Posts Tagged ‘writing for a living’

The writer’s life — MIA sources, LOIs, the quest for ideas

In behavior, business, culture, journalism, Media, news, US, work on April 7, 2015 at 12:11 am

By Caitlin Kelly

The New York Times newsroom

The New York Times newsroom

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,, Investopedia and many others.

Samples of my work are here, if you’re interested. I’m always looking for new clients!

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.

I interviewed 104 people for this book -- all original interviews. Yes, they're real people!

I interviewed 104 people for this book — all original interviews. Yes, they’re real people!

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.

The problem?

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.

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

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

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.

If you’ve been following the Rolling Stone debacle (?)…

It all begins with trust:

— trust that your sources are being truthful

— 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.

Here’s a recent popular post I wrote about this life.

What’s freelance writing for a living really like?

In books, business, journalism, Media, work on July 10, 2012 at 12:13 am

My summer office

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.

So what’s the freelance life like?

You do need to write well, as American novelist Francine Prose’s book, “Reading Like A Writer”, points out.

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.

The one thing you never ever do is make shit up — like the two interns recently fired for outright fabrication, one of them working for The Wall Street Journal. If editors can’t trust you, you’re toast.

It’s a non-stop hustle.

My current income comes from:

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, 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.

Television option rights. My retail memoir, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” was optioned by CBS as a sitcom and a pilot script written. Like most pilot scripts, it didn’t make the cut. But I got some cash for the option, a one-time payment.

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.

And, yes, you need to be on LinkedIn; here’s why.

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.

Here’s an excellent blog if you work freelance in any capacity.

Do you freelance for a living?

How’s it going?

Related articles

Dating A Journalist? You've Been Warned!

In behavior, Media, men on May 14, 2010 at 7:17 am
An embedded civilian photographer snaps a pict...

Image via Wikipedia

This is funny and sadly true, from, written by San Diego journo Tom Chambers:

1) We can figure things out...We don’t take shit from anyone, so don’t lie to us or give a load of bullshit. We spend all day separating fact from fiction, listening to PR cronies and dealing with slimy politicians. If you make us do the same with you, you’re just gonna piss us off…

2) At some point, you will be a topic. Either through a feature story or an opinion column, something you do or say will be a subject. Get over it. Consider it a compliment, even if we’re arguing against you in print.

Think about it: we live our lives writing about life. If you’re a part of our life, we’re going to write about you, your thoughts or a subject springing from one of the two.

3) Yes, we think we’re smarter than you. In fact, we know it. Does that smack of ego? Absolutely — but that confidence is what makes your heart go pitter-patter…

Don’t be surprised if we’re not impressed when you say, “I’m a writer, too.” No, you are not. The fact that you sit in a coffee shop wearing black while scribbling in your journal does not make you a writer. Nor does the fact that you “wrote some poems in high school” or that one day you want to pen “the great American novel.”

Look, we’re paid to write. Every day…

4) You’re not less important than the job — the job is just more important than anything else. One doesn’t become a journalist to sit in an office from 9 to 5 Monday through Friday.

We do take our work home. If news is happening, we’ll drop whatever we’re doing — even if it’s with you — to cover it. We’re always looking for stories, so yes, we’ll stop on the street to write something down, interview a passer-by or gather information for a lead.

5) You won’t be disappointed. Journalists are intense, driven, passionate folk. We carry those same attributes into our relationships, making it an extremely fun ride well worth the price.

Can’t say I’d argue with any of that.

My partner, like me, is a driven career journo. We started selling our work to national outlets while we were college freshmen, routinely wrecking dates and relationships by disappearing on assignment or into the darkroom. He’s slept under his newsroom desk. I’ve covered stories, in the winter, on crutches.”Gotta go!” means “Hang up now” and we don’t take it the least bit personally. When bombs go off in places like Islamabad or Baghdad, we sometimes worry about our friends and colleagues who, on their own adrenaline highs wearing Kevlar, are just doing their jobs.

You’re either crazy about this stuff or you get out pretty quickly.

These days, at night, a little light will flash at 1:43 a.m. or 3:26 a.m. on our respective bedside tables. It’s our Itouches blasting an AP news bulletin, which we then read and look at the photos and wonder who will cover it best.

And then we’ll go back to sleep. And, then, get up — eagerly still — and head off to make sense of it all, yet again.

Nine Months Into My T/S Gig, Taking Inventory

In Uncategorized on April 1, 2010 at 7:44 am
Marge Simpson

Who knew she'd prove so bloody popular?! Image via Wikipedia

They do it in retail — the subject of my book — so I thought I’d take stock.

As of April 1, no fooling, I’ve been blogging here nine months. I’d never done it much, never really wanted to and was, actually, terrified of the whole idea.

Last month was my best, so far, with 12,477 unique visitors. I know that number is dwarfed by super-popular True/Slant contributors like Matt Taibbi, who routinely pull in 40,000 views and who has 2,219 followers, by far the most of anyone here, but we’re very different writers.

(I rank 12th. of 275 in the number of followers. Which is lovely — thank you!)

My current number of posts: 649.

The largest number — 55 when I counted (at 641), have been on media, writing and publishing; 40 on business; 39 on foreign news; 37 on labor or work; 35 on women;  34 on matters personal (original content); 31 on crime, 29 on romance, dating or marriage, 28 on movies and 23 on sports.

My top 10 posts, which have changed little in nine months, are on mass media and pop culture, from Susan Boyle to (sigh) Marge Simpson, whose post still garners views every day, many months later; I wrote that post, mostly for fun, on October 9, 2009. Three of the top ten are about television; three about journalism, one on film, one about radio and one on music.

D’oh indeed!

I’ve found blogging, so far, somewhat surprising and counter-intuitive. I tend to write long — 400-800 words is typical, and up to 1,500 words on occasion. I figured short and snappy was necessary, but that’s not what my numbers are telling me.

I was shaking like a leaf on July 1, 2009, the day I started blogging here. I’ve been writing professionally for national newspapers and magazines since my sophomore year of college.

But the blogosphere seemed like a whole new planet, peopled by…who? I had no idea.  When you write for Smithsonian, or Boys’ Life or Glamour, as I have, you know exactly who’s reading you, demographically speaking. I certainly write differently for my Boy Scout readers than for the educated, affluent crowd that picks up Smithsonian.

For you….I write as I see fit. Of Broadside’s 179 followers, only nine are personal friends, although I’m really enjoying getting to know some of you better. Thanks to every one of you — almost evenly divided between men and women, as I’d hoped — for making the time to listen and to share your ideas. I’m grateful for the wit, intelligence, compassion and presence of this site’s readers.

More than 10,000 visitors now arrive here each month and I’ll soon also start blogging for a new Australian website written only by people without kids. The site’s owner found me here and invited me to join her small team.

In the next few months, I’ll try to post as often as before, but I must finish my book, which I hope to have in bookstores this time next year.

Anything you’d like to see more of? Less of?

Please email whenever you have ideas or links.

I Want My Rejections On Paper — That Way, I Have Something To Crumple and Toss

In Media, Money on March 8, 2010 at 1:56 pm

Not today, darlin'...Image by AMagill via Flickr

I didn’t think I’d get it, but damn. Found out today — online! of course! — my application for a grant to help fund my book didn’t make the cut.

As they say, (they are right) — rejection is, to even consistently income-producing writers, like blood to a surgeon —  a messy, unpleasant and necessary part of almost every workday.

I clicked a tab to be told my application last October was “unsuccessful.” You know a ton of others got the same message, too. It doesn’t help.


Humph. Not to to be taken literally, mind you, not to heart. Not to dwell on. Not to obsess on. Right?

I really so much preferred the old rejections — I think this is the third time this group has dissed my app — thanks to the delicious, predictable and utterly useless revenge of taking their envelope and falsely chirpy letter and crushing it into a miserable little ball. Then throwing it, hard, at whatever surface seems most right — the mirror, the computer, the wall.

Feh. Back to work.

Fame And Fortune At 60 — Michael Cera Loved 'Youth In Revolt', While Author Payne Waited Years For Success

In culture, entertainment, Media on January 27, 2010 at 8:59 am
Michael Cera, 2007

Michael Cera, fellow Canadian! Image via Wikipedia

The glamorous writer’s life!:

As the rakish, love-struck, sex-obsessed teen hero of the 1993 cult novel “Youth in Revolt,” Nick Twisp encounters all manner of obstacles, including dysfunctional parents, jealous rivals, the Berkeley police and, of course, acne.

Such a raft of challenges are not completely foreign to his creator, C. D. Payne, who has spent significant chunks of his own career struggling, working a series of lousy jobs, living in a trailer for four years and receiving a trail of rejection letters, professional and otherwise. Even with the critical success of “Youth in Revolt” — which he self-published in 1993 and which subsequently became an underground hit — Mr. Payne still couldn’t get a publisher for the book’s three sequels, which he ended up releasing himself.

But like Nick Twisp, Mr. Payne has been helped along by the passion of his fans, and has lately been enjoying a second surge of popularity, thanks to the well-received film version of the book, released this month. Mr. Payne’s list of admirers includes the producer David Permut, who worked for seven years and through three production companies to get the movie made, and Michael Cera, the adolescent specialist (see “Juno,” “Superbad,” “Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist”) who stars as Nick — and his devilish alter ego, Francois — in the film….

All of which has pleasantly surprised Mr. Payne, a quiet, unassuming 60-year-old — married with pet — who lives in this rustic Sonoma County town, about 50 miles north of San Francisco.

Born into a blue-collar family in Akron, Ohio, Mr. Payne started writing because “it was the only thing I tried in life I didn’t find boring,” he said.

“And for years,” he continued, “I couldn’t make any money at it.”

After making his way to Harvard, where he earned a history degree, Mr. Payne decamped to California in the early 1970s, eventually living in a trailer in Santa Monica, while dabbling in short humor, screenplays and even cartoons, all to negligible success. “I did the standard thing,” he said. “And I got all the rejections.”

By the late 1980s, he was living in the Bay Area and commuting to the Sharper Image, the San Francisco retailer of consumer gadgetry (since bankrupted), working as a bored-senseless copywriter. Mr. Payne said he began writing “Youth in Revolt” as a kind of psychic safety valve.

The book sounds like fun, and Payne lucked out. But it’s a cautionary tale for anyone who still hopes that writing a book or screenplay is a quick or certain road to fame and fortune.

Found The Young Journo With 'My' Name — Whose Checks I've Been Getting By Mistake

In business, Media on December 7, 2009 at 11:27 pm
Check Writing

Image by CarbonNYC via Flickr

I guess it had to happen. That unearned check for $2,666.67 that arrived last month got sent back. Then another one showed up! I had to figure this out.

So I Googled ‘my’ name and found a young journo, a 2009 grad now working for one of the Big Glossies, the one that’s been sending me her checks.

I found her on LinkedIn, sent her a message, and tonight had the odd experience of seeing the reply from someone with the same name working in the same field.

I claimed the domain name back in 1999, very shortly before I heard from a teenager with the same name, living in New York City, who’d wanted it as well. In one of those unlikely-but-lovely stories, her Dad, a prominent Manhattan neurosurgeon, wrote me a charming letter admiring my work. We’ve stayed in touch since then periodically and he was kind enough to help me understand what was happening when my mom (who is fine) was found to have a large brain tumor.

Wonder how many more of ‘us’ there are out there. Maybe one of them’s got my checks…

Five Months Ago, Nil. Today, 101. Woo-Hoo!

In Media on December 1, 2009 at 10:30 am
Blogger Barbie

Image by BitchBuzz via Flickr

It’s deeply and unpatriotically Canadian to boast or cheer about oneself, so I might forfeit my passport here, but I also have a green card, which gives me explicit license to toot my horn, if not too loudly.

The first day I blogged here — a dead-trees dinosaur dragged whining and screaming into the blogosphere — was July 1, exactly five months ago. I chose to write about Nellie McClung, the feisty Canadian woman, and one of my dearest friend’s grandmothers, who helped win Canadian women the vote and now graces Canada’s $50 bill; July 1 is also Canada Day.

I was, literally, shaking from fear that first day as a blogger here, an admission which might seem risible to anyone under 30. Who on earth would want to read my ramblings, however selective I think they are?

I’ve written professionally since my second year of college. Writing for the largest national publications never scared me, even back then. The pay was great, my overhead minimal, my ambition boundless. Readers, even if there were millions of them, were an abstract crowd out there somewhere you hoped to please but rarely really knew if you did, or not. You only occasionally heard back from them, and when you did, the metric was something like one letter represented 1,000 other readers who didn’t bother to pick up a pen or hit the keys. I had lots of ideas, plenty of assignments and smart, tough, demanding editors.

The deal, and how it went, was tidy and, however hiearchical, well-defined, our boundaries evident and visible, our responsibilities clear.

Blogging? Not so much. What’s with that “publish” button? You now have total license to make an utter ass of yourself. Great! Kajillions of people can easily find you — and also find you irrelevant, boring or wrong. Ouch. You post something that gets, say, 5 views and it feels like you, (excuse my bluntness), farted. For those of us accustomed to the protection and institutional backstopping of magazine and newspapers’ fact-checkers, legal departments, visible, often highly critical and competitive colleagues and editors ready to pounce on every misplaced syllable, that “freedom” is, always, unnerving and decidedly unusual.

We old schoolers, OK me, can feel like a canary whose cage door got left open. So, tonight, I’m cracking open a decent bottle of wine to celebrate the 101 people who, bless ’em, have decided I’ve been offering something worth reading. None of whom — I’ve checked — are my Mom.

Thanks to every single one of them/you and to True Slant for giving me such a fun, cool, terrifying new learning curve. Special thanks to a fellow feisty-Canadian-jock-in-New-York, Katie Drummond, who reeled me in. Here’s to the next 100…


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