Writing for money

By Caitlin Kelly

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“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.

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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.)

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My first book, published in 2004. As someone who grew up with no exposure to guns, I was deeply intrigued by this most American of obsessions

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.

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My second book, published in 2011

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.

Bullshit!

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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: learntowritebetter@gmail.com.

The challenge(s) of teaching writing

By Caitlin Kelly

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Maybe it’s really unfair to teach writing without ever having formally studied it, or having been taught how to teach; (I studied English literature at the University of Toronto.)

Yet I’ve been teaching others how to write better for decades, starting with an undergraduate journalism class in Montreal at Concordia University. I was then only 30, barely a few years older than some of my students, some of whom were…not terribly motivated.

I admit it — I’m not the best teacher for people who just don’t care to work, and work hard. Writing can be fun, and deeply satisfying, but it always has to resonate with your reader.

It’s not just all about you!

And if you’re not reading a lot, and widely, across genres and styles, you’re unlikely to be, to to become, a terrific writer.

You’ve got to read a lot, and some tough, smart stuff, to analyze and appreciate the skill and structure of great writing.

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Just because the tools — laptops, phones, tablets — are now easy to acquire for so many people, there’s a fantasy that writing should be easy as well. Thanks to computers, anyone can now bang out a gazillion words and hit send or publish and say — DONE!

(Oh for the long-lost days of typewriters, the bang and clash and clickety-click. Best of all, the ripping out of an offending piece of paper, {what was I thinking?!} the crumple and toss of it. How far can I throw the damn thing!?)

A few steps the best prose requires:

Have you revised the hell out of it?

Have you read it in hard copy?

Have you read it aloud?

Have you shared it with a few critical beta readers?

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I’m now teaching, again, a four-week class at the New York School of Interior Design, on East 70th St. in Manhattan, where I studied in the 90s, thinking I’d leave journalism and change careers. I loved my classes there, and did well, but my first marriage ended and it didn’t feel like a great decision to start a new career at entry-level wages.

I love the variety of people who take my classes there, a mix of ages, experience and nationalities. I never assume a specific level of skill, which makes it even more challenging — where to begin?

This time I kicked off our first two-hour class, only one of four, with a song lyric by one of my favorite musicians, British singer/songwriter Richard Thompson, whose work is astonishing.

The song, Train Don’t Leave, is only 2:21 but tells an entire story of conflict and resolution. That’s tight writing!

Here’s a few lines:

She’s sitting on the train, the train’s gonna to leave
Bags in her hand, tears on her sleeve
Banging on the window with all of my might
But she won’t look to the left or the right
We had a fight and it wasn’t pretty
Now she’s leaving, ain’t it a pity
Going to wait tables, down in the city
Hold that red light one more minute
6:18’s got my baby in it

Note the verb tense; the conversational voice; the visual and auditory details (bags in her hand, banging on the window), the emotion…

The best writing combines the personal and universal.

It connects with the reader quickly and deeply, whether the work is a news story, a poem, a novel, a letter to the editor.

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One of my favorite books, written by a British Airways 747 pilot

It’s not easy!

What do you find most challenging about writing?

How are you learning to do it better?

(And, yes, I coach and offer webinars! Here’s the link.)

The pleasures of writing

By Caitlin Kelly

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I’ve been slinging words for a living, since my sophomore year of university.

I’ve never formally studied writing, except for a degree from a demanding faculty in English lit.

I originally wanted to be a radio DJ, but knew I wanted to write for a living from a very early age, maybe 12 or so. Over my career, I’ve worked as an editor for three magazines and a reporter for three major daily newspapers, all of which has helped me think more clearly and write (I hope!) better; my website, if you’re interested, has some of my work.

In 1998, I won a National Magazine Award in Canada for a humor essay about, (what else?) my divorce.

I’ve derived so many pleasures from writing, for decades, including:

You!

As Broadside heads into its eighth year, I’m grateful for everyone who makes the time to come by, to read, to comment, and to return, some year after year. I know you’ve got many other ways to spend your time and attention, so thank you!

I first posted here on July 1, 2009, terrified. I write for a living, but thought no one would ever bother to read my own private thoughts. But we’re now at 16,635 followers.

Broadside has also been chosen for Freshly Pressed six times, a real honor.

Civil, lively conversation

One of the main reasons I write this blog, and continue to enjoy producing it. While I do wish more people “liked” and commented, I really value those who make time to speak up.

The Internet is so full of verbal violence. Not here!

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My first book, published in 2004. As someone who grew up with no exposure to guns, I was deeply intrigued by this most American of obsesssions
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My second book, published in 2011

Ongoing readership for my two books

I grew up in Canada, which runs something called the Public Lending Rights program, essentially royalty payments made by Canadian libraries to books registered through their program. Every year they send me a check, usually about $450, based on how often my books are borrowed and read, which tells me readers are still reaching for my work and still finding value in it.

That’s why writers write: to find readers!

Here’s a link to Blown Away; and one to Malled if you have a book club that would like to read and discuss either of them (i.e. buying at least a dozen), I’ll Skype in for a Q and A.

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Friendships

I recently went out for lunch in Manhattan with a friend who’s 20 years my junior, a woman who now lives in London but who was working in Bahrain when I first spoke to her, as a source for a New York Times business story.

She seems to live in an airplane, but we share unlikely passions, like fragrance. It’s a rare thing, but sometimes a source becomes a pal, as have some fellow bloggers, as have many of my colleagues throughout the years, whether staff or freelance.

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The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015.

Learning about the world

I get paid to learn.

It’s a real privilege to meet or speak to such a range of people, from a British female bank CEO to a female Admiral to Olympic athletes to convicted felons to a Prime Minister to a neurosurgeon to an FBI firearms instructor.

Journalism is no way to become wealthy, but the joy of encountering so many different people and hearing and sharing their stories is worth a lot to me.

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Me, a cover girl?!

Being of service

It’s not waitressing or working retail, but journalism really is in many ways a service industry — if what we produce isn’t useful or meaningful to our readers, viewers and listeners, it’s time to hang up those skates!

I’m delighted when I hear from readers that they’ve learned something new and useful from my work; one Canadian woman said a story of mine had saved her life, as I covered a weird side effect of a medication that doctors kept dismissing when patients complained. Her mother read my story and shared it with her daughter who pushed back harder on her physician.

Telling great stories

The world is simply brimming with hundreds of amazing, untold stories.

Some are deeply unsettling, and it’s our role as reporters to bear fearless and intimate witness to war, crime, natural disaster, social injustice, racism.

Others are lying inside people who have simply never before been asked to talk to a reporter. Their untold tales are powerful, bursting with the energy of something finally unleashed.

It’s a huge responsibility to try to carve story from the raw material of reality — choosing the right characters, setting scenes, evoking emotion, choosing just the right words, in the right order, at the right length.

It is never easy.

It never should be.

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Malled’s Chinese edition

Adventure!

Not every journalist can count on a life of adventure, but it’s there for the taking if you choose your jobs and assignments carefully.

For work, I’ve been to the Arctic circle, to visit a tiny Inuit village, spent eight days in a truck with a French trucker going from Perpignan to Istanbul, taken class with the Royal Danish Ballet, have climbed the rigging 100 feet up and worked on a foot-rope aboard a Tall Ship, taken the helm of a multi-million America’s Cup contender.

I’m grateful for all these paid adventures and hope to have a few more before I’m done.

Two NY weeks, 5 artists

By Caitlin Kelly

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Sometimes you’re lucky enough to witness artistic history.

That happened to us last week at Carnegie Hall, in a fully sold-out audience, listening to 71-year-old jazz pianist Keith Jarrett.

That’s 2,804 people of all ages, listening for two-plus hours and three encores in rapt silence, as the show was being recorded, (so, eventually, you can hear it too!)

We were seated up in the nosebleeds, (aka the second-highest balcony); even those tickets were $70 apiece.

If you haven’t heard of him, or his music, you’re in for a treat.

From Wikipedia:

The studio albums are modestly successful entries in the Jarrett catalog, but in 1973, Jarrett also began playing totally improvised solo concerts, and it is the popularity of these voluminous concert recordings that made him one of the best-selling jazz artists in history. Albums released from these concerts were Solo Concerts: Bremen/Lausanne (1973), to which Time magazine gave its ‘Jazz Album of the Year’ award; The Köln Concert (1975), which became the best-selling piano recording in history;[15] and Sun Bear Concerts (1976) – a 10-LP (and later 6-CD) box set.

I was in college when the Koln Concert came out, and I was introduced to it by a boyfriend. I still have that album and still cherish it.

This week’s entire concert was improvised.

From Wikipedia:

Jarrett has commented that his best performances have been when he has had only the slightest notion of what he was going to play at the next moment. He also said that most people don’t know “what he does”, which relates to what Miles Davis said to him expressing bewilderment – as to how Jarrett could “play from nothing”. In the liner notes of the Bremen Lausanne album Jarrett states something to the effect that he is a conduit for the ‘Creator’, something his mother had apparently discussed with him.

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That was Wednesday night.

I barely had time to process what a magnificent evening it had been when a generous friend offered two free tickets to hear authors Colson Whitehead and George Saunders read and answer audience questions at the 92d Street Y, another Manhattan cultural institution.

Back into the city!

I had never read either of their works, but had read rapturous reviews of their new books — Lincoln in the Bardo and The Underground Railroad. Each read for 30 minutes and it was mesmerizing. Afterwards, answering audience questions written on note cards, they were funny, insightful and generous.

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It is one of the great pleasures of living in and near New York City — a place of stunning living costs — to be able to see and hear artists of this stature.

I’ve been writing for a living since college but this was Writing, fiction of such depth and emotional power it takes your breath away.

In a time of such political instability and anxiety, it was also healing to remember that art and culture connect us to one another and to history.

We escape. We muse. If we’re a fellow creative, we leave refreshed and inspired. We recharge our weary souls.

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On our main street, a terrific concert hall

On Saturday, we went to hear Bebel Gilberto, a Brazilian singer. Our suburban New York town has a fantastic music hall, built in 1885, where tickets are affordable and the variety of performances eclectic. Of all the shows we saw, this one was the only disappointment. The rest of the crowd loved it, but not us.

The week before, I heard director Kelly Reichardt being interviewed by fellow director Jonathan Demme after a screening of her 2010 film Meek’s Cutoff at a local art film house, the Jacob Burns Film Center.

She’s directed five feature films in a decade — no big deal for a guy, maybe, but a very big deal for a woman; only 13 percent are female.

As someone who’s a huge fan of movies, and of her films, this was a huge thrill. She was tiny, low-key, down to earth.

As a creative woman, it’s such a delight to see and hear another woman who’s carved such a great path for herself.

I went up later to say hello and was a total fan-girl, and she was warm and gracious.

Do you love culture?

What have you seen or heard lately that knocked your socks off?

A week in the life of a freelance writer

By Caitlin Kelly

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It’s not what you might think, or expect.

I’ve been working full-time freelance, alone at home, since 2006.  You’ll notice how little time I actually spend writing –– compared to marketing, follow-up, networking and admin.

I sure don’t sit around awaiting my muse — the UPS guy, maybe.

Errands

To the post office, sending off, sometimes via snail mail, LOIs, aka letters of introduction. Their goal is to introduce me to a new-to-me editor or client, enticing them into working with me.

The return rate, i.e. paid work, isn’t terrific, but it must be done. I sometimes enclose a copy of my latest book, along with my resume, letter and business card. Sending one package from New York to London (I sent two), would have cost me $22 (!) each. I argued with the postal clerk and got it reduced to $10.

That’s a business deduction.

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I write for money. Pleasure, too, but mostly for money.

Invoiced

I have a new ghostwriting client, for whom I produce two blog posts a month. Staying on top of invoicing is key, since some clients take forever to pay, even “losing” your invoice. Working carefully, I now avoid most deadbeats, and have used lawyer’s letters when needed to successfully get the payment I was owed.

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I teach writing classes here to professional designers — I attended school here in the 90s

Pitched

The necessity of freelance journalism, for all but the fortunate few, is pitching — i.e. coming up with ideas and finding markets to pay you (well) for producing them. That also means sifting through dozens of email pitches from PR firms, most of them completely useless and of zero interest to me.

Total time-suck!

Pitched two ideas to a university alumni magazine, one of which piqued their interest, but hasn’t yet produced an assignment.

I find most of my ideas through pattern recognition — noticing cultural, social and economic trends and offering an idea when it’s timely and in the news. Stories without any time hook are called “evergreens”, and are harder to sell.

Pitching also means plenty of rejection. A health magazine said no to three ideas, (asking for more.) A psychology magazine ignored my pitch for a shorter essay and asked if I’d write it at twice the length — but insisted I show clips (published work) just like it, which I don’t have. An editor I’ve already worked with hasn’t replied to two more pitches.

Pitching also means following up, dancing the razor’s edge between being annoying (too soon, too often), and being ignored.

We rely fully on my income as well, so I can’t just sit around hoping for weeks on end.

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The Chinese edition of my 2011 book, Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail

Negotiated

Offered a brief, easy assignment, into the city to cover an event for a trade magazine in another state. They offered one fee. I negotiated it 30 percent higher.

Negotiation is always nerve-wracking, but it’s essential. Many women writers fail to ask for more, and end up broke and annoyed because we don’t.

Researched

Have a phone meeting next week with a new-to-me editor in Canada, so need to read her website’s work carefully to make sure my ideas are a potential fit.

I’m heading to Europe in June for four to six weeks, and already have several feature ideas I want to pitch, so I can write off some of the expenses, dig deeper into that country’s culture in so doing and earn some income to offset the costs of the trip.

Without some solid data and proven contacts, it’s harder to sell a story, at least one worth $5,000 or more, a very rare bird to catch these days.

I’ve already found an interpreter in Budapest, so that’s a start.

Persisted

Hate this.

Have been chasing a PR official in Europe on a story for more than three weeks, my deadline long past. The editor is easy-going so we can wait, but the income I relied on for a finished/accepted/invoiced story? That’s now weeks away.

Coached

My favorite activity. A new blogger hired me to coach him, and we worked via Skype from my apartment in suburban New York to his European home, a seven hour time difference.

I also worked with a four-person team at a local art film house to help them better shape their pitches and press releases to journalists.

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The late David Carr, NYT media columnist — much missed. Brilliant, no bullshit.

Read

Two newspapers every day. Twitter newsfeed. Social media. Books. Magazines. Websites. (Plus NPR, BBC radio.)

If I’m not reading constantly, I don’t know what’s going on and could miss something crucial I need to know to pitch and write intelligently.

Wrote

The least of it!

Blogging keeps me writing between assignments.

Networked

Without which, nothing happens.

Connected with an editor in Canada (thanks to a referral.)

Connected with a Toronto entrepreneur (we met through Twitter) with whom I hope to do some long-distance coaching for his clients.

Connected with a fellow writer I met last spring at an event of fellow writers who all belong to the same on-line group — she might have assignments to offer.

Spoke to a freelance photographer in California about writing and editing her new website.

Spoke to a PR exec in Seattle about possible blog writing and a white paper.

Scored!

Two new assignments from a new-to-me editor at The New York Times, a place for whom I’ve been freelancing steadily since 1990; here’s my most recent, about the odd things people find when they renovate a home.

The writer’s life, these days

By Caitlin Kelly

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As some of you know, I write for a living, and have done so since my undergrad years at U of Toronto.

As some of you know, the industry of journalism is in deep, widespread and massive disruption; The New York Times is about to get rid of 200 more of its staff and is making other significant internal changes to cut costs and boost revenue. I write freelance for the Times, producing three stories in 2016 for them, one on turbulence, one on a Broadway stagehand and one on real estate, which I’m researching this week.

But the life of a freelance writer is now, more than ever, like that of a polar bear on a small, melting ice floe. One of the most successful freelance writers I know sends out 10 to 25 marketing pieces every single week. Out of sight means out of mind — and broke.

Most of my colleagues are either clinging to staff jobs, working now in public relations, teaching or producing “branded content”, i.e. writing copy for corporate clients.

Here’s some of what this year brought:


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My first book, published in 2004. As someone who grew up with no exposure to guns, I was deeply intrigued by this most American of obsesssions

Working on two book ideas, both non-fiction

People think. “How hard can it be? Look at all the books in bookstores.” Yeah, well…It really depends on a variety of issues. How much money do you want or need to earn from researching, writing and revising a book? (It can take years.) How large a potential audience can you offer a publisher? How timely is your idea? How well-covered is the subject? What credentials have you already established?


Realizing how essential a strong network is

Two of my very best gigs came from people I know through an blogging project we all worked in in 2009. I haven’t even met one of them, although we’ve also both freelanced for the Times as business writers. Both contacted me with lucrative, ongoing work, and I’m so glad they did! Both know the quality of my work and chose to offer opportunities to me, not to any one of the 100’s, let alone 1000’s, of my competitors.

Some very slow and frightening months 

That’s unusual for me, and was crazy stressful, as our monthly health insurance costs are now an insane $1,800. Our fixed costs don’t suddenly shrink or disappear if I or Jose are having a slow month, or few months. Thankfully, my husband, also now full-time freelance after 31 years at the Times, has three steady anchor clients.

A stiffer spine

As I mentioned here in an earlier post on fleeing toxicity, I finally dropped an ongoing project that was making me really unhappy. I usually find it difficult to quit working on something I’ve committed to but this one, from the very start, was far too much work for far too little income. The way I was spoken to, consistently, felt rude and dismissive, on top of that. And (of course!), days after I finally said “enough!”, several much better-paid projects showed up to replace that lost income.

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The New York Times newsroom…since 1990, I’ve written more than 100 stories for them

Loving being a generalist

I’m really proud of writing for the Times, (100+ stories since 1990), but also for three different sections this year on three utterly different topics, all of which I pitched. Most freelancers (and, yes, this costs me lost income), specialize narrowly on medicine or parenting or personal finance. I have so many interests and experiences, I’m much happier roaming around intellectually. As long as I can find a decent price for my idea, I’m cool with that.

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Part of The library of Congress — spectacular!


Tossing my hat into competitive rings

I won a fellowship in June in D.C. to study retirement and its various challenges. That gave me three intense days listening to 19 speakers, introduced me to more smart writers in the group, (one of whom became a very good friend) and allowed me a brief vacation. I later applied for another fellowship, on the same subject, that would allow me the income and time to do a deep dive into a specific aspect of the issue.

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Meeting a few editors face to face.

They’re sort of like unicorns now, out there somewhere but elusive. I met with several, including one at National Geographic Traveler and one from Elle. Neither has resulted in an assignment, but it was a thrill anyway.

Coaching and teaching


I love it! Clients included a tech PR writer from San Francisco and a local film theatre. Happy to help you as well; here’s a list of my one-on-one webinars.

Today being “a writer” means a lot more than writing, at least if you hope to earn a living doing it. It means being flexible, learning new skills, constantly marketing yourself, paying attention to industry shifts, happening daily.

Knowing, more than ever, how much real journalism — fact-based, deeply reported on firsthand knowledge — matters now

Stop consuming fake news! It is a disgusting disaster, enriching liars and cheats.

Read this great piece about why copy editing matters so much, still. It’s true. When “the desk” has a question, your heart stops.

 

Here’s to a great writing year for those of you who do it as well!

Charlotte Bronte’s dress!

By Caitlin Kelly

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She was tiny: 4 foot, nine inches, with (when corseted) an 18.5 inch waist.

The dress, white with small blue flowers and a brown velvet collar, stood in a display case with her shoes.

Few items I’ve ever seen in a museum struck me so powerfully as seeing a dress worn by a woman, a fellow author, and a woman who broke every convention of her era — the author of the novel Jane Eyre — and who died at 39 after only nine months of marriage.

The exhibition — which includes her marriage certificate, will and many letters, is on at the Morgan Library, on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, until January 2. If you have a chance, go!

The show fills one room, the walls painted a deep turquoise, with some of her quotations painted on it. It’s small, intimate, deeply personal. Like the best shows of their kind, you come away deeply moved by the artifacts and the life story they tell.

Her determination, in the face of overwhelming odds, resonates with any woman anywhere who feels compelled to write — and to be published — to find a receptive audience for her ideas, no matter how chilly the prospects.

Charlotte and her sisters and brother published their poems and stories under pseudonyms, as no woman of the time could be believed as a legitimate author.

There are tiny, tiny books, the writing illegibly small, she produced as a teenager; the museum, thoughtfully, has magnifying glasses available so you can read them.

(I went to the show with a friend, a fellow woman writer and author. We marveled, gratefully, at the enduring physicality of these precious items, the spidery handwriting, the delicate folds of paper. What, if anything, of the 21st century will survive — a pile of pixels? A stack of printed-out tweets and emails?)

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Her writing desk is modest; she was a clergyman’s daughter living in Yorkshire, not a wealthy woman, not someone with access and power and acres of self-esteem.

Many editions of her work carry a copy of her pastel portrait; shown here for the first time in North America. Also a first, a portrait of Charlotte and her siblings, rough and crude, deeply crackled and bent from being folded and stored for many years before being re-discovered.

Perhaps my favorite item of all is the letter sent from her friend living in New Zealand, exclaiming with delight that Bronte has actually produced a book.

Every writer, everywhere, needs a loving, encouraging friend to cheer loudly and ferociously, when they finally achieve their dream.

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Truth matters more than ever now

By Caitlin Kelly

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It’s hard to express how horrified I was by this NPR interview with a happy and wealthy — and unapologetic — producer of fake news.

He makes shit up and earns $30,000 a month from it.

Here’s more.

Just give that thought a few minutes.

It makes my head spin and turns my stomach with rage and frustration.

You step into an aircraft — and assume that its pilots are well-trained, well-rested and sober, that the maintenance crew has been diligent and attentive.

You consume a meal at a restaurant — confident that your food is free of rodent droppings or chemicals.

How to slow or halt the production line of massively lucrative “fake news” sites?

As someone who chose journalism as her profession at 19, married to a photojournalist who did the same, this is no abstract issue to us.

It is absolutely foundational to my belief system and everyone who studies, teaches and works within fact-based journalism.

Some of its most basic tenets:

You talk to real people — and verify their identities.

You review long, tedious complicated documents, whether court records, committee proceedings, internal reports, and make sense of them for your audience, who need and deserve clear, cogent summaries of what we find. Jargon and obfuscation are efficient ways to hide all kinds of abuse. Our job is to find it and expose it.

You get yelled at, threatened with lawsuits by people with wealth, power and $1,000/hour lawyers at their beck and call…and you keep digging.

You go in person, regardless of comfort, weather or fear, to scenes of natural disaster and political upheaval — whether Venezuelans fleeing a country in meltdown or those protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Contrary to all economic logic, your goal is not to rake in huge piles of cash pumping out falsity — but to uncover, analyze and explain a complex and confusing world to those who share it with us, no matter their age, income level or race. At its idealistic best, it is inherently democratic.

Back to fake news for a moment.

Let’s start with the ethical quicksand of lying for living.

Let’s move on to the gullibility/laziness of the people consuming this toxic bullshit and thinking it’s true.

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Then let’s pause to consider that some of the most reliable (yes, they’re biased, I get that) news organizations are cutting back their staff — outlets like the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. 

Every passing year means losses in advertising income and a shift to consuming news in digital form.

I’ve written for both papers, (and many others), and easily acknowledge that both have tremendous weaknesses as well as strengths.

But the bottom line of journalism  is this: if what you are telling your audience is untrue, you are not a journalist.

 

You are, moreover, destroying whatever shreds of faith remain in what we do produce.

If you read/watch/listen to “fake news” and take it to be truthful, you’re making economic, social, professional and personal decisions based on lies.

Maybe it affected your vote.

Maybe you didn’t even bother to ask if the source of your “news” is legitimate.

A recent study of 7,800 students, asking them to discern real news from fake, found that 80 to 90 percent could not.

 

Here’s one quick clue…look for the name of the writer. Then Google them. Look for their LinkedIn profile, website, blog, resume.

Dig, dammit!

Real journalists have public, provable, verifiable track records of accuracy. We’re not that difficult to find.

This trend is Orwellian, Huxley-esque.

In an era of stunning, growing income inequality, as utterly unqualified billionaires are soon to make up the Cabinet of the United States, it’s a matter of the deepest urgency that Americans know what is going on.

The rise of “fake news” is coinciding with a sharp drop in pay for writers like myself, pushing the most desperate into 17-hour days and seven day weeks, into cranking out…lots of words.

Are they accurate?

Deeply sourced?

Reported firsthand?

Probably not.

Every time you swallow another fake news story — and compulsively share it on social media — you enrich a liar, an immoral charlatan delighted to make rubes of everyone within reach.

The most recent story I produced for The New York Times took weeks of digging and reporting, fact-checking and review — it went through 12 versions before appearing for public consumption.

The reason it took so long? It was reviewed by multiple editors, male and female, asking me more and more questions, challenging me repeatedly to check my facts and my assumptions, to review my choice of language and tone.

If I got something wrong, (real journalists’ worst nightmare), it would be hastily corrected — with a public, permanent note to let readers know that.

That’s journalism.

The payment? Nowhere near what you might think or expect.

So why bother?

Pride of craft.

Because truth matters.

Now more than ever.

You gotta have a posse!

By Caitlin Kelly

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THE BREAKFAST CLUB, Judd Nelson, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, 1985. ©Universal Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

It started — of course — as a term in medieval Latin; posse meaning power.

Today, it’s a group of people, more commonly, you can turn to for help and aid, people who literally have your back.

In the military, there’s a great expression — “I’ve got your six” — from fighter pilots who had a fellow flyer behind them.

I’ve been working alone from home since 2006, and have done it many times in my career. It can be lonely! It can feel isolating!

There are days when the millions of us working independently think — HELP!

Which is why, more than ever, you gotta have a posse!

They’re not fighter pilots, nor do they wear spurs and Stetsons, but they’re people I like, trust and admire, people I turn to for all sorts of advice — how to find a mortgage broker, what to charge for a seminar, how to wrangle a testy editor two years out of college.

They call me, too. I had a long phone conversation yesterday with a younger colleague as she drove from Alabama to Tennessee. We met earlier this year at a writers’ conference and immediately liked one another, sitting in the bar for hours.

Today I’ll be Skyping with another posse member who lives an ocean away.

I find it, literally, heartening and encouraging to hear how others are doing, helping one another through our inevitable ups and downs. Those of us who work without any safety net, (unemployment insurance, paid sick days or paid vacation days, a company-matched retirement plan), really need one another’s wisdom and insights.

 

My posse — and I as one of theirs — is global, thanks to social media.

 

But the essential elements remain timeless. You only want people you trust absolutely, who are discreet and smart. They can be decades younger or older. They can, (and often should), be someone from a very different background or industry.

Fresh eyes. Fresh insights.

When you don’t work in an office or belong to an organization, with coworkers, managers, HR and set policies, (no matter how frustrating they can be sometimes), figuring it out is all up to you.

 

When you work independently, you’re the cook, janitor, CIO, CFO, CMO and CEO, switching roles constantly.

 

When you work alone, it’s even more essential to know what’s going on in your industry — how to read (and alter!) a lousy contract, how to negotiate rates, what others are being paid, which deadbeat clients to avoid.

Much is being written about the “gig economy” (a phrase that makes me crazy every time I read it) — but very little about how difficult it is to do everything by yourself.

Sometimes you just need a smart, tough brain to bang up against, to test out a theory or see if you’re really brilliant this time, or heading off a potential cliff.

I enjoy my autonomy but there’s still a lot I don’t know and a lot I can help my peers with.

Do you have a posse?

Does it help?

How “news” happens: my latest NYT piece

By Caitlin Kelly

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The New York Times newsroom…since 1990, I’ve written more than 100 stories for them

You pick up the newspaper, or a magazine, or you may just scan something on your phone.

No matter what the story is, it came from somewhere!

 

Some come from writers’ own observations, (like my New York Times’ piece on turbulence, which I pitched after noticing reports of three scary in-flight events in fairly quick succession, and knowing that many other travelers, like me, loathe turbulence.)

Some are suggested by a writer’s sources or family or friends.

It can be something we overheard or saw.

Then there’s every reporter’s dream (and one that happened to me when I was a reporter at the Globe & Mail) — getting a confidential document sent to you in a brown envelope.

That’s how The New York Times got wind of Trump’s federal income tax shenanigans, as reporter Susanne Craig described:

Friday, Sept. 23, was different.

I walked to my mailbox and spotted a manila envelope, postmarked New York, NY, with a return address of The Trump Organization. My heart skipped a beat.

I have been on the hunt for Donald J. Trump’s tax returns. Mr. Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, has broken with decades-long tradition and refused to make his returns public. I have written extensively about his finances, but like almost every other reporter, I was eager to see his actual returns.

The envelope looked legitimate. I opened it, anxiously, and was astonished.

Inside were what appeared to be pages from Mr. Trump’s 1995 tax records, containing detailed figures that revealed his tax strategies.

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One of my first national magazine stories…I entered an animal testing lab. Grim and gruesome. But it was part of my job as a reporter

What makes something a “story”?

— it’s new

— it’s making a ton of money for someone

— it’s the first time this event has ever happened

— it’s affecting thousands, if not millions, of people (often voters)

— wealthy/powerful people (aka “celebrities”) are doing it

— it’s happened near the story’s audience

I’ve spent weeks on this new New York Times Arts & Leisure story, told to me last spring by  an editor I’ve known for many years and have written for, about someone she knows.

It’s a profile of Jennifer Diaz, a young New York woman whose promotion after 15 years’ hard physical labor (and calm demeanor!) helped her make stage management history:

Now, at 34, she has made history, becoming the first female head carpenter of Local 1 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. The local’s 3,351 members work in spaces from the Met to Carnegie Hall, at Radio City Music Hall and Madison Square Garden, and in every Broadway theater — including the Walter Kerr, which is where she was one morning in September, overseeing the load-in for the musical “Falsettos.”

With a head of thick dark curls and a ready smile, Ms. Diaz is a self-described tomboy, a blend of low-key authority and quiet confidence. “My name has a lot of clout in this business,” she said. “I have people on my side and in my pocket I can turn to.”

She works in a short-sleeve shirt, shorts and sturdy sneakers, a delicate silver necklace barely visible. Married to a fellow Local 1 stagehand, she sports a tattooed wedding ring in place of a traditional metal band, the palm-side of her ring finger worn clean from years of ungloved manual labor.

My former editor messaged me on Facebook to tell me about her, and I started sending emails and making calls.

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Key to this piece? Serendipity!

I met two total strangers who helped me understand this industry, one of whom gave me an essential source.

In New York City, a city of 8.4 million.

The odds I would meet two people I needed most exactly when I needed them most?

The first guy sat beside me in the 3-chair hair salon I go to in the West Village. The other was a guy who sat beside me while eating lunch on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx; working in the same industry I was covering, he gave me the phone number of someone I would never have found on my own.

It was a real pleasure to meet Jen and to get a glimpse of backstage life.

I’ll never see a Broadway show quite the same way again!