If you have been pitching (some of?) your ideas fruitlessly, this is a great and affordable opportunity to get smart, kind, helpful feedback from two busy full-time freelancers; I’ve sold more than 100 stories to the very demanding editors of The New York Times and Abby writes for a wide variety of outlets, some in their native Tennessee (i.e. local and regional news) but also for the Times, Teen Vogue, Washington Post and more.
Pitching isn’t easy!
So this webinar, which will be recorded, offers everyone a chance to either pitch their idea and get our candid-but-kind feedback or just watch, listen and learn.
It seems obvious that writers write, certainly when every word adds income — and our health insurance alone (God bless America!!) is $1,500.00
The truth, as every freelancer knows, is that before I write a word about anything, I also spend a lot of time, probably 80 percent, just finding and getting the work and negotiating payment and conditions. For one recent story, I had to read and sign a nine-page single-space contract.
This week involved no writing, but lots of meetings:
— My web designer, now living in Asia and who I’ve been working with since 1995, suggested my writing skills to a client of his, a physician in Virginia, to help refresh the copy on his website. I spent half an hour speaking to the doctor, a specialist, to find out if we might be a good fit. I was a little nervous, as he might have been as well. These initial conversations are something of a mutual audition. Do we speak the same language? Do we each have a sense of humor? Did we enjoy it? I also had to name an hourly fee and rough estimate of how much time I thought it would take, not knowing if this would be acceptable. It went great, so onward!
— A former coaching client who’s become a friend needs new freelance writers so we skedded a call to discuss.
— A new design website needs copy focused on antiques, something I know well and have studied many times, hence a call to talk about some ideas.
— I’m working on a very cool story for The New York Times, (I’ve written more than 100 for them), but it’s moving very slowly. My key source lost his mother very suddenly, so I stayed away for a while. This is a story where I think personal introductions to sources will prove more fruitful. There are different ways to find and approach people, some better for some stories than others, and some just take a lot more time to pull together. None of this time is paid for, just built into the one fee we get per story.
— A calm and civil conversation with the editor I had walked away from mid-story. I’ll get a kill fee, 25 percent of the original, instead.
— Emailed an editor in England I’d hoped to be working with on a story in July, but she warned me of changes at the company.
I recently did a Zoom webinar with Jose and counted up the number of clients I worked with in 2020 — 19.
This year, already, 19!
I enjoy this variety, but I admit it’s tiring adapting to 19 different people and their needs and their individual style.
I’ve had one boss before in many staff jobs. It’s a bit easier!
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?
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)
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.
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.
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.
In the Middle Ages, it was common for villages to have three fields of farmland. At any given time, two of these fields would grow crops while the third lay fallow. Farmers rotated the fallow fields every year, the idea being that after two cycles of farming, the soil needed time to replenish and restore lost nutrients.
When a field lies fallow, it doesn’t look like much is happening. All the other fields are producing bright and colorful crops; we can watch them change from day to day. But the fallow field is just a pile of dirt. It was a pile of dirt yesterday. It will appear to be the same pile of dirt tomorrow.
But within that pile of dirt, a flurry of activity is happening. Worms burrow tunnels that nourish and aerate the soil. Organic matter decomposes into life-giving nutrients. Rainfall gathers into underground water. The health of next year’s harvest depends upon this rich, invisible dance beneath the surface.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 that…write.
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.
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.
Our recent trip to Santa Fe gave me some fresh ideas
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.
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.
People fantasize about freelance life — no boss! no meetings! no cubicle! no commute!
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.
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.