Getting the story is a story in itself

By Caitlin Kelly

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The NYC food bank — which I saw last year while working on a story about it

I’ve been working as a journalist since my sophomore year of university; clips and details, here, at my website.

Decades later, despite the brutal disruption of our industry, I still write for a living.

Here’s a brand-new 36-minute podcast in which I describe how I conceive of, report and think through my stories and non-fiction books.

Sadly, many of us — certainly those with 20+ years’ experience — are starting to feel like whaling ship captains in the new era of steam, offering terrific skills that fewer and fewer publishers want or can afford to pay for.

The British daily The Independent recently killed its print editions and thousands of journalists are losing their staff jobs all over the world.

I still ply my trade freelance, publishing online and in print, for outlets from the Case Foundation to The New York Times.

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The late David Carr, NYT media columnist — much missed.

The terrific new film “Spotlight” won this year’s Oscar for Best Picture, about the investigative team at the Boston Globe and how it uncovered sexual abuse within the Catholic church. Here’s my earlier post about it.

Here’s a radio interview on CBC, (18:20 minutes in length), with the female member of the real Spotlight team, Sacha Pfeiffer, about what it’s like to work in investigative journalism — and to be observed and portrayed by an actress on film.

And here’s an interview with Joshua Hammer, whose story about Ebola for the digital site Matter, a piece of 9,000 words, won him a 2016 National Magazine Award.

If you, or anyone you know is considering working as a journalist — or you’re just curious about the process — this film is truly a must-see.

It’s the only movie I know of that shows the daily minutiae of reporting and how long, slow and sometimes tedious it can be to get to the point of proof and publication.

One of the things I still admire about journalism, at its well-funded serious best, is its larger goal of public service; here are the recent winners of the George Polk Award, given each year to American journalists in all media for their investigative reporting.

And those of us who do it professionally, especially within news, know there are many other people whose skills help us get it done safely and accurately, from translators to fixers to unnamed but well-placed sources.

Here’s a New York Times front page story about the death of one of them, a Syrian soldier who helped the Times tell the story of the mayhem happening in his country.

By the time you see or hear a story online, on radio or television or in print, hundreds of decisions have been made about it and decisions made by dozens of professionals. Journalism remains very much a team sport.

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The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015. Get out into the world! Take notes!

Here’s some of what happens before you ever see or hear a work of journalism:

 

Someone gets an idea

It happens in a variety of ways.

It might be from a press release, sent out by a professional agency whose job it is to promote their clients and their interests.

It might be something we noticed — an ad, an overheard conversation on the bus or at the dog run or while in a doctor’s waiting room. I saw something this week in a local drugstore, a new and unusual product that’s a direct reflection of recent cultural change. It might be a story.

It could be something we read or saw, yes, already produced by another journalist  — but not in depth or not for an audience we know well.

It might be a wire service story our editors want deepened or localized; if too local or regional, maybe looking at it nationally or globally.

Many reporters work a specific beat, (like a cop’s beat, an area they are meant to know intimately), and stay in close touch with sources in it, whether aerospace or retail or philanthropy.

Much traditional reporting, (a weakness in its conceptual narrowness), focuses on institutions of power and its players: the schools, courts, police, Wall Street, Big Business, Parliament or Congress or its various committees. The ideal is to hold the powerful accountable for their decisions, many made in secret and many using taxpayers’ money or affecting public policies.

Smarter thinking considers ideas more broadly and in ways that intersect across disciplines — design, gender, technology, culture, labor, belief systems.

A freelance writer, who survives like Sheherezade by telling/selling story after story after story, also needs to decide who’s the right market for which idea:

a trade magazine? A major newspaper? An overseas website? A women’s magazine? A men’s?

The reality is now that digital sites are ravenous for copy — and most pay crap — $50, $100, $200 for stories that can still require significant skill, experience and lots of time to report and write.

Young writers are lining up for it, and beating their ambitious wings against the locked doors of print publications.

Print pays a lot more. Not a lot of money, ($2,00o to $10,000+ per story for the truly fortunate), but enough to eat and pay bills.

I live in an expensive part of the world — the New York City suburbs — and most of my work is either produced for print or paid at print rates.

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My desk — no news there!

What’s the story — and who cares?

Journalists are cynical, skeptical, dubious.

We’re paid to question authority, (even if we often fail to do so in an era of concentrated media ownership and few jobs.)

As the saying goes, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

So what is the story and why should anyone else make time to read or listen to it?

Who are the main characters? What’s new or different?

Does it reflect a trend?

What expertise or insight can you bring to it?

Is it even really worth doing?

Here’s a great blog post by a science journalist who decided — as we all do sometimes — to drop a story after she realized it was bogus.

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We try to sell the idea to an editor, either someone who’s our boss (and their boss) or a freelance client

Much of what we do requires the delicate art of persuasion. We have to feel passionate enough about each story — ideally — to do the work of reporting, interviewing, researching, writing and revising it.

But we also have to have skills and expertise not to make a mess of it. Do we have the right contacts? Do we speak the lingo of that industry?

If freelance, is it even worth doing financially? It can take days, weeks or months to properly research a story and we have to budget our time carefully.

What if it requires travel expenses — plane/train/car rental/hotel/meals? When budgets are tight, every additional penny must be justified.

Which is why so much lazy, crappy reporting is now done by phone, email and Skype. It’s cheaper.

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Time to make some money with your writing?

What’s the best way to tell this story?

One of the joys and challenges of producing quality journalism now is the decision process when presenting it — a video? a podcast? a broadcast? A 3,500 word feature? A Q and A?

This BBC video — of a former concentration camp in Germany — is astounding. The images were shot using a drone.

There are so many ways to present information.

The goal should always be to engage the reader, to bring him or her with you into the places you’ve been to gather the material — the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures.

How soon do we need to jump on it?

In an era of Twitter, Vine and Periscope, the rush to be first is exhausting and getting worse.

What if one of our many competitors gets it before we do?

These New York City brothers were the subjects of a recent documentary, The Wolfpack. The film-maker had to win their trust to move ahead with the project

Who do we need to include to tell this story?

This is where so much journalism remains weak  — still depressingly filled with white, male voices and few  women and/or people of color, as this story points out.

I usually write nationally-reported stories and try to find a mix of people in age, race, geographic location and profession as sources.

Once we’ve figured out our possible list of sources, we need to consider possible conflicts of interest; (does their brother own the company? Did they attend that school?), and decide who’s most likely to give us time and how much of it.

There’s a distinct pecking order to whose calls and emails will get returned the fastest; if you’re writing for a trade magazine instead of a Big Media Outlet, be prepared to make a lot of return calls. For freelancers, time is money and every wasted minute costs us income.

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Do we need to travel to do the best reporting possible? By helicopter? Bus? Military aircraft?

How much reliable accurate information can each source give us?

This is the hidden 90 percent of the iceberg of every story you’ll ever read or hear, and one that “Spotlight”, unusually for a film about our biz, explains well.

It means actual legwork — sometimes physically venturing into neighborhoods or places we already know are unwelcoming, and maybe unsafe.

Knocking on doors. Calling people who never call back. Sending dozens of emails.

Accessing public documents, maybe filing a FOIA — Freedom of Information Act — when we’re stonewalled.

If you’re working in a foreign country, you may need a bodyguard, a fixer, a translator and a driver. You also have to find them, trust them with your life and pay them.

What do you need to take with you? War reporter Janine di Giovanni recently told the Financial Times her kit always included a morphine syringe, a tourniquet — and a little black dress because, you never know!

I know two seasoned female reporters who recently went into dangerous territory (Mexico, researching narco-terrorism) and South Sudan (researching famine) for their work. That’s normal. That’s what some of us do.

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A village in Nicaragua I visited for a story for WaterAid…no running water and no electricity

How much time before you’re done?

I recently proposed a story that I knew would be complicated to do well. Hah! It took me eleven interviews, each 30 to 75 minutes long, to understand it well enough to write it for a general newspaper audience. Then I still needed time to write it.

The worst thing to do is rush and skimp. I call the result Swiss cheese journalism, full of holes.

Does it make sense?

This is where the best and toughest editors are our saving grace. It’s their job, even when we resent it, to question our thinking, decisions and sources, the structure and tone and length of what we’ve given them.

It’s very easy, after spending a lot of time working on a story, to completely forget that — for the viewer or listener — it’s all new to them!

 

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On assignment in Bilwi, Nicaragua.

 

My writing workshops Oct. 17 and 18, near New York City

By Caitlin Kelly

The New York Times newsroom
The New York Times newsroom

Some of you are already writing non-fiction, memoir, journalism, essays.

Some of you would like to!

Some of you would like to find newer, larger, better-paying outlets for your work.

Some of you would like to publish for the first time.

Maybe you’d like to write a non-fiction book, but where to start?

I can help.

My first book, published in 2004
My first book, published in 2004

As the author of two well-reviewed works of nationally reported non-fiction, Blown Away: American Women and Guns and Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail, winner of a Canadian National Magazine award and five fellowships, I bring decades of experience as a writer for the most demanding editors.  I’ve been writing freelance for The New York Times since 1990 and for others like More, Glamour, Smithsonian and Readers Digest.

My website is here.

I’ve taught writing at Pace University, Pratt Institute, New York University, Concordia University and the Hudson Valley Writers Center — and have individually coached many writers, from New Zealand, Singapore and Australia to England and Germany.

My students’ work has been published in The New York Times, The Guardian, Cosmopolitan.com and others.

Here’s one of them, a young female cyclist traveling the world collecting stories of climate change.

malled cover LOW

On Saturday October 17, and Sunday October 18, I’m holding a one-day writing workshop, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at my home in Tarrytown New York, a town named one of the U.S’s 10 prettiest.

It’s easily accessible from Grand Central Station, a 38 minute train ride north of Manhattan on Metro-North Railroad, (round trip ticket, $20.50), plus a five-minute $5 cab ride to my home — we have an elevator so there’s no issue with mobility or access.

Coming by car? Tarrytown is right at the Tappan Zee bridge, easy to reach from New Jersey, Connecticut and upstate.

Each workshop is practical, tips-filled, down-to-earth and allows plenty of time for your individual questions. The price includes lunch and non-alcoholic beverages.

$200.00; payable in advance via PayPal only.

Space is limited to only nine students. Sign up soon!

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Freelance Boot Camp — October 16

What you’ll learn:

  • How to come up with salable, timely story ideas
  • How to decide the best outlets for your ideas: radio, digital, print, magazines (trade or consumer), newspapers, foreign press
  • How to pitch effectively
  • Setting fees and negotiating
  • When to accept a lower fee — or work without payment

Writing and Selling a Work of Non-Fiction — October 17

What you’ll learn:

  • Where to find ideas for a salable book
  • The question of timing
  • What’s a platform? Why you need one and how to develop it
  • The power of voice
  • Why a book proposal is essential and what it takes
  • Finding an agent
  • Writing, revising, promoting a published book

Questions or concerns? Email me soon at learntowritebetter@gmailcom.

You’ll find testimonials about my teaching here, as well as details on my individual coaching, (via phone or Skype), and webinars, (by phone or Skype), offered one-on-one at your convenience.

Want to register now?

Terrific!

Email me at learntowritebetter@gmail.com and I’ll send you an invoice and share travel details.

Time to up your writing or blogging game?

By Caitlin Kelly

One of my first national magazine stories
One of my first national magazine stories

As some of you already know, I make my living as a full-time freelance writer, with clients ranging from non-profits like WaterAid to journalism for The New York Times and many others. I’ve been writing for national magazines and newspapers since my days at the University of Toronto, was a staff reporter for three major daily newspapers, a magazine editor and now work from home for a wide range of clients.

Here’s my website, with many published articles, including the one which won me a National Magazine Award.

Whether it’s a personal essay, a reported story, an investigative piece — or a blog post — I know how to do it and can help you do it better!

The basics of great writing never change: clear thinking produces clear writing. But sometimes you need a smart and helpful editor to talk it through. That’s me.

I love teaching and coaching and take great pride and pleasure in my students’ progress.

This year I taught freshman writing at Pratt Institute, a private college in Brooklyn, and also taught blogging — where my students’ blogs helped them win prestigious internships and polish their writing and social media skills.

I also teach writing at the New York School of Interior Design in Manhattan, and recently helped six designers better understand the world of publishing and social media in my class “How to Catch an Editor’s Eye”. My classes there start again September 23.

Time to make some money with your writing?
Time to make some money with your writing?

As someone who’s been writing for demanding editors in Canada, Britain and the U.S. for decades — also author of two well-reviewed non-fiction books — I’m able to help newer or less-experienced writers refine their pitches, conceptualize ideas for a book proposal, think through your next steps in building a writing career.

My second book, published in 2011
My second book, published in 2011

As I did for this piece, I can also read a first draft of your story, offering many helpful, constructive editing comments, (tone, reporting, structure, etc.)

I met its young author at a conference in New York a few years ago and, since we’re both from Toronto, stayed in sporadic touch. She sent me a draft of her challenging and complex piece — about a murder by a former high school classmate of hers — and I helped her with it.

It’s since gotten a lot of attention, including from the Washington Post, Jezebel and others.

My first book, published in 2004
My first book, published in 2004

I often coach fellow writers — in person, by phone or Skype — as I recently did for one English journalist when I was on holiday in Dublin; I charge $225/hour (U.S.), payable in advance by Paypal to focus on anything you’d like advice on: blogging, journalism, online writing, non-fiction writing, pitching…

My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)
My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)

My webinars, which I can do by Skype or phone, are $150 for 90 minutes and I schedule them according to your convenience one-on-one — you’ll find testimonials from satisfied students from New Zealand, Australia, Germany, the U.S., Canada and England.

I learned how to canoe at camp -- useful when we went to Nicaragua
On assignment in Nicaragua for WaterAid

Interested?

Email me at learntowritebetter@gmail.com and let’s get started!

Cotton years, cashmere years — what full-time freelance is really like

By Caitlin Kelly

The New York Times newsroom
The New York Times newsroom

Many of you have — or want — a full-time job. One with paid vacation, benefits, a boss, colleagues. Maybe an office of your own.

But one-third of Americans are now working as I do, freelance, temp or on some sort of contract. At tax time, we look forward to a thick stack of 1099s, the forms sent to us (and the IRS!) by every client who we billed for more than $600 per job. We can also claim a raft of business expenses as deductions, from car repair to a new computer to travel to a distant conference.

I recently spent four weeks in Paris and London; while in England, I reported three stories. I plan to write off my airfare and some of my costs as well as I clearly produced paid work while there.

My last staff job was working as a reporter for the New York Daily News, the sixth-largest newspaper in the U.S. I had a big laminated press credential I wore around my neck on a metal chain. It showed everyone I was one of the cool kids, working press conferences and stake-outs and racing every day, sometimes physically down the street, to beat reporters from the New York Post and New York Times; (they always showed up wearing silk and linen — starting Times salary being a cool $90,000.)

I enjoyed having a paycheck, the job less so. I was let go in June 2006 and have been full-time freelance ever since, a sort of work I had done many times before then as well. I apply occasionally for a full-time job but my heart isn’t really in it; I’ve already worked for three big daily papers and had the most fun there one can have and get well-paid for it. (As many of you know, the newspaper industry these days is about as steady and viable as a whaling ship fleet.)

I wrote about my trip to Corsica for The Wall Street Journal
I wrote about my trip to Corsica for The Wall Street Journal

But freelancing is a way of life that some people just aren’t cut out for.

How about you?

You must hustle every single day. If you slack off, you have to hustle twice as hard (vacation, illness) to make up for lost time

Clients come and go: editors get fired, move to Thailand or Berlin, take maternity leave and don’t come back. Entire magazines shut down overnight. Relying on a steady set of clients means you better have a lot of them. I see them like a pack of sled-dogs — you need a bunch of them, all pulling hard, in case one goes down or gets injured.

You have to be self-reliant. Tech support? Supply closet? Training sessions? Hah

You’re the CEO, CIO, CTO, CFO, R & D, sales, marketing, distribution, payroll and the janitor. No one is standing by to help you so it’s up to you to find, create and nurture those relationships. You also need to set aside some of your income for this stuff.

Nope! Not til the workday's done
Nope! Not til the workday’s done

Working alone at home requires self-discipline

No one cares if or when you clock in or out. No one cares if you sell a thing. It’s all up to you! But, on the other hand, no one is standing in your way if you decide to double or triple your income this year — a feat all but impossible in any staff job. Your earnings are up to you. But you have to put your bum in the chair and get on with it. I’ve only turned on the television in working hours during major news events, and now just check Twitter instead.

Your networks will save you, time and time and time again

Paradoxically, you’ll need other professionals in your life far more as an independent worker than you probably ever did in a staff position. Whether you need advice on contracts or rates or how to handle a PITA client, you’ll need to find, join and nurture a wide range of professional networks so you’ve got access to people you can trust when you need their help. You also have to give it! I belong to more than four separate writers’ groups — one with 2,300 women writers in it — and check in with them daily. I find new markets, ideas, insights and offer my advice when possible; what goes around comes around.

My desk, in the corner of our living room
My desk, in the corner of our living room

Social media matter more than ever

You need to find sources, fast. You need advice, fast. You need to boost your brand’s visibility. Your new book needs thousands of eyeballs. Your networks will come through for you — if you’ve been a good egg for them as well.

Mentor whenever and wherever possible

The freelance world is filled with clueless, helpless newbies. They can suck you dry! Give them your help when you can; charge for your expertise the rest of the time. (I coach, $200/hour.)

Stay healthy!

Making time for regular exercise, social events, lots of sleep and healthy food choices will keep you ready to work hard. I work a standard six to eight hours a day, five days a week. I very rarely allow work to leak into my nights and weekends. Yes, that lowers my income. It also reduces my stress!

My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)
My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)

Have little to no debt, low overhead and a cushion for slow payments

The hardest part of freelance? Not finding work or clients. If you have skills, charm and hustle, you’ll find them. But even the biggest — sometimes always the biggest! — can take months to pay you. In the meantime, you still need food, rent, gas, health insurance, haircuts. A life! I have a $16,000 line of credit through my bank and two low-interest credit cards. But I never work without a contract and insist on payment 30 days after receipt of invoice.

Forget the word freelance. You run a small business

Too many people fantasize wildly about the incredible freedom they’ll have once they work for themselves. Yes, you will. But the romance fades mighty fast when your payments are months late or your work dries up (see: cotton years) or you end up, as I did in March 2007 for three days, in the hospital with pneumonia — from overwork and exhaustion. You must decide on your income goals and do everything in your power to make them real. It’s not a cute hobby working from home. It’s a business.

Your business!

Does freelancing appeal to you?

 

 

 

 

 

Meta post: my webinars, classes, blogging schedule — welcome new followers!

By Caitlin Kelly

I learned how to canoe at camp -- useful when we went to Nicaragua
On assignment this year in rural Nicaragua

Just a few housekeeping notes, for followers both longtime and new (thanks!)…

For the past five years, I’ve been posting faithfully three times a week, sometimes more.

Pooped! (Hint: please spend some time poking around the archives, where you’ll find plenty of material, often on books, writing, publishing and freelancing, often titled The Writer’s Week.)

For the nex few months I’ll likely be posting once every four or five days — not every two days — as I’m now teaching three college classes and will be spending a lot of my time preparing for them, teaching and grading students’ work.

So please don’t feel neglected and/or abandoned!

I also offer six webinars on various aspects of writing, blogging and freelancing, details here. They cost $125 for 90 minutes via Skype or phone and satisfied students have come from, literally, across the world — New Zealand to Germany.

I can schedule these any time that suits you, including days, evenings and weekends.

I also coach other writers individually, answering pretty much any question you’d like to throw at me about journalism, writing, publishing non-fiction commercially, memoir. Happy to read your pitches or work-in-progress, be a “first reader”…

I charge $150/hour (with a one-hour minimum), and will be raising that rate to $200/hour in January 2015.

My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)
My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)

I’m teaching writing this fall at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and at the New York School of Interior Design; I have also taught writing at Pace University, New York University, Concordia University and Marymount College. As the author of two well-reviewed non-fiction books and hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles, for places like The New York Times, Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire, I know what it takes to succeed in this highly-competitive business.

What can I do to help you? Please email me at learntowritebetter@gmail.com.

Time to step up your writing game?

By Caitlin Kelly

Reporting in Bilwi, Nicaragua this year for WaterAid
Reporting in Bilwi, Nicaragua this year for WaterAid

Many of you — welcome! — are new to Broadside, (now at 10,759 followers).

And many of you are writers, would-be writers or fellow bloggers.

This is a reminder that I offer writing and blogging webinars that have helped students worldwide — from Australia, New Zealand, England and Germany to many in the U.S. — write more effectively, launch or boost their freelance careers, better engage their blog readers and/or develop their ideas into posts, articles or books.

The six webinars are narrowly focused and each one is 90 minutes, allowing 30 minutes for your questions and comments; details here.

My goal is to get you to the level you want to reach — whether more readers for your blog, running a profitable freelance business or even just understanding how reporters think about ideas and how to develop them into stories editors are eager to buy.

I’m happy to work with you individually; for the moment I’m not scheduling them on fixed dates but one-on-one, working via Skype or telephone.

I also offer individual coaching — reading your work-in-progress and offering my comments and insights, helping with your thesis or just brain-storming whatever you want to focus on! I charge $150/hour, with a one-hour minimum; clients tell me they find tremendous value from it, usually with a two-hour session, the first spent reading your work, then analyzing it and discussing it in detail by phone or Skype.

“Thank you for sharing valuable insights, irreverent stories and revealing travel tips with us…Your enthusiasm for your work is infectious.  And you are… fun!”

That’s an email I received a few weeks ago after teaching eight interior designers in Manhattan how to catch an editor’s eye.

BUSINESS OF FREELANCING

I really enjoy teaching, and will be doing so this fall in Brooklyn at Pratt Institute; with decades of experience as a National Magazine Award-winning journalist, two-time non-fiction author, magazine editor, reporter for three major daily newspapers and now a full-time freelance writer for publications like The New York Times, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire and many others, I can help you raise your game.

“As a journalist with only a few years experience, I appreciated her willingness to share her expertise and experiential wisdom. If you have a chance to take a class with her, don’t hesitate. Great value.”
— Lisa Hall-Wilson

Hope to work with you soon!

The basics of freelancing

English: Traditional freelance writer work system.
English: Traditional freelance writer work system. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I get asked this question a lot: How do you make a living full-time freelance?

While this post may answer some of your questions, email me at caitlinvancouver@yahoo.com, hire me at my hourly consultation rate, and you can ask whatever detailed questions you like! Or show me copy, or queries, or whatever you need…

 There are five keystones to a successful freelance career:

1) Get really good at what you do

You might be a writer, artist, musician, hair-stylist. No matter how much you hate your current job, desperate to flee cube-world and commuting, until your skills are sufficient to attract and retain repeat clients in a highly competitive marketplace, you’re not ready for prime time. Do whatever’s necessary to get really good at your skill. If you’re a writer, read smart and helpful how-to books by veteran writers, like this one or this one; attend writers’ conferences, like this one on April 26 and 27th in New York City; take classes, like the online ones offered here.

After your skills are developed and you have multiple clips (samples) to prove it, you’re ready for the next step.

2) Find a network of editors or clients who want your copy

This is a lot of work and requires strategic thinking. If you have a specialty — science, kids, medicine, sports, business, food — it’s easier to target specific markets. Be prepared to be ignored, a lot. Your job, like any salesman, is to pre-qualify your leads; i.e. do they pay enough? Is their contract workable? Are they a PITA to work with? Do your re-con before you pitch to avoid disappointment at best, heartbreak and financial nightmares at worst.

 3) Produce great stuff so they want more

Seems pretty obvious. If your work is stellar, (100 percent accurate, properly-sourced, attributed, clean, well-written, intelligently-structured), your odds of repeat business increase. Always under-promise and over-deliver. Never even consider missing a deadline. As you gain confidence and skill, take on some assignments whose scope or prestige or pay rate scare you a little. Don’t risk disappointing your client, but you have to grow!

English: Bird's eye panorama of Manhattan & Ne...
English: Bird’s eye panorama of Manhattan & New York City in 1873. There’s plenty of clients down there! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

4) Get to know other writers (or fellow freelancers in your field)

If you’ve done steps 1-3, your name and reputation will begin to precede you, locally, regionally or even nationally. Join as many industry groups as possible, like this one, and this one, for writers, and sign up for as many volunteer positions as possible. Then show up with goods ideas and follow through; too many “volunteers” like to add a nice line to their resume — and don’t do jack.

This way people will get to know you personally, not just as some random photo on a website. I’ve learned far more about who’s really worth knowing through my many years serving on boards of writers’ groups than any conference or quick coffee with someone.

If you’re fortunate, some of your competitors will eventually decide to share some of their own contacts; we all occasionally get overwhelmed with too much work and not enough time, or fall ill, have family emergencies or take vacations and need to refer clients to someone we know will do a kick-ass job on our behalf.

The smartest freelancers who reach out to me for help, advice or a contact include several offers of their own contacts in that initial email. Of course I write them back right away. Who wouldn’t? Just because you need a lot of help doesn’t obligate anyone to give it to you!

The fourth step, referrals to good clients, only comes after people know you are consistently ethical, smart, reliable and generous. That means plenty of number three. People talk; make sure what they have to say about you is what you’re hoping for.

5) Repeat

The job of marketing never, ever stops. Your clients’ needs change all the time as gatekeepers and decision-makers get hired, fired, promoted or demoted. Their budgets may bloom, or wither or disappear altogether. Be sure to make nice to some smart, ambitious young ‘uns, even if they’re your kids’ age. They’re probably the ones signing the checks, if not now, in a few years.

Don’t believe me?

Here’s best-selling business guru/author Seth Godin, from his daily blog:

Brand, Permission and Expertise…

In just three words, there’s the huge chasm between the trusted, experienced freelancer, the one you’re happy to hear from when she has a new idea, and the newbie or the short-term maximizer. Those guys have to start from scratch, each and every time.

Think about the individual, the entrepreneur or the small organization that has built up trust with a given market, that has permission to talk to that market and that has the expertise to execute on what it promises… Once you have those three, you call the shots. If, on the other hand, you’re merely a hard-working employee, doing what you’re told, you’re never going to get what your effort ought to produce.

Can a Freelancers’ Union really help us?

Freelancers Union Logo
Freelancers Union Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Interesting story in The New York Times about the Freelancers’ Union, a New York based group with 200,000 members:

SOON after landing a job at a Manhattan law firm nearly 20 years ago, Sara Horowitz was shocked to discover that it planned to treat her not as an employee, but as an independent contractor.

“I saw right away that something wasn’t kosher,” Ms. Horowitz recalls. Her status meant no health coverage, no pension plan, no paid vacation — nothing but a paycheck. She realized that she was part of a trend in which American employers relied increasingly on independent contractors, temporary workers, contract employees and freelancers to cut costs….

Ms. Horowitz’s grandfather was a vice president of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, and her father was a labor lawyer. So it was perhaps not surprising that she responded to her rising outrage by deciding to organize a union…The Freelancers Union, with its oxymoronic name, is a motley collection of workers in the fast-evolving freelance economy — whether lawyers, software developers, graphic artists, accountants, consultants, nannies, writers, editors, Web site designers or sellers on Etsy.

I’m not a member of the FU (Hmmmm, nice abbreviation!), but I applaud her efforts.

Turns out that 87 percent of her members earn less than $50,000 — 29 percent of them make less than $25,000 a year.

God knows, freelancers/temps/contract workers need all the help we can get.

In the same edition of the Times, there’s a fascinating interview about the many powerful emotions we often feel at work. This one really resonated for me:

Certainty is a constant drive for the brain. We saw this with Hurricane Sandy. The feeling of uncertainty feels like pain, when you can’t predict when the lights will come back on and you’re holding multiple possible futures in your head. That turns out to be cognitively exhausting. And the more we can predict the future, the more rewarded we feel. The less we can predict the future, the more threatened we feel. As soon as any ambiguity arises in even a very simple activity, we get a threat response. So we are driven to create certainty.

I get up every day with no idea where my income is going to arrive from in three months from now. I usually work three months ahead — i.e. with enough income lined up to count on that my basic bills will get paid in that time and it buys me time to go line up the next batch. I live by the salesman’s motto: ABCAlways Be Closing.

Which means not just having coffee, sending emails, taking meetings or chatting to potential clients, but closing the deal — agreeing to a set fee, terms and deadline. Working retail, which I did for 27 months selling clothing in a mall, was extraordinarily helpful to me in this respect. I used to be too scared to ask for the sale. Not any more!

Now I’m much better at sussing out the tire-kickers and time-wasters.

Time Selector
Time Selector (Photo credit: Telstar Logistics)

Here are some of the many issues that face freelancers:

— How much will they pay me?

— Is this a lot less (or more) than that they are paying others at my level of skill and experience? (Networking and joining an industry-focused freelance group is essential to determine this.)

— Do I have a contract, and one with terms acceptable to me? If not, how much of it can I negotiate?

— When will I get paid? Some companies are playing truly nasty games — like 90 days after submission. Three months!? I work on 30 days, after which I start sending emails and phone calls.

–How many times will I need to sue in small claims court or hire a lawyer to write a threatening letter on my behalf? (Did it, it worked, from Kansas City to Vancouver.)

— How will I meet my monthly financial commitments when payment arrives late (or not at all?) A line of credit and low-interest credit cards, plus whatever savings you can scrape together.

— Who is the point person who will make sure, internally, that I do get paid? (Both my editors quit one company recently, leaving my payment much more vulnerable. Luckily, it did arrive and within six weeks.)

— When and how can I ask for a higher rate?

— What is the lowest fee I’ll accept, and why am I bottom-feeding?

— How soon can I fire this PITA client?

— Where can I find my next 5,10, 15 new clients?

—Which conferences, events and meetings are really worth investing my hard-won time and money in to meet collegial veterans and learn important new skills?

I grew up in a family where no one had a paycheck. My father made documentary and feature films and television news series. My stepmother wrote television drama. So whatever we earned was whatever our skill, talent and tough negotiation won for us.

Nothing was guaranteed. Just like “real” jobs — which you can (and many do) lose overnight with no warning at all.

I hate the stress of not knowing my annual income will be. I know what I hope to earn, but will I make it? The joy/terror of freelance work is that it’s all up to me.

But, having been summarily canned from a few well-paid jobs and having been badly bullied at a few as well, I know how stressful that is, too.

Do you work freelance?

How’s it going?

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