day to accommodate. This is all very normal in the world of celebrity PR, which is why I generally avoid it. (They called me from London and he was so nice! What a thrill!)
Pitched a new-to-me editor on a story that would require, ideally, a trip to a distant and remote Canadian destination. It’s a great story, but so few outlets have the budget for travel now, (let alone pay enough or offer enough space for a longer piece), and the ones that do are focused on luxury and high-net-worth readers — which attract lucrative ads from companies like Gucci and Vuitton. One reason there are so very few stories about the poor and struggling — you can’t sell ads against those pieces.
Pitched another new-to-me editor whose ideas are quite different from mine. “We’re getting closer,” she said. Not sure how much more energy I want to pour into a speculative project.
Checked the pay rate from The Independent, a British newspaper, when an editor called out online for op-eds. $150. #MissingAZero! Our health insurance costs $1,400 a month.
So much wasted time!
Asked three fellow journalists, two good friends, one an acquaintance, to participate in a book project. I anticipated their eagerness to help, and instead was met with resentment by one and silence by another and reluctant agreement by a third. Disheartening.
Invested half an hour interviewing a guy whose social justice work might make a great story — if I can find someone to buy it. Asked him where he attended university, (since successful alumni profiles are often an easy sell.)
The editor of his college alumni magazine says, yeah, we use freelancers — and offered $250 for a story.
The editor of a story I submitted more than three weeks ago, (who I had to email three times to follow up), asked me to hold it for another few weeks for a timelier story to run first. The only acceptable answer? “Sure” — which means another month before I get paid. I only get paid after it’s used.
Back to Montreal!
I set up a meeting for early May near Montreal to interview a farmer, my second such assignment for a farming magazine. Glamour! In fact, it’s a lot of fun and I’m delighted to get outdoors, work face to face, and get a paid trip back to Canada.
I taught my final two writing classes, of four nightly classes, of this semester at the New York School of Interior Design, where I studied in the ’90s. The class only had four students enrolled and one never even showed up. Another skipped the last class and didn’t do the work. I found this depressing. The one diligent student, luckily, was terrific. She worked really hard and is a lovely writer. But seriously?
Honored to be included with other women journalists, and called both smart and generous in this piece, which ran on a very high profile site in our industry, Poynter.com, on how to survive tough times in journalism.
In my 30-year career, I’ve had very few stories killed, (thank heaven) but it hurts. The last one, January 2015, cost me $900 in lost income.What we often end up doing, (angrily and quietly), is taking a financial hit to retain the working relationship. The editor keeps collecting their salary while we scramble to replace income we expected to earn — that we’re not going to receive.
From the CJR piece:
My ultimate hope, as a person from a family with deep roots in organized labor, is that one day freelance writing will be sold through a kind of union hiring hall, similar to that utilized by unions in the building trades. But that goal will entail a lot of self-help: holding other writers, particularly academics writing solely to burnish their “brands,” accountable for writing for exposure; sharing information about pay rates and editorial practices; and ensuring that all commissioned stories, however small the offered rate, come with contracts that specify detailed procedures about kill fees.
The sad truth of my business is that few work well with others, sometimes instead cutting their own very best deal — and the hell with everyone else. I rely on wide, deep networks of people to be honest with me about what they’re getting paid, or not. Only then can you discover (to your horror) how badly you might be getting screwed — and how much better you need to negotiate.
Coached a fellow writer by phone, my happiest and easiest income of the week, $225 for an hour of my advice. (Interested? Details here!)
The best part?
Took a hooky day! I visited one of my favorite museums in New York City, the Neue Galerie, a gorgeous Beaux Arts mansion on East 86th. Street bought by Ronald Lauder, (he of the Estée Lauder cosmetics fortune.) It contains, among many other items, a legendary portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, painted in 1907 by Gustav Klimt, for which Lauder — in 2006 — paid a staggering $135 million. I went to see a powerful show of German and Austrian art before and after the rise of Hitler.
Having recently watched the TV series Babylon Berlin, which I blogged about here, I’m a tad obsessed with the Weimar Republic and want to learn more about it. Treated myself to a cake and coffee in the museum’s popular and elegant Cafe Sabarsky, one of the prettiest rooms in New York. Bought three books on the Weimar period — ready for the next two weeks’ break, visiting friends and family in Ontario.
The writerly apartment in this fantasy is bare and minimal; the walls are unpainted plaster, or the wallpaper is peeling; the heat is faulty or not there; there are books stacked on the floor. It looks this way because it’s Paris struggling out of the deprivation and destruction of a world war, or New York soldiering on through the Depression, living in the wreckage of 1920s glamor. The writer spends hours in cafes, working and drinking, because the cafes are heated and the apartment is not. The aesthetic of this fantasy is permanently frozen in the first half of the 20th century, in the cities (and occasionally the beach resorts near cities) of Europe and the United States. The reason the fantasy writer lifestyle is set in such a particular time and place is that the interwar and postwar American writers who went to Europe for cheap rents have exerted a massive influence on the American idea of what literature is. Who casts a longer shadow across American fiction and curricula than Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Baldwin?
While considering the specificity of these images, recently, something came to me: It’s an Anthropologie catalog.
(For those unfamiliar with it, Anthro is a major American retailer, with stores that change their look every few weeks and who sell a costly-but-gauzy kind of clothing and accessories to women who typically work in a corporate environment.)
Everyone wants to be a writer!
Or make films or art or music because…freedom from typical work constraints is so deeply appealing.
Life costs money.
I grew up in a household of creatives, and we did live in a house my father owned, and drove decent used cars. Some years were better than others financially, but we also lived in Toronto, where the CBC and NFB had appetites and budgets for my father’s work as a film diector, long before there were dozens of cable channels seeking content.
Living in Canada also meant we never paid a penny for healthcare — which has cost me and my husband, living in New York as self-employed workers, $1,700 a month for the past two years.
Thanks to a new plan, I’ll “only” pay $700 a month starting today, saving us $700 a month.
But our monthly “nut” is still more than $5,000 and we have no children.
Living a life creating things is one many people dream of. But it still has to be supported by someone, usually multiple someones, actually paying for food, fuel, medication and housing — let alone haircuts, dental work, new eyeglasses, etc.
The solo creative life is affordable only to those who can stand to live frugally, and for long periods, because so little creative work actually pays well enough to live a life that allows for sick days, a vacation, owning a home.
As one childhood friend, who, as a single mother helped to create animated films you might have watched, told me recently: “I lived on air.”
I know artists and illustrators and film-makers and writers and playwrights and poets. They love their creative work but rarely enjoy the payment and insecurity that comes with it.
So, to pursue this life often also means having a side hustle, a day job, a trust fund, a hard-working, well-paid spouse or partner.
It’s extremely rare for me to have a month in which I’ve generated no income from my writing, because I don’t have a side job. It is my job! That means, without my husband’s hard work at his two freelance positions, (and our emergency savings), we’d be in deep shit, unable to pay our bills in full and on time.
It shames me to admit that this is the case for me right now — but the reason I do so here is because it’s true.
This can be a financially precarious life, and often is.
Whenever I’ve taught or lectured on journalism, I crush a few young dreams when I make clear that traditional news journalism more resembles an industrial assembly line than an artist’s studio.
Editors aren’t terribly interested in whether you’re feeling creative — they want accurate copy/content/visuals and they want it now!
The worst of its managers rely on the crude tool of by-line counts, i.e. how many stories have made it into the paper with your name on it (your byline.) So re-writing press releases or dumping puff pieces all add up to more bylines, if total garbage. So you’re visibly and undeniably producing and are therefore (whew! job saved!) productive.
Now….how to be creative?
What does that look like to you?
It might mean inventing a recipe, choosing a new color for your living room, or starting a poem or sketching your cat or simply staring into the sky for an hour to let your weary brain lie fallow, like an overworked farmer’s field that needs time to re-generate.
At the moment, which is blessedly almost unheard of, I actually have no assignments at all. That means, no income for this month. That means, (thank heaven we have one) dipping into our emergency fund. At least my husband, a freelance photo editor, does have steady work.
I’ve been fighting a cold, sleeping 3.5 hours one afternoon to give my weary body a rest — but also heading 25 miles into Manhattan to meet with friends visiting from far away: a retail expert I’m Twitter friends with and hadn’t met before, from D.C.; a former New York Times story source, who then lived in the Middle East and now lives in London and who I last saw at my birthday party in Paris in June, and a bilingual young friend I met at a writing conference in New York who’s from Montreal and is (yay!) moving to Paris.
I’m excited for her — ditching a well-paid corporate career, selling her condo and most of her belongings — and, single and bold, heading into a great new adventure. I had a life-changing year in Paris when I was 25 on a journalism fellowship so I hold tremendous affection for that city and what spending some focused time there can produce.
Next Monday I’ll meet a talented writer who lives in Mexico City and with whom I’ve only, so far, traded notes with in an on-line writers’ group. Then have coffee with another younger writer, a New Yorker back home after years living in Berlin.
So many writers’ relationships now, working alone at home or in a co-working space or library or cafe, are virtual that I’m eager to meet face to face whenever possible.
My second book
I also sent a book idea recently to an agent — whose name and phone number a writer I’ve never even met shared with me. This is, at is best, what a successful career in this business will produce — sufficient affection and respect for one another that we boost those whose work and ethics we admire.
People often wonder: How do you find an agent? Once you’re established, often by a referral like this.
To my delight, the agent called me back that same day saying: “I know your work.” Whew!
Because, honestly, there are days, weeks and years it’s too easy to feel invisible and hopeless, watching the Big Name Writers win awards and grants and fellowships and adulation, especially here in New York where people are, ahem, quite vocal about their success.
Being modest can feel weird and self-defeating.
So I burbled out my idea to this agent and he listened and said: “Tell me more.” I sent a bare-bones outline.
He didn’t like it, but said, “Let’s keep talking.” So I thought hard and brainstormed with five smart women friends, several fellow writers and a few who aren’t, to help me refine my thinking and expand it.
One of them thought the idea not useful at all, which was worth hearing — and offered an insight I hadn’t considered that was valuable and which I incorporated into the second iteration.
This book is by one of the friends whose wisdom I consulted…
I’m meeting my new agent, the sixth I’ve worked with, next week.
But, now comes even more unpaid hard work,a larger gamble for both of us, as I produce a full book proposal, which is much less literary than a hard-sell document filled with promises — our goal to win an offer from a major publisher and one big enough I can actually afford to stop most other work for a year or more. Book advances are now paid out in quarters, (thirds if you’ve got some clout), which means a long, long time between payments, from which your agent first deducts 15 percent.
So, if you’re really lucky and get, say, a $100,000 advance (rare!), you’ll net about $28,000 (pre-tax) per instalment — which, in a place like New York, really won’t even sustain a year’s living costs. I know Big Name Writers with full-time well-paid jobs who turn down a book deal because they can’t afford the drop in income.
I’m eager to write more books, though, as basic story-telling already pays poorly and, isn’t sufficiently challenging. I’ve been doing this work for decades, and want to produce deep, smart work — which very few places now have the space or budget for.
I also applied last week for a cool staff job at the Washington Post, because, what the hell? Why not? I asked a friend who’s a writer there who encouraged me, and then (deep breath) took what for me is a huge risk and asked someone for their help. She’s a Big Name Writer at the Post who I deeply admire and met in person in June 2016. We follow one another on Twitter, but that’s the depth of the relationship.
She said she would mention me to the hiring editor and say good things.
I was grateful as hell, stunned at my good fortune. It’s very difficult for me to ask others for help.
I also, being ill and exhausted, sent out some LOIs (letters of introduction) to editors, spoke to one by phone about possible assignments and emailed back and forth with several others.
Still waiting for payment for work already published.
So much of this business isn’t writing, but finding and nurturing relationships with the people — agents, editors, fellow writers, grant and foundation judges — who need to place their trust in you: to be accurate, to be ethical, to be a decent person to work with, to not miss deadline.
I listened to three interviews with writers and editors from the Longform podcast, one of them the editor of a Big Fancy Magazine which emboldened me to send him a pitch.
If you’re interested in journalism, writing, publishing, media, this series offers 277 podcasts and you will learn a lot, and gain some useful insights into who wins the Big Fancy Jobs, when, how and why.
So, even though I haven’t earned a penny this month (!) it’s actually been great.
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!