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Writing Advice: How to Work Your Way into More Work

As the completion and delivery of a big project near, I always get a familiar twinge of anxiety: What next, what next? And this: Where’s the money going to come from?

If you’re a freelance writer, you are probably familiar with the feast or famine nature of this line of work, a cycle that can tend to produce thrilling highs and epic emotional (not to mention, financial) lows. In my own experience, everything always works out, but I’m regularly seized by that one moment, however fleeting, when it looks like, just this time, I might be without work.

This happened recently, and I decided to test out a few strategies for keeping work coming in when it looks like the flow might stagnate a bit. Here are my favorite–and most effective– take-aways:

1. Use a rejection to expand the conversation.
I was bummed out recently when a feature I’d been discussing with an editor for a national magazine–one where I’d never had a byline and one that pays well–got axed. “I love the idea,” she wrote in an email after we’d been discussing the story for a couple weeks, “but I’ve just run out of space for the summer.”

Cue the sad clowns.

I didn’t want to lose her attention while I had it, though, so I decided to be the one to close off the conversation by thanking her for her time and letting her know I’d be happy to be considered for any one-off assignments–especially last-minute pieces she needed filed–if they came up. Though it hasn’t result in an assignment yet, this approach has been very effective for myself and other colleagues. If you’re the type of writer who can deliver solidly fact-checked, well-written text on a tight deadline, being willing to take on a last-minute assignment can make you the go-to writer for a busy editor, and often results in repeat assignments.

2. Deliver an assignment with an idea for the next one.
This idea is so blindingly obvious, but it’s also one that I started trying only recently. After filing an initial article with an outlet I’d really enjoyed working with and that would be an ideal space for my work on certain urban topics, I realized that the editor, however much she liked my work, probably wouldn’t be the one pinging me for new ideas. Instead, each time I delivered an article, I would send it in along with an idea for the next piece I wanted to write. Not only did the editor see that I was eager to continue writing for the outlet, it got me in the pattern of always being on the look-out for stories that would be a good fit for the outlet. Suddenly, I had a fistful of fun, interesting assignments.

3. Branch out.
When you’re in that spot of anticipating a possible slump in confirmed assignments, start branching out. A clear schedule is the perfect time to start pitching some new beats or working your way into other genres. I recently picked up an assignment for a book review and a feature about women artists in Latin America; these are a form and subject that interest me, but I hadn’t actively pitched in either area because I’d been focused on other projects. I’m pretty excited about both assignments and am looking forward to seeing where they might lead.

4. Follow-up on dead pitches.
For the longest time, I avoided sending follow-up messages to editors. I didn’t want to be that writer, the annoying one who might be perceived as pestering for an answer about my query. But when I started scheduling follow-ups into my daily work schedule, I discovered that most editors aren’t bothered by them at all. Email gets hung up in spam filters or it hits an editor’s inbox when she’s busy closing an issue. Things happen. A polite follow-up message won’t faze a professional editor, and may result in a confirmed assignment.

What are your tips for ensuring you’ve got a steady flow of work? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Worth Reading: “The Poets Caught by Giant Despair”

So much to write, so little time.

Which makes this bit of reading–an interview between poets Gillian Wigmore and Ariel Gordon–relevant and comforting. It’s worth reading the whole interview, of course, which you can do here. But if you need the highlights version, read on:

GILLIAN WIGMORE:
“… I have a partner, a job, a house, two healthy kids, but I do take note of the fact that this pace is unsustainable and the whole thing runs solely on our commitment to keeping everyone alive and tamping down any simmering resentment. Where writing fits into this is easy: it doesn’t. Every writing moment I have is stolen. What would my writing be like if I could devote myself to it? It’s not worth considering. I do the absolute best I can with what I’ve got. I tell myself I’m sparing my male peers from my genius by working with a handicap – it makes me feel better.

But let me say, too: I’m an ambitious female poet. With kids. I’m going to do this whether or not I have time or the Canada Council supports me; whether or not the boys get the breaks; whether or not the toilets need cleaning; I’ve got shit to do and I’m going to do it. Do I have a level of fury simmering under the surface? Maybe, but it fuels my work; it makes me efficient and honest and humble. When there is time to sit and focus, sometimes a poem comes out almost fully formed because I have been hatching it the whole time a child has been telling me the plot of his favourite episode of Myth Busters (with the EXPLOSIONS, mum! Mum? are you listening?), or I burned the soup because I was reading up on jeweled top snails. I admit my scattered brain, at the time or in the acknowledgements of my books, and I’ll keep going as long as I can manage it.”

ARIEL GORDON:
“… I feel like I hustle hard all the time. And I sometimes I wonder how good it is for me and for my family, knowing that all of it is self-imposed. And then I remember how joyful writing – engaged first draft writing – is for me. I remember what it feels like to be part of a community of writers, to be a working writer. And the rest of it is redeemed, at least for a while.”

What The Times Tattoo Says about the State of American Media

In the days following Jill Abramson’s dismissal from The New York Times, there was no shortage of newspaper columns and blog posts “analyzing” what had happened and what role gender played in the debacle. Some of these were astute. Most weren’t. And too many, as was utterly, depressingly predictable, trained their focus on Abramson’s physicality. While we heard that Abramson’s successor, Dean Baquet, “smokes fine cigars to relax, wears elegant loafers and excuses his decision to keep his suit coat on during our conversation by saying that’s just who he is”–in short, plays the part of the executive newspaperman–Abramson was depicted on the front page of The New York Post in a grainy Instagram photo showing her in a ball cap, tank top (check the imagery on that tank, by the way), and boxing gloves, a subway token tattoo on her upper arm.

Le sigh.

There’s plenty to say about that, but as my grandma would say, “Let’s don’t and say we did.” Instead, let’s turn our attention to another Abramson tattoo: the Times “T,” which, apparently was inked on her back. I first read about that tattoo in this article, and it immediately struck me as bizarre. Debates about the longevity of print newspapers aside, why would someone ever get a tattoo representing the place she worked on her back, especially when that place is a media outlet?

I asked a group of writer friends that question, and one said, “I guess if you really believe it’s more than a corporation, and has some higher purpose / role / symbolism in the world?”

Maybe… though I had a hard time understanding how anyone in this business feels such a faith and allegiance to an outlet that they’d emblazon it on their body. Hell, I love my kids and my husband and books and about 500 things ardently, and I’d never consider physically inscribing them on myself.

But that’s just me.
**
The funny thing is, though, many of us have (or have had) such a puppy dog faith in the outlets for which we work that we’ve done the equivalent of getting a “T” tattoo. As this week’s proliferation of exposé articles about the strange economics of media outlets reveals (especially this one and this one), those of us who are actually gathering and writing “content” are all too willing to accept a pittance we can hardly live on–we even parrot the stock phrase we’ve been sold: “These are hard times, the media landscape is changing, the whole revenue model has been upended.”–while publishers and other top-level executives seem to manage the cash flow well enough to earn a more than comfortable living and a whole host of lifestyle perks that are, apparently, commensurate with their VIP positions.

To say we’ve got no one to blame but ourselves is oversimplifying the matter, for sure. But… when we hang on to a staff position or gig because we believe, mostly unquestioningly, that our own sacrifice serves some greater good–and trust me, I’ve been there, hanging on for years– we’re deluding ourselves. No one at the top is thinking that, and don’t believe it if they try to tell you otherwise. There’s something fundamentally foul about the fact that freelance stringers covering Syria are making $70 a day (and no, expenses are not included) while Sulzberger’s net worth is reported to be $200 million. I’m not saying that the Times or any other outlet should institute the old Ben & Jerry’s executive salary cap model (though it definitely wouldn’t be a bad idea), but greater equitability would be a good start. When loyal minions stop paying homage to their publications and treat these institutions for what they are, we will have collectively triumphed over the starry-eyed adulation about outlets and will be unwilling to keep occupying the one man–or one woman–down position we’ve volunteered to hold down. When we accept that a party, or a trip, or a ring (insert major sad face) are not adequate substitutes for a living wage, then the economics of the media machine will really change. Maybe Abramson was silly to get a tattoo of the Times “T” on her back, but at least she had the audacity to ask for and insist upon what she was worth.

No word, by the way, on whether Baquet has any tattoos.

Notes on Saying No & on Asserting Your Worth

Let’s return to two topics we’ve discussed here on more than one occasion.

Let’s return to them because some of us need to learn some important lessons or because we need to have our professional stances reaffirmed and reinforced. A couple of recent anecdotes from my own professional life will, I hope, motivate you to either develop your own policies or motivate you to stick to them.

1. Saying “No, thank you” to “opportunities.”
Over the past six months or so, I’ve received a growing number of requests to sit on or moderate panels at conferences, be the featured guest in virtual workshops for writers and “aspiring”^ writers, and share my experience, knowledge, and time at “professional” events where someone (though it’s not always clear who, exactly) is making money. These invitations are often accompanied by a “Sorry that we can’t pay you for your time or your expenses” note, usually written almost as an aside (and sometimes written as a “P.S.”), but the person inviting me assures me that the event will be a “great opportunity.”

For what? For whom?

I’ve begun saying “No, thank you” to these requests. Beyond the time they require to actually participate and fulfill the obligations expected of me, they require time for preparation (because, you know, I actually would prepare for them), travel to a location that’s generally not near my home, and arrangements for childcare, not to mention adjustments to my own writing schedule and expenses. And frankly, beyond the considerable investment of time, these events have rarely, if ever, panned out to be “great opportunities” for me. Sure, maybe I’ll meet some interesting people, but I could meet those same people-–and probably to more mutually beneficial ends– if I set up an appointment to have coffee with them.

The “great opportunity,” then, is for someone else to take advantage of my knowledge and experience, the currency I’ve built up over nearly a decade of doing this work. I provide the info and intel; they walk away with the profits of having charged people for their time to listen to “thought leaders” or “industry influencers.”

No thanks. I’ll log my public service elsewhere, mentoring less experienced writers and maintaining this blog, for starters.

Take away: It’s ok to say “Thanks, but no thanks.” Plus, the more you say it, the easier it becomes. And the more discerning you become with your time and energy, the more you have, and the more you realize that the events and activities that are promoted relentlessly as being critical to one’s career (though it’s never clear if it’s your career) actually aren’t very important at all.

2. Saying “I’m a professional writer. I don’t write for free.”
A writer friend recently found herself in a situation that had become all too familiar: an editor would just love to run her piece about XYZ, but didn’t have a budget for freelancers. Oh, and by the way, could she provide photos (high res, preferably) for said article?

The writer actually considered saying “Yes.”

When I say “actually,” I don’t do so judgmentally because I have actually considered saying “Yes” to similar outrageous requests because I was weighing the benefits of getting a certain piece published–period– versus letting it languish.

“How should I respond?” the friend asked.

Because it is always easier to fight someone else’s battles than your own, I had a response for her.

“Dear Editor:

While I’m glad that you’re interested in coverage of XYZ, and while I’d very much like for this important event to be covered by your publication, I can’t agree to contribute a piece or photos about the event without arriving at an agreement about payment. I’m a professional writer. I write for a living and simply can’t agree to have my work published for free. If you’re able to negotiate a fee, please let me know. If not, I would appreciate knowing that as well so that we’re not using up each others’ valuable time. Thank you for your attention.”

A few days later, the friend reported that the editor had found some money after all, and they had arrived at an agreement about the fee.

“Hey, standing your ground works!” I thought, “I’ll have to try that for myself.”

Earlier this week, I had the chance to do so. An educational publisher contacted me to ask if his company could use one of my photos for teaching materials. There was no mention of a fee. I wrote back and thanked the publisher for contacting me, asked if he had a budget for photography, and said I’d be happy to negotiate a rate with him if he did. He wrote back right away and said that while he didn’t have much money to work with because stock agency rates are so low that they provide an attractive alternative, he did, in fact, have a budget. And because I’d sent him a link to some other relevant photos, he might want to buy some other photos beyond the original one about which he had contacted me.

Take away: Don’t give your work away if you want to make a living from it. Just as it becomes easier to give your work away for free the more you do it, it also becomes easier to defend your worth and ask for compensation the more you do it.

And goodness knows we have plenty of opportunities to practice.

Do you struggle with these two issues? Have you defined “policies” for yourself with respect to these two issues? I’d love to hear from you below in the comments.

^I’ve never really understood what that means. Either you’re a writer or you’re not. Please drop the “aspiring” or, worse, “budding.”

Is one lesson of Matthew Power’s death that we need to slow down?

That was the take-away question for me after I read Brad Wieners’ “No Way Is Matt Power Gone” tribute and report in BloombergBusinessweek earlier today.

I didn’t know Power personally, as several of my friends did, but his death was unsettling for all the obvious reasons: He was young. He wasn’t, by any accounts I’d read, interested in derring-do for derring-do’s sake, and, of course, it meant the loss of a gifted storyteller. But after reading Wieners’ piece, Power’s death felt unsettling for another reason: Unless there were underlying medical issues that no one knows about, it might have been an evitable death.

Wieners explains that Power flew from 20-degree Farenheit New York City to Uganda, where the temperature, according to a companion, was between 100 and 113 degrees. His plane landed and he hit the ground running, as most all of us who do this kind of work do. Wieners writes:

“Matt may have been a free spirit, but he paid a New York mortgage and worked hard to afford it. Reviewing Matt’s itinerary—red-eye, trans-Atlantic flight followed by a seven-hour drive to the trailhead the day of his arrival, then joining the expedition on his second day in country—I got a shiver of recognition. I’d have made the same mistake. Not just failing to give heat the respect I do altitude. Failing to give it more time. Departing from New York, where there is never a moment to lose, there’s no way I’d think to schedule an extra couple of days—much less the week Casa recommends to top athletes—to let my body adjust. No one has that kind of time.

[emphasis mine]

I had a shiver of recognition, too. I’ve left frigid, wintry New York for tropical climes–Belize, Suriname, Cuba–and have pushed on upon arrival despite feeling less than ready because, it seemed, there wasn’t any other choice. I’ve taken ridiculous, self-abusing flight itineraries because they were cheaper than the alternatives. I’ve packed my daily schedule from morning to midnight because if I’m going to the expense of on-the-ground-reporting, I want to make the most of it. Writers don’t build a rest day or two into our schedules because we can’t afford them–literally–and rare is the case where a publication is footing the bill for us to have a day or two to acclimate to a different environment. I’ve yet to meet an editor who has said, “You know what? We’re going to spring for an extra night in a decent hotel so you can get your bearings and rest before you go out and report this piece for us in top form.” In fact, I’ve yet to meet an editor who has paid expenses adequately, period.

The idea that Power didn’t have to die is one that enrages. And yet, in a publishing world that’s driven by a news cycle that’s way shorter than 24 hours and balance sheets that favor other priorities over paying for good reporting, it’s not surprising and it’s not likely to change.

Public Service Announcement: One Week Left for SATW Lowell Thomas Award Entries

If you’re planning on submitting entries for The Society of American Travel Writers Foundation’s Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Awards, heads up: you’ve only got one week left to enter.

This is not the year to procrastinate, folks; SATWF has moved to an online submission manager for entries. While the system is ultimately loads faster than the manual completion of forms and printing and posting of multiple copies of articles, it takes a bit of navigating to figure out. Plus, you have to register for a free account and get approved to enter the contest before you can upload your submissions, which can take up to 24 hours.

So get on it! All of the instructions can be found here.

Last Call: Deadline for South Carolina Writers’ Residency Approaches

You've got two weeks left to apply for this residency.

You’ve got two weeks left to apply for this residency.

True, I’m not exactly the biggest booster of my hometown–after all, I left for college and have never entertained the thought of moving back–BUT (and it’s a big “but”) there are a lot of interesting things happening in and around Spartanburg, South Carolina (I just wrote about one of them for The Magazine), and the folks who are responsible for this residency are also behind many of those other exciting projects.

Actually, there are two residencies–a summer residency and a nine-month residency; it’s the application for the former that’s due on April 1. If you’re interested in the longer residency, the deadline to submit your application is June 2, 2014.

Information about both residencies can be found on the Hub City Writers’ Project website.

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