There’s a lot of material here that will be old hat for long-time freelancers, but I learned a few useful tips in Shane Snow’s video “Freelance Strategy Hacks,” and I think this is especially exceptional advice for folks new to freelancing.
It may surprise you to learn that I’m not really a fan of “This American Life.” I’ve never been able to explain why, exactly, but there’s something about the show that turns me off.
Still, when Keph Senett forwarded this Ira Glass “How I Work” piece to a group of writer friends, I found plenty of interest. I love reading process/how people work pieces, especially when they’re honest and interesting, as this one is.
“When I come out of an interview, I jot down the things I remember as being my favorite moments. For an hour-long interview usually it’s just four or five moments, but if out I’m reporting all day, I’ll spend over an hour at night typing out every favorite thing that happened. This is handier than you might think. Often this short list of favorite things will provide the backbone to the structure to my story.”
“I am a noisy introvert. My sister Randi made up that phrase and it describes lots of people I know. Lots of writers seem to be introverts who love to now and then be on stage. Lots of radio people too. I covet large amounts of time alone, and I’m most comfortable and very happy when I’m alone, but obviously there’s another side to me because true introverts don’t end up with their own national radio shows.”
“I’d just say to aspiring journalists or writers—who I meet a lot of—do it now. Don’t wait for permission to make something that’s interesting or amusing to you. Just do it now. Don’t wait. Find a story idea, start making it, give yourself a deadline, show it to people who’ll give you notes to make it better. Don’t wait till you’re older, or in some better job than you have now. Don’t wait for anything. Don’t wait till some magical story idea drops into your lap. That’s not where ideas come from. Go looking for an idea and it’ll show up. Begin now. Be a fucking soldier about it and be tough.”
Ask me if I enjoy sports writing, and I’ll probably tell you “No.”
Unless, that is, you happened to catch me the day before yesterday, when I read Kathy Dobie’s exceptional article, “The Undefeated Champions of Defeat City,” published by GQ in May.
Dobie’s article is remarkable for a few reasons, but one I particularly wanted to comment on here is the way she expertly avoids a common problem in writing about urban issues, and that’s the problem of identifying people by race. Often, writers seem to have a reflex that compels them to mention the race of a subject they’re profiling when, in fact, that subject’s race isn’t necessarily germane to the story or the particular experience being recounted. It’s information that many writers seem to feel is important as long as the subject isn’t white. White, of course, is the default race, so if the subject is white, there’s no need to mention it.
If race isn’t identified, then there’s often the even more troubling tendency to attempt to let diction and slang serve as racial cues. In most writers’ hands, the effect is as grating and reductive and unconvincing as the exaggerated drawls of actors in TV shows and movies who are supposedly portraying Southern (US) characters.
Dobie avoids all that– the naming and the appropriation of a voice that isn’t hers– and at the same time still manages to channel voices that are authentic, not stilted. If you’ve ever tried to do this yourself, you know it’s not an easy task, and that’s why I’m sharing this piece. Read it. Study it. I’m willing to bet you’ll learn a lot.
I know you’re settling in to read this, especially if you’re new or newish to writing, with some degree of resistance. Maybe you even thought about just not reading it at all. You believe–absolutely believe in your bones–that your story is special. That there’s nothing like it. That what happened to you, whether it was good or bad or in between, hasn’t happened to anyone else. That it needs to be written.
As a former editor, writing instructor, and a lifelong voracious reader of nearly every genre, I can assure you with almost complete certainty that your story is nothing special. Even the experience that seems utterly obscure has likely happened to someone else. What’s more, the world is littered with narratives about those experiences, and the majority of them are written poorly.
I know this is uncomfortable, but stay with me.
I was contacted recently by a young woman who wanted to know where she should pitch a story about falling in love with a man from Cuba. She had met him while she was on vacation, fell madly in love with him, and in short order, they started the paperwork that would lead to them getting married and bringing him to the United States. Because the story was unique within her circle, she was absolutely convinced that it was unique in the world. It wasn’t. I can count a full handful of women I know personally whose story is nearly the same. Sure, some particulars are different, but the broad strokes are nearly identical.
Because she was convinced it was unique, period, she was also convinced that pretty much any editor should be interested in a story about it. She didn’t say how she planned to tell her story, how the narrative would arc, distinct from the way you’d tell the story at a bar or over dinner with some good friends. She didn’t say who she thought the ideal audience would be. She was just so excited, so sure that this story, her story, was so good that it needed to be published.
This is just one example; I could come up with a dozen others, easily. When I was an editor, I received pitches on a daily basis from passionate writers who wanted to convince me that no one– no, really, no one–had ever written a story like theirs.
Only the thing was, I’d just received another pitch on exactly the same topic.
To say that your story (probably) isn’t special is tough love talk, I know. It chips away at the foundation holding in place some of the most cherished reasons why you write: to tell your truths. To make sense of them. To seek–and hopefully receive–catharsis, redemption, validation, identification, or some other psychological need of which you may not even be aware. To share this experience that feels (and is) so precious and particular.
There’s nothing wrong with any of that.
But what makes your story special is how you tell it, what details you bring to it, what observations. The struggles and the lessons and the unanswered questions. The doubts that niggle at you when you can’t sleep at night, or the ones that pester you when you’re writing. Don’t try to convince an editor that your STORY is unique because most likely, it’s not. It’s how that story reaches and affects a reader through your skillful telling of it: that’s where you need to be investing your energy and your skills of persuasion when you’re reaching out to an editor. Rather than insist upon the novelty of your story, push yourself harder to answer the question: How can I tell this in a new way, a way that no one has told this kind of story before?
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.
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:
“… 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.”
“… 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.”
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.
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.