One of my best memories of 2022…Pete’s Tavern, one of NYC’s oldest. I sat at the bar and had a long conversation in Frenchwith a visiting historic costume designer. She bought my beer!
By Caitlin Kelly
I’m writing less now than I used to…in some ways, this is good because at higher pay rates I can afford to produce less.
These were three challenging and interesting assignments speaking to academic researchers on health policy for a grant-making foundation; the communications director and I have never spoken or met but she knows me and my work through Facebook. I loved speaking to such smart, passionate people. It’s a real privilege and their work can be somewhat complex to explain.
My favorite story of the year was my first ever for the Financial Times, a global business paper in London I read every day. The quality is amazing so it was a real thrill to sell a story to them, about women ironworkers in New York City. Here’s the link. The pay rate was half what The New York Times pays — barely $500. I had to drive an hour each way to Queens, spend an hour or so speaking to the women there, then do additional phone interviews, so it wasn’t lucrative. But it was a lot of fun and a real accomplishment to break into the FT, so I’m proud of that.
I had two unpleasant experiences with New York Times editors, which effectively shut off any chance of writing for those two sections. I hate any sort of professional conflict because you can’t make a freelance living without ongoing relationships! I also lost $3,000 from the shady crew at ZZDriggs, a furniture sales website, who had committed to $6,000 worth of blog posts from me in a year — and abruptly, and without any warning at all, dumped me in July and gave no explanation. My attempts to recoup that lost income from a CEO who lives in a multi-million-dollar brownstone (of course) were fruitless. Not cool.
Also my basic mistake of not having a much tougher and clearer contract. Beware of twinkly charm!
Jose and I spent a lot of time and energy producing a 20,000 word book proposal for fellow freelancers which, so far, has failed to find any publisher, much to our annoyance and frustration — OK, mine. There are still more than a dozen looking at it…
One win was getting my rating from Alliance Francaise after taking their written and oral tests — C1 (expert!) Only one category is higher. Those bloody subjunctives!
The work I most enjoy — and I really love it — is coaching other writers. I admit it, it’s money I make with the least friction or drama as clients seem to find me, mostly through Twitter. I don’t market myself heavily as such. My greatest weakness is my laziness when it comes to endlessly marketing myself to new clients and editors.
Usually when people come to me for coaching, they already have a defined need or problem they hope I can help them with. Sometimes it’s an essay they’re working on or a book proposal or a need to just brainstorm new markets for their work. I charge $250/hour (with a one hour minimum, paid in advance.) No one has asked for a refund!
My goals for 2023 are less about writing than reading and traveling more, working on my French and Spanish skills. I have a few potential clients lined up, but just won’t chase work hard at this point. I’ve been writing for a living since I was 19 and I’m pooped!
It’s been a long time since I’ve offered an update here on my writing life.
Most recently, I coached two writers in two days, very different personalities working on very different projects. I really enjoy coaching, but sometimes — rarely — I have to conclude I’m not the right person to coach a particular writer, whether our differing personalities, goals or the type of work they want to pursue. As an old-school hard news reporter, having worked for three major daily newspapers, I believe in original reporting, thoughtful interviews and smart, incisive work. Lighter stuff just isn’t really my jam.
When people hire me to coach them — at $250/hour — I’m very aware they’re entrusting me with their hopes for bigger and better sales or new markets. If I really feel I’m not a fit, as I recently did with one writer, I’ll say so and not take on the work. I’ve now helped more than 50 people worldwide; most find me organically through my social media profiles. It’s hardly a full-time income, but a very welcome piece of my annual revenue.
This past week I also began a four-part series with another writer, a first for me. I’m really excited by this new opportunity.
In my own writing, I’ve been doing profiles of grant recipients for a non-profit, of highly accomplished academic researchers working on complex and thorny issues. It’s challenging! I don’t get a byline (i.e. my name on it as the author), but I’m happy to have the work, as it’s well-paid and interesting.
I also recently applied for another job, writing about a local non-profit organization, and we spent a lively hour on Zoom getting to know one another. These initial meetings are uncompensated, as we both need to discover if there’s a good fit between our styles, deadlines and budget. Budget is often a sticking point, as inflation is making me ask for higher rates now. The meeting was terrific and we’re going to re-group in about a month.
I had another hour-long meeting, also by Zoom, also with two principals, about my ongoing work as a design blogger for ZZDriggs, which recently hired two specific experts — aka my new bosses! We had a great conversation and discussed a few ideas; re-grouping in a few weeks as well.
The truth of these meetings with strangers — they’re tiring, really an hour of selling myself to them, truthfully, as someone smart and fun and collegial and skilled and…whew! It’s also a two-way street as, even though I need to earn income, I’m now more cautious about who I work with, having had a few disappointing experiences where I had to walk away and lose the money I had budgeted for.
Jose and I have been working on an idea for a book about how to freelance successfully, as something we’ve done. I hope we can find an agent and publisher.
I’ll also be writing for a trade publication, also about design; I studied at the New York School of Interior Design in the mid-90s while still married to my first husband; a physician, he made a good income, which would have allowed me to start a new career at the bottom. But he bailed after two years of marriage, so I never went into the industry. I loved my training and it’s helping me now, years later, with expertise and authority — two things I can offer as someone deep into my career.
And someone referred me for a science-writing opportunity; I need to find out more to see if there’s a fit.
As a generalist, I really enjoy this odd mix of topics. It keeps me intellectually nimble, which is welcome in a time when so much journalism is tedious clickbait.
I’m doing less and less journalism, which is in some ways sad — but pay rates are abysmal, and contracts hideously restrictive — so there’s little pleasure to be found!
My last published story was February 10 in the Financial Times, which I’m super proud of. But a later pitch to another editor there, of course, was completely ignored. This is quite normal at larger outlets, where one editor has no say over another, so a referral onward internally can mean almost nothing. It’s extremely frustrating!
I found out, after long months of waiting, that I did not win a fellowship I applied for — nine others did. These things are horribly competitive, always. Having said that, I might try for another fellowship, one that offers more money and is less initially demanding (like insisting only people with guaranteed publication can compete.) That’s massively unfair to most freelancers.
I loved my month off, and came home completely refreshed and grateful to just not have to hustle, negotiate, produce or revise for those blessed weeks while Jose’s June freelance photo editing schedule was truly heinous — 15-hour days every day, plus the endless noise of renovations in our apartment hallway and in the apartment below.
There are days I think: “NO more work!” But I have an appetite for luxury, mostly travel, and the income still has to come from somewhere! I’m grateful so many people still want my skills and my point of view; I’m finding a new and much happier way to work when it’s not journalism, which remains a greedy and hierarchical model. My non-journalism clients really appreciate the skills I bring and even some of my ideas, a breath of fresh air when they’re internally stymied or new to the organization. Cooperation! Teamwork!
As I contemplate retirement I also have no hobbies! A friend suggested birding, which doesn’t feel like a fit.
For now, a slower schedule bringing in a decent-enough income is fine with me. It allows time off for travel and brings in the means to do it.
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!
Charlotte Bronte’s words, from an exhibit at the Morgan Museum in New York
By Caitlin Kelly
This is my ongoing series, a peek behind the curtain of a full-time writer.
I thought I had an agent!
I was wrong!
That agent (the fourth to see it) took three weeks to even read it — the previous one called my proposal “too narrow” — said he was interested, but when I pushed back on some of his ideas backed out and said we “don’t share a vision.”
Oh, and he read my 26,000-word proposal so carelessly he failed to notice I’ve already published two books.
For God’s sake — three weeks’ wait for this level of incompetence?!
So the search continues.
The good news is that I know a lot of fellow authors and some kind enough to offer editorial and agent contacts.
But it’s an ongoing slog, to be honest.
Rejection is really disspiriting and really tiring.
Rejection means trying over and over and over to make yet another new contact — and wait and hope — who might be excited about my work. I’ve also asked a few friends for their advice on how better to position and market this idea. One kindly offered to read over the proposal as well.
I found a potential agent who sold a book fairly similar to mine; the agency only accepts referrals. (We know one of their authors so I have asked them for a referral. I feel shameless at this point, but needs must.)
I also coach fellow writers and had three clients this week, repeat clients, which means a lot. My coaching isn’t cheap — $250/hour — so I know I need to bring value! I’ve booked two more clients for early March, both of whom found me through Twitter.
But wait….how can I possibly justify coaching others when I’m such a failure (so far!) selling my book?
Apples and oranges! My experience helps writers at all levels, sometimes polishing a personal essay or helping them think of new markets or sharpening a story pitch. So this very frustrating book slog doesn’t dent my confidence and nor should it.
This is the only way to survive writing for a living — retaining optimism and confidence and that of others.
I have yet another New York Times story in the can, (more than 100!), edited and with photos taken, so I’m just waiting for it to be published. In the meantime, I pitched four different Times editors — the Kids’ section, the Well editor, the Letter of Recommendation (NYT Magazine) and Styles. Three were rejected and still awaiting the fourth reply.
I’m still blogging for the Lustgarten Foundation, which funds pancreatic cancer research, so I get to interview scientists. It’s a bit intimidating but also really challenging and interesting.
My friend Abby Lee Hood, in Nashville, convened a Google hangout and 22 fellow freelance writers and some radio people showed up from London and Amsterdam and Seattle and L.A. It was great! We are all so lonely and so isolated. There were perhaps three or four of us older than the rest — most were in their 20s and 30s, some even younger. But we have lots in common. I so enjoyed it.
I’m trying to read for pleasure and have started or am in the middle of four books. The one I’m most enjoying is Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, which manages to make even obscure science compelling. I will also ad that her chapter describing mania, from the inside, is one of the most powerful things I’ve ever read; my mother was manic depressive and I witnessed several episodes. They were completely terrifying.
And this payment arrived!
The United States has no such system, but Canada and other nations pay authors a sort of royalty for library use of our books. The way most commercial publishing works means many authors — like me — will never ever see a royalty for our work. We got paid an advance of four or five figures (some get six!) and have to “earn out” with sales, but with each sale netting us a few dollars, never the cover price. It really is just a fancy and costly way to buy mass distribution.
So it’s deeply satisfying to know Canadian readers are still finding value in my work since Blown Away came out in 2004 and Malled in 2011. I did deliberately choose subjects that fascinated me but I also knew would hold longer appeal than a few years’ trendiness.
The amount I get annually is very little in relative terms — about $500. Some authors earn thousands from it.
And it’s worth 20% less because of the Canadian dollar.
It’s been three long months of COVID-19 isolation for me now.
None of the usual pleasures and distractions of visiting a cinema, museum, ballet or opera. No bars or restaurants.
A good long time to reflect.
And a good time to purge enormous piles of paper, most of it the notes for previous articles I’ve written or the magazines in which those stories appeared.
I filled multiple enormous garbage bags with it, and ruthlessly tossed out several fat files with notes for my classes teaching writing, as I’ve done at several universities and schools.
It’s not Art or Literature.
It’s just journalism.
I enjoyed producing it and the money I earned from it paid plenty of bills — groceries and gas and health insurance and clothes and dental bills and haircuts.
But why cling to all this paper? Proof I existed? That someone read my work?
I’ve been writing for a living for more than 40 years, published many, many times, in Canada, the U.S., even in Ireland and France. At the tail end of any writing career, and I hope to stop in the next few years, it’s inevitable to look back — even at the 2,000+ posts here! — and think…what was all that about?
Did it help anyone?
I did receive some very powerful emails after both of my books, from grateful and appreciative readers. My last book — I remembered as I found the issue buried in one of my drawers — was named in People magazine (a big deal here) as one worth reading.
But the fact of being a writer-for-sale is that only the best-selling authors or screenwriters ever make enough income from one book or TV series that they can afford to slow down or even stop.
The nature of being a writer also means — it’s hard to stop!
We enjoy winning and keeping your attention.
We love finding and telling stories to strangers.
We see story ideas everywhere.
We like the recognition that what we’ve created has some emotional or commercial value.
If you fantasize about the glam life of a full-time freelance writer — no commute! work in sweatpants! no meetings! no office politics!— the quotidian reality can be…bracing.
I’ve been full-time freelance many times in my career, this most recent stint starting (again) in the summer of 2006 when I was summarily canned (no emails, no meetings, nowarnings) by the New York Daily News.
Bye-bye enormous laminated press pass!
It’s much more difficult now to earn a good living (like $60,000 year-plus) in journalism because so many magazines have shut down or gone to a digital-only version — which pay much less than print (I call it #MissingAZero, as they now offer $150 for 1,000 words [at worst] instead of the $1,500 to $3,000 that was once standard payment for that length. Yes, we are still, typical in journalism, paid by the word.)
Here’s some of my recent writing life:
— A pal on Twitter, who lives in Alaska but who edits for a magazine based in New York City, tweets out she seeks pitches on retail, the topic of my last book. Sweet! I like her a lot and trust her to be a good person to work with, so I pitch her.
— I pitch a religion-focused idea to a Canadian magazine and follow up three times to discover she never saw the initial pitch. Re-send it. I get an offer but it’s short and low, and the Canadian dollar is 25% lower than U.S. — and I pay my bills in New York. Unless they’ll go higher, I’ll pass. (They didn’t, but the email conversation remained cordial.)
— Phone interview for an amazing opportunity with a super-prestigious and interesting project, told I’m one of their top three candidates. This is rare! This is potentially very cool. Must wait now for further details.
— The print version of my American Prospect story arrives. I love seeing my work in print! I also get paid for it (after starting work on it in August 2019 and finishing work on it in November 2019.) This is the first time in our 20 years together that Jose and I worked together on a story.
— Phone conversation with an editor far far away seeking a daily editor for a major news-site. I am surprised to be in the mix (as I am so often not, now!) and ask why; as I suspected, my decades of news experience do have value. I find out I’m also the only candidate (of many) who followed up with a phone call.
— I apply for a reporting fellowship. Waiting to see if I make the finalists’ cut.
— I apply for a few staff jobs but get nothing.
— I report and write a 2,200 word story on STEM education, my first (and an assignment, not my pitch), for Mechanical Engineering magazine. Editor loves it and wants to work on more stories. Yay!
— I pitch several ideas to editors at The New York Times, to Air B & B magazine, and to a new website focused on interior design. The Air B & B essay idea is rejected but it’s a good one and I start thinking who else might want it.
— Need to come up with some ideas for The Wall Street Journal, as an editor there contacted me after my American Prospect healthcare story came out.
— Have found an intern, a college student, and assign her researchwork for two book projects. She found me on Twitter and we will meet this weekend in New York for lunch, face to face for the first time.
— A former Times colleague of Jose’s, who knows me and my work, suggests me to an editor there for a project.We’ll see!
— I lose a lot of energy and patience trying to get the two key sources for a magazine profile to give me the initial information I need. I finally get it, but after too much needless anxiety. This is the kind of story others would kill to have written about them.
— I practice and time my remarks for a workshop on pitching I’m giving on March 6 at the annual Northern Short Course, a 3-day conference for photojournalists, this year in Fairfax, VA. I book two nights’ hotel in a quaint town nearby beforehand and two nights’ hotel in D.C. to catch up there with friends as well.
“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.
As some of you know, I make my living as a full-time freelance writer, with work published many times in The New York Times, in Marie Claire and Cosmopolitan, and on-line for Quartz, Rewireme.com, Investopedia and many others.
The first quarter of 2015 has been seriously weird.
While in England in early January, I reported two fun stories for Our Minutes, a website devoted to watches. I also went out to High Wycombe, a suburban town 45 minutes from London, to report on a well-established social service organization, one that their major funder considered extremely innovative. I spent a full day there and interviewed six people, plenty of data for an 1,800 word story.
This was to have been my first piece for a major international magazine. A big deal. A chance to impress a new client.
The editor, as is typical, had a few questions after reading my story, which I sent along to my sources. They failed to answer two of them — so I persisted.
Multiple emails and phone calls went un-returned. This was a bizarre first for me in 30 years of journalism.
I finally emailed their funder, reluctant to embarrass the group, but stymied.
They had shut down.
That would have been difficult and unlikely enough, had a similar thing not happened a month earlier with a different story, a long (3,500 word) feature for a major American women’s magazine. I’d spent weeks on it, eight hours alone with the profile’s subject, a woman with a long and impressive track record in her field. I’d spent more hours interviewing a dozen of her family, friends and colleagues.
The editor liked my first draft and we were set to start on revisions when I saw a story about the woman in The New York Times — being investigated by the mayor for an ethical breach.
Boom! That story?
Dead — in magazine parlance, literally, killed.
I was, as is only fair, paid in full for my work; I can’t control the ethics or behaviors of the people I cover. I choose people and groups with a proven track record. I’m neither naive nor gullible.
But this? Two stories exploding in two months, both before (thank heaven!) publication?
Now I wonder how much tougher I’ll need to be with every single person, company and organization I think is worth covering.
For someone who — like Scheherezade — stays alive only by telling story after story — this is a daunting prospect.
I’m not sure what’s happening these days, but wrangling sources — i.e. finding real people to talk to me and be quoted and/or photographed for a story — is getting tougher. Even those who agree tend to disappear on deadline. Failure is not an option! Without sources, I have nothing to write, sell and get paid for.
People who fantasize about freelance writing full-time picture a life of ease — up at the crack of noon, Auntie Mame-style, noodle about, make some calls, write something the editor loves, prints and promptly pays for.
I enjoy what I do, but it is, always, a hustle: for new clients, for more work from existing clients, finding interesting stories to tell, finding sources willing to speak on the record.
The Times, for years an anchor client of mine, recently severely slashed its freelance budgets, cutting loose several people with columns that had run there for years.
So I’ve been sending out LOIs — letters of introduction — letting editors who don’t know me or my work know that I’d love to work for them.
Pay rates can be laughably low for even the most august and putatively well-off, so when they write back, (if they do), you discover, for example, that Harvard’s alumni magazine offers — wait for it! — 50 cents a word.
That’s $500 for 1,000 words, a story that would pay $2,500 from a Conde Nast publication, possibly even more.
Harvard’s current endowment? $36.4 billion — as of June 2014.
You have to laugh, really.
Then move on.
One of the interesting challenges of writing journalism is that of playing man-in-the-middle — finding and wrangling good sources while also pleasing your editor(s.) Writing skills matter, of course, but terrific people skills, the willingness and ability to negotiate diplomatically for everything from contract terms to whether someone is on or off the record, are also paramount.
When these two stories headed for the delete pile, I kept my editors in the loop every step of the way to let them know this might happen.
Personally, I was deeply embarrassed, worried, stupefied by my hard work simply going to waste through no fault of my own. But I couldn’t just focus only on my many feelings — these editors have magazines to fill, deadlines to meet and demanding bosses of their own to please.
When you work alone at home, year after year, often never even meeting your clients face to face, it’s too easy to forget that you’re part of a team, only one link in the editorial supply chain.
Writing journalism means remembering that you’re one domino in a long line — and if one falls, others will as well.
— that they (if you’re interviewing by email) are in fact the people you think they are
— that you, the writer, have done your due diligence and aren’t handing over a pack of lies to your unwitting editor.
It’s a big responsibility and one I never take lightly. At lunch a few years ago with a fellow veteran, we discussed the very few times we had made an error in our work — and how physically ill it made us feel. If you’re not a perfectionist, this isn’t the job for you.
I recently read this blog post by a man who hasn’t held any writing job more than two years.
And David Handelman is no deadbeat:
When Aaron Sorkin left The West Wing in 2003, I was the only writer of 11 who immediately cleared out my office. I didn’t want to have to go back to fetch things later if I was let go. As it turned out, eight of us weren’t asked back.
The experience — and, I’m sure, my then-recent divorce — taught me it’s better to assume a job isn’t going to last, and be pleasantly surprised when it does, than presuming the opposite and being caught without a parachute.
As I look around me, more people of my generation seem to be in the same boat. Whether it’s editors who pinball from one job to another, college professors who are forever “adjunct” instead of tenured, newspeople who jump from network to network, it feels like there’s little security. I just happen to be one of the more extreme versions.
I lost my last staff job in June 2006, at the age of 50.
After sending out 48 resumes — with no reply — my heart just wasn’t in it. Like many people, I hate job-hunting. I do not interview very well when on the other side of the questions.
I returned to working freelance, picking up the pace with some long-time clients and finding new ones.
Then the recession hit, slashing my income to 25 percent of my staff salary. Major (i.e. well-paying) magazines were disappearing or cutting their freelance budgets.
My income is, thank heaven, steadily rising, now 50 percent of my old salary. But many print pay rates are lower now, and the costs of living a lot higher so, like many freelancers, I’m running to stay in place.
Bear in mind that some people have several regular columns and/or an advanced degree (allowing them to teach), or write for film or television or do corporate work, (all much more lucrative), none of which I’ve yet tried.
Kelly James-Enger, an American friend, colleague and savvy and successful freelancer, has published several helpful books on how to write freelance for a living. Her blog is also filled with good tips.
—Newspaper articles. I write for The New York Times as often as I can find an editor willing to assign, usually 3-6 times a year.
— Magazine articles. I don’t do a lot of magazine work these days. It’s often a hassle of multiple, unpaid revisions and the top rate — once $3/wd is usually, at best, $2/wd, meaning a check of $5,000+ is very difficult to attain when most pieces run at 700 to 1,200 words. Editors only pay you after they’re happy, so I try to work only with editors who like what I submit initially.
— Web writing. I recently picked up my first-ever steady gig, writing a personal finance blog for Canadians.
— Photo editing.I began my photography career at 17 selling three cover photos to a Toronto magazine and have since had my work published in Time, the Times and the Washington Post, among others. I also studied interior design, so am doing slideshows for HGTV.com, a wholly new way to finally integrate my skills.
— Editing others’ work. People come to me to read and critique their own writing. Last year I edited a thriller translated from Spanish, sections of a business book and a few chapters of a memoir. (I charge $150-200/hour.)
— Writing books. My last advance payment on “Malled” came in in April 2012. Time to sell the next book!
— Speaking engagements. I’ve addressed three retail conferences so far, with my next one at the University of Minnesota on October 30.
I’d ideally like to add a few more reliable revenue streams, like teaching writing at a college and/or holding my own writing workshops.
If you want, or need, to earn your living freelance, it takes almost daily client relationship building. And each client — unlike your one or two bosses at a staff job — has a different personality, billing cycle, narrative style. You have to adapt constantly.
If you want to sell books to commercial publishers, you’ll need to find (and manage) an agent. If your work has value to film or television, you’ll be working with another agent, (who will claim even more of your income) and you might, (as I did), also pay an entertainment lawyer to review your agent-negotiated but possibly dense and incomprehensible contracts.
Freelancing also means a major shift in how you conceptualize work and labor — you’re selling time, talent and skills. They’re not “giving” you a job.
And financial success relies less on office politics (none), than your ability to find, nurture and retain profitable clients, while spotting or quickly shedding the PITAs (pain in the asses.)
People fantasize wildly about how great it is to manage your own time. It’s pleasant indeed to work, as I’m writing this, in a T-shirt and shorts in the cool morning on my balcony in silence.
But the only paycheck you get is the one you did the work successfully, and invoiced for; people with weekly paychecks too easily forget to make sure you also get yours in a timely manner.
Which is why when people offer you “exposure” instead of cold, hard cash for your skills, you must chuckle audibly at their naievete — and remind them that “exposure” is not yet accepted as legal tender anywhere.
You also have to man up enough to ask for more money on a regular basis — because some people with “real” jobs still get raises, bonuses, promotions and commission.
Freelancers only get what they are willing and able to negotiate — and your “value” is a highly subjective and relative term.
And, sadly, you’ll have to deal effectively with cheats and deadbeats.
I live near New York but have hired lawyers in Vancouver, Canada and Kansas City, Missouri to successfully sue two such publishers who, like some of their ilk, assume freelancers are weak, powerless, naive or too nice (hah!) to come after them.
After one in-flight magazine’s editor tried to wriggle out of paying me, I wrote to the airline CEO — and was sent a free ticket to anywhere they flew.
I’ve also hired assistants, who help to keep me productive. Freelancing brings with it a fair amount of administrative work but I don’t need to be the one doing it. I recently filled that position — with five offers within minutes — by posting it on Facebook.