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.
Category Archives: Business of Writing
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.“
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.
I’ve told you a dozen times that I intend to write a post about a phenomenon I refer to as “derivative journalism,” and I still intend to do so.
The problem is, every time I sit down to work on said post, yet another example of the varied forms derivative journalism takes pops up and distracts me. It’s a big subject and, sadly, one that’s becoming more common and more complex.
In the meantime, I want to share an article worth reading that addresses one facet of the phenomenon. “Yellow Prose of Texas: Dueling Fracking Stories Raise Plagiarism Questions” was published in the print issue of The New York Observer on March 3, 2014. Unfortunately, the version published online is not the complete article as it was published originally. In the print piece, journalist Kara Bloomgarden-Smoke details how a 10,000-word feature by Bryan Mealer, writing for Texas Monthly, was seemingly appropriated by a reporter for USA Today– by appropriated, I mean that the USA Today reporter sought the same primary source as Mealer in the same small Texas town, to tell, essentially, the same (albeit condensed) story.
Unless you’re a writer yourself, you may not realize how (increasingly) common this kind of appropriation is. It’s happened to me and it’s happened, more recently, to a colleague; both of us had gone to a hard-to-reach place and talked to a variety of disparate, far-flung sources about a topic that, at least in my case, was fairly specific and niche (scientific research on the military base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba). It was clear that our work had been picked up by another person and “remixed” as their own original reporting. Sadly (and frustratingly), editors failed to catch the intellectual theft and, in my colleague’s case, at least, weren’t well-read enough to have even realized that the topic had been reported on–originally–by someone else in another publication (editorial myopia being a topic for a whole other post).
There are a number of points in Bloomgarden-Smoke’s article that are important and merit wider conversation, including these stand-outs:
-The initial exchange that occurred between Mealer and the USA Today writer took place on twitter. For me, at least, this raises the question: Was there an attempt to address the grievance before it was moved to a public forum? (If not, my opinion is: understandable frustration, but poor form).
-The initial exchange that occurred between the publications’ respective editors also took place on twitter. In my opinion, twitter doesn’t seem like the proper forum to address or correct these types of grievances, tempting as it is to sound off about them.
-A source Bloomgarden-Smoke quotes in her article says something that I think should be obvious, but clearly is not: “[T]he best policy is to be liberal with acknowledging previous reporting,” the journalist summarizes, citing the source by adding, “It doesn’t cost anything to be generous with credit.”
Finally, I think it’s worth reiterating an idea you’ve heard me hold forth about here on more than one occasion: Why can’t these writers find their own stories? Imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery, at least not in journalism. Whatever interested the USA Today writer about Mealer’s story could–no, should– have prompted him to take Mealer’s story further, to find an aspect of the story that hadn’t been told. Instead, it was apparently a rehash of Mealer’s original story, passed off as his own sui generis reporting. To me, this is the saddest form of writing: the kind that lacks any impetus originating in the writer’s own curiosity.
Have you had any personal experiences with this kind of derivative journalism? Do you consider it a form of plagiarism? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
A couple months back, when my kids and I were visiting my mom, Gigi began reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods, the first in the “Little House” series, to Mariel. I had started reading Ingalls Wilder’s books by the time I was in first grade, after my grandmother began giving the hardcovers to me for my birthday and at Christmas.
I was thrilled that my mom was picking up the tradition and introducing the “Little House” books to my daughter. I was (and remain) a voracious reader, but I have never had the best memory for what I’ve read. Ingalls Wilder’s books were an exception. I remember entire chapters and scenes that, read nearly 30 years ago, retain vivid detail for me: Christmas in the Big Woods and making maple syrup candy; bolts of calico fabric and barrels of dry goods at the general store in town; dolls made out of corncobs; the description of Sundays, trundle beds, and Jack the brindled bulldog.
When it was time for us to fly home, I brought Little House in the Big Woods with us so I could pick up reading where my mom left off. And each night, as I read to Mariel, I feel the same wonder and excitement I felt reading these books as a child. I feel, in short, as if I am in the Big Woods, living alongside Laura and Mary and baby Carrie in their log cabin.
Why do these books stay with me decades later?
There’s the nostalgia factor, inarguably; my grandmother gave me these books and so they had a particular significance. They were my books. With each gift, I grew closer to having my first collection of books, and I treasured them. But as I reread Little House in the Big Woods now, reading, as I do everything, as both a reader and a writer, I think there’s something more than that, too. Ingalls Wilder’s prose isn’t astonishing, but it’s straightforward, even simple, and above all, extremely descriptive. The green buttons on Ma’s delaine dress, the way Pa cleaned his gun… Ingalls Wilder’s eye for details and her ability to convey those were so sharp. There’s no artifice in her writing, no clever conceits or sophisticated techniques; there’s just good, unhurried storytelling.
We could stand for more of that today, if you ask me.
A few months ago, a man who recently emigrated from China asked me, upon learning that I am a writer, how he could write better essays. He told me that he’d been told about the inverted pyramid style of writing, but he seemed unsatisfied with its basic principles. “I know a piece of writing should have a beginning, middle, and an end,” he said, “but…” he trailed off in frustration, not having full command of the English vocabulary to express what he wanted to say.
I told him that there are many ways to write. I wanted to elaborate, to explain some of those ways, but I wasn’t sure how. What kind of writing did he want to be doing? Writing for work, say, can be considerably different than writing a personal essay. I ended up telling him that reading was the best way of learning how to write, that by reading widely, he’d pick up on different styles and techniques, adopting and adapting the ones that felt most comfortable to him. He liked that answer and asked if I could recommend some American writers.
“Steinbeck,” I said, without thinking it over too much. I happened to be reading Cannery Row, which I’d plucked off our bookshelf for no other reason than the fact it wouldn’t weigh down my backpack. But reading it, I was reminded why I like Steinbeck so much, and it’s for the same reasons I like Laura Ingalls Wilder. Steinbeck isn’t overreaching; he’s not trying too hard, as so many writers are, to be a good writer. In fact, I’d read shortly before I picked up Cannery Row some criticism (can’t remember who wrote it) that Steinbeck’s problem was that he was too simple, too straightforward among his contemporaries, not sophisticated enough.
Maybe, but who cares? The guy had the ability to visualize a scene and make it real, to make it seem as if the setting was a place you recognized… or at least you could if your life circumstances or place in time were different. His observations, his sense of human emotion, were astute. And, like Ingalls Wilder, there’s zero artifice in a Steinbeck novel. He wasn’t sitting around trying to gussy up his writing by deploying a literary device that wasn’t really necessary. He used simpler techniques, like lists, to establish a sense of place and personality. And that was enough.
I love the complexity and near impenetrability of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, which I don’t think I would have understood or enjoyed in the least had I not lived in Mexico City. I love the metaphors of rage in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and the allegories and pages-long sentences of Jose Saramago’s All the Names. These are books that, each in its own way, have stayed with me. Each of these authors was deft in literary maneuvering, each mastering his own style, a style that is truly inimitable. But too many writers, I think, try too hard to achieve this kind of adeptness, and it shows. Simplicity, direct observations, a keen eye for small, rich details… these need not be confused with superficiality. Sometimes, a writer needs to know when to work a text less, to let it carry its own weight and not force upon it a device or meaning that it’s not intended to have.
How about you? What books have stayed with you over the years, and why? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
My mom didn’t invent this saying, but she sure loved it:
“If you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all.”
Maybe your mom said that to you, too. Maybe it was when you complained about the one part of dinner–beets or broccoli, say–that you didn’t like rather than focus on the other parts of the meal that you really loved and for which you were grateful. Maybe it was when you said something unkind about another kid, even though you’d experienced the sting of being wounded by someone else’s words yourself. Whatever the scenario, I’m sure your mom pulled that stock phrase of parenting out of her play book and used it on you at least once.
I’ve been thinking about that phrase a lot this weekend, as I process some of the criticism of my long-form feature on Roads + Kingdoms and Slate (a longer post about that coming soon) and as I’ve serendipitously come across some posts by other writers who have been feeling the sting of impulsive reader comments, like this one from The Joy of Cooking website. That post really resonated with me because the writers explained so personally and passionately the pain of working their asses off, spending lots of their own money on their work, and being as meticulous as anyone can be, only to receive sniping email comments about how the site could obviously function better or why in the world wouldn’t they post the recipe for chess pie? (Answer: Because they’d actually like to make a living by selling their cookbook).
I don’t want to be overly pitiful or pitiable about this–I’m fully aware that the hazards and downsides of most other jobs are far worse–but one of the most frustrating aspects of being a writer is that the reader almost never knows what happens in the making of an article or essay. They don’t know what you have to leave out, nor do they know why. They don’t know what gets changed along the writing-to-publication trajectory. They don’t know that you can read your own writing two dozen times, have two editors review it meticulously almost as many times, and still write “flaunts” when you meant “flouts” because, well, we tend to read what we meant to write, not what’s actually on the page. But the reader, of course, catches it, and then seems to think he needs to track down your email address and school you on your wrong word choice. (Yes, that happened.). And in most cases, they don’t know your larger body of work and they don’t know you, so they’re ever so quick to make assumptions about things that aren’t even related to the piece of writing they’re criticizing… like how much you’ve been paid to write the piece (and they always assume it’s been a lot).
Now I want to be clear: I am not against being critical. Criticism is good. It’s important. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone more critical of herself and others than I. But I don’t know anyone who likes being on the receiving end of criticism that isn’t framed thoughtfully or which is presented in a sneering, hostile, or arrogant tone. Listen to Mom: If you can’t frame your criticism constructively, step away from the keyboard.
There’s another facet of this, too. Don’t just feel compelled to comment when you’ve got constructive criticism. Reach out to writers to let them know when their work touches, informs, or inspires you. I’ve been doing this more lately–even if it’s just to give a quick “Hey, thanks for your article about widgets” shout-out via twitter–and it feels good. I’ve taken photos of writers’ books I’ve seen on bookshelves in places where I’m traveling and sent them a quick note: “Hey! Look what I saw at the Hudson News in the Memphis Airport- your book!” Writers love this. Writers need it. It turns the line that runs between the writer and reader–often completely invisible– into a circle. It breaks the isolation that often traps the writer behind his or her byline. And often, it starts a conversation, relationship, or quick exchange about shared interests. It makes the writer feel good, and trust me, writers need to feel good because there’s a whole lot about our career that attempts to chip away at one’s sense of self.
I used to think the last two weeks of the year were a frightening time for a freelancer: editors gleefully set their “On vacation! See you in the new year!” e-mail auto-responses; accountants throw their hands up and say “Screw it!” to whatever writer invoices remain unpaid once the clock chimes 5:00 pm on December 23; and the writer’s to-do list, meanwhile, becomes a tedious menu of tidy-up tasks. Which articles were accepted but haven’t yet been published (and why?). Who still owes me money? Close out receipts for the tax year. And so on.
I’ve always thought I’d like to take those last two weeks of the year–or a good two days, at least–and head off on a retreat, just me, myself, and I. (My husband laughs. He thinks I’m joking). The goal wouldn’t be to get spiritually centered, though that’s not a bad idea, but to get professionally focused by taking stock of the nearly 12 months behind me. What did I do right? What did I accomplish and of what did I feel most proud? How did I do financially? What could I have done better? Did I work smarter or harder (maybe both)? What did the answers to these questions tell me about how I could strategize for the coming year?^ In the absence of retreating, I do what most working parents do: keep changing the diaper, stirring the soup, and wiping a runny nose while thinking about these things in between preschooler questions like “Mom, what is a bullfrog?” and “Why is an egg called an egg?”.
All things considered, 2013 was a pretty successful year. My friend Lisa Rogak reached out to me to work with her on the Pope book, and as of this writing, it has been (or is slated to be) published in 14 countries. I broke into some new outlets (Bespoke, Delta SKY, Emory Magazine, GOOD, Outside.com, Porthole, and Relish) and strengthened editorial relationships and my portfolio by expanding work with other outlets (The Latin Kitchen, National Geographic Traveler). I landed a contract to solo author a guidebook and I did just the right amount of traveling. I’d sold more of mine and Francisco’s work as a package. Editors reached out to me several times rather than the reverse, and I had a steady amount of editing work straight through December 31. I’d referred several friends to editors for work and some got into new outlets or landed choice assignments as a result, which always makes me happy. In the midst of it all, I managed to send one child off to pre-school (in NYC, this is far more complicated–and expensive–than you might think) and to give birth to another one (in other words: Mama’s got to keep the cash flow, flowing). And I won a Society of American Travel Writers Lowell Thomas Award for an article I’d written. So yes, I was happy with the year, particularly since the last two weeks of 2013 signaled plenty of promise for the beginning of 2014, too. By the end of December, January’s work slate was full and several solid publications (another piece for Porthole, a feature and profile for The Magazine, a feature for Roads + Kingdoms, and articles for National Geographic Traveler and Saveur) were pending. And I was grateful.
That didn’t mean, however, that I didn’t see room for improvement. I was still spending too much of my life at the keyboard, when I wanted to be playing with my kids or having a meaningful conversation with my husband beyond, “Hey, could you pick up a package of diapers on your way home?” We were doing better financially, but not well enough to feel like we could move to a bigger apartment. I was still (at least in my mind) doing too many service pieces and not enough of the meaty, nuanced, and better-paying features I wanted to be doing. And I was still spending too much of my own money (though I had gotten much better about this) on research expenses. How could I better manage these aspects of the freelance life in 2014?
I wasn’t entirely sure how to answer that question definitively, but I started by making a list of the features I wanted to investigate and write in collaboration with Francisco, as well as the potential outlets where they could be a good fit. We’d had a few projects in mind for a long time, but hadn’t pursued them because the cost of doing so seemed a barrier or because I thought we didn’t yet have the portfolio to be able to pitch to the kind of outlets where these pieces could be published. The money was a reality; the portfolio excuse was just what recovering addicts would call “stinky thinking.” We clearly had a solid track record (and that’s why it’s so important to maintain a running list of your published work).
I got rid of the ineffective excuse, then, and started focusing on the money. I didn’t want to keep putting these projects off until some outlet came along, offering to pay expenses, and I didn’t want to bet possible future returns against research expenses accrued now… I’m not a good gambler. Then, a friend’s post about fellowships and grants for reporting popped into my inbox and the answer–so obvious it was embarrassing– was there. A lot of institutions have a lot of money for underreported stories. There’s a lot of competition, too, of course, but if Francisco and I could pull together proposal templates for a few of our top-pick projects, wasn’t it worth the possibility of having funding to spend some time filing applications? The process of doing so has been valuable in its own right, bringing the strengths and gaps of our ideas into sharper focus and helping us get structured and organized for future research and reporting. Soon enough, we’ll see whether the stories we think are important seem of significance to other people, too.
The lesson for you here is simple: Take a minute to take stock. What do you want out of 2014? What do you have to give? What have you been putting off pursuing in your writing or photography career… not because you’re not ready for it, but because you perceive (correctly or incorrectly) that some barrier prevents you from realizing a particular goal? How can you kick that barrier out of the way? Who and what do you need to support you?
Don’t just answer these questions in your head, though that’s a fine place to start. Put them on paper. As with your publication goals and financial goals, which I also recommend writing down so you can see them visibly, physically map out some of those larger project goals and put them in a place where you can see them. Keep yourself focused and reach out for help when you need it. A year passes so quickly. What do you want to be able to say about your work at the end of 2014?
For one excellent take on a freelance writer/photographer’s taking stock strategy, please see my friend Lola’s pie chart assessment of her pitching and querying from 2013. She has been tabulating the outcomes of her pitching processes since 2008 and her reflections are insightful.