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How to Get over Impostor Syndrome

I wasn’t familiar with the term “impostor syndrome” until I joined a group of women writers.

Comprised of several thousand accomplished journalists and authors in a variety of genres, many of them quite successful by any objective measure, there was also a contingent that frequently expressed doubts about their knowledge/skills/abilities/quantity and quality of work, and on and on. Among them were writers who spoke of challenges they faced in dealing with “impostor syndrome,” the sense that they were really just posing as writers, that somehow they simply weren’t good enough.

Here’s the best definition of impostor syndrome I’ve found:

… a term coined in the 1970’s by psychologists and researchers to informally describe people who are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those exhibiting the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be. Notably, impostor syndrome is particularly common among high-achieving women. (Wikipedia… of all places)

Although I felt glad they had a safe space to express their feelings and receive support from the rest of us, I also felt astonished and troubled by the number of women who felt this way, how acutely, and how much it was affecting their work– not only what they were doing, but all that they weren’t doing because they were occasionally paralyzed by self-doubt.

There’s a lot of advice offered to women who experience impostor syndrome, but I think most of it isn’t very useful. It tends to fall into one of two categories: (1) Think or act “like a man,” which, frankly, is insulting to men and women, and/or (2) “Fake it ’til you make it,” which suggests that if one merely pretends to be confident, assertive, and self-assured, those qualities will magically develop over time.

Neither category of advice offers concrete actions or a permanent fix that will help a woman writer kick impostor syndrome to the curb. With that precise goal in mind, I offer the following:

1. Do a professional self-inventory.
If you don’t know, objectively, what your skills and worth are, it’s time to sit down and do a self-assessment. What do you know really well– inside-out? What can you reasonably claim as your area of expertise? When you’re doing this, think only of yourself: the goal isn’t to compare yourself against anyone else. It’s to become as self-aware as you can.

2. Fill in the gaps.
Maybe your self-inventory revealed that, hey, you ARE an impostor and you’ve got no business being a writer. But I doubt it. In any case, though, it likely helped you identify areas where you need to shore up some skills or knowledge. There’s no shame in that and it doesn’t mean you’re an impostor. It means you’re a person and professional who understands that we are all always growing, learning, and changing, and that we can all always learn more.

Not sure where to go to fill in your gaps? Poynter, Dart Center, and EdX are just a few organizations that offer a number of free courses online. Prefer one-on-one coaching? There are lots of talented journalists and writers who offer personalized sessions and/or ongoing small-group workshops. I recommend Jordan Rosenfeld for fiction writers; Faith Adiele for memoir; Christine Gilbert for blogging; and myself for journalism and general non-fiction (you can contact me at writingjulie[at]gmail).

3. Identify and cultivate your sources.
In some respects, a writer is only as good as her sources. Do you already have a go-to list of experts and stakeholders in your particular niche or beat? If not, identify a few and start cultivating contacts. Listen to them carefully. Learn from them. Live in a state of constant curiosity.

4. Keep up with developments– not the Joneses.
It always boggles the mind when I talk to writers who don’t read every single day. You must read. Your goal should never be to compare yourself against another writer, but to know who’s covering what, how they’re covering it, where it’s being covered, and how you might be able to cover it in your own way. I keep a hand-lettered sign above my computer: “What’s the story not being told?” Whether I’m thinking about writing a feature or a quick Q&A or profile piece, and whether I’m covering someone who’s famous or someone who’s unknown, that’s usually the question that drives my approach.

5. Gather your tribe.
There’s a lot about the writing life that is solitary. The extrinsic validation so many writers crave isn’t always accessible, particularly when there are people who live to troll in the comments section of online publications. If you really struggle mightily with nurturing your own intrinsic motivation (and even if you don’t), identify a small core group of colleagues who will help buoy you during your bouts with self-doubt. Choose people who know your work and respect it, who will give you concrete reminders–not just vacuous pep talks–about why your work is good and important. Lean on them when you need it and reciprocate in kind.

6. Work on your monkey mind.
All that mental chatter rattling on about how you’re not worthy, you’re not worthy, you’re not worthy? You know it’s not going to go away magically on its own, right?

You have to work on your monkey mind, all the self-talk that undermines your self-esteem and your good, productive work. And I’m sorry to say that that work isn’t easy. As a former psychotherapist, I’ve worked with several hundred people actively working to change a habit or behavior that was what therapists call “maladaptive” (ie: not good for them); only a tiny fraction of them successfully broke the old habit and replaced it with one that was more adaptive.

Change is hard. Really really hard. But it’s not impossible and it’s worth working–constantly–on contesting the negative self-talk that makes you feel like an impostor. Though my own clinical orientation was oriented more toward psychodynamic psychotherapy and the creative arts therapies, there is a great deal of value in the techniques of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which anyone can use at any time. Basically, CBT involves practicing changing your “negative scripts” (ie: crap self-talk). There are loads of resources online where you can read more about CBT. I recommend The Beck Institute as a good point of departure if you’re interested in learning more.

Struggling with impostor syndrome or have a kick-ass way to deal with it? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

How to Take a Work Trip across Three Countries with Your Three Kids–and No Partner–without Losing Your Mind

I’d been planning a Cuba trip for a while–I had work to do there and in-laws to visit, and I hadn’t been since early 2013–but for one reason or another, dates just weren’t lining up. Finally, the calendar cleared and I secured multiple assignments that would help pay for the trip, so it was game on– time to book flights.

Except I wasn’t traveling alone.

Four passengers = four passports and four visas. (Photo: @collazoprojects)

Four passengers = four passports and four visas. (Photo: @collazoprojects)

My oldest daughter, who would turn six during our trip, had been to Cuba twice, but the youngest, ages 2 and 1, hadn’t yet met their abuela and tias and tio. With a mother-in-law who’s in her 90s, it’s not as if I have the luxury of putting off a visit with the grands. Yes, I needed to work–covering everything from the papal visit to restoration projects and new entrepreneurial ventures–but I also needed to make sure my kids and their father’s side of the family were getting some quality time together.

Only my husband wasn’t going to be a part of the equation.

A complicated immigration status would keep him at home in New York while I sat on airplanes and hauled two suitcases and as many strollers through three airports in three different countries with three children, starting out at 4 AM in New York City and ending up 15 hours later in Havana.

“Are all these kids yours? Are you a sadist or something?” That’s what the US Immigration officer asked when I came back to the US 10 days after I’d left. I just gave him the evil eye. My kids are great travelers.

My two-year old looks out the window on our approach to Mexico City, our layover on the way to and from Havana. (Photo: @collazoprojects)

My two-year old looks out the window on our approach to Mexico City, our layover on the way to and from Havana. (Photo: @collazoprojects)

That being said, enough people asked how I managed to make the trip alone that I thought it might be worth sharing my clutch tips about how to travel alone with three kids on a work trip without losing your marbles.

1. Pack light.
Yes, you’re traveling with kids, but trust me: kids don’t need nearly as much stuff as you think they do. I managed a single carry-on for all the in-transit essentials: diapers and wipes for the youngest, a change of clothes for each, passports and all other IDs, plane tickets and documentation, my laptop and wallet, a camera, a book, my phone, and a coloring book and pack of markers. Kids–even kids who travel a lot, like mine–can be entertained for a good long while with seat back safety cards, barf bags (make puppets!), headphones, and tray tables (sorry, passenger in front of us; I’ll try to keep it gentle).

Don’t pack the entire toy box. And as for all those things you think are essential: My rule of thumb when traveling is to not pack items you can buy at your destination. A caveat for Cuba is that you probably should pack all the diapers you’ll need; diapers can be tough to find and are expensive and of poor quality. Ditto wet wipes.

2. Stay organized.
Keep all the paperwork you’ll need in airports close at hand, organized and accessible. Bring along a notarized letter from your children’s other parent–even though many airlines don’t require them–in which that parent gives her or his consent to take your children abroad. You probably won’t need the letter, but you don’t want to be in a situation where you need it and don’t have it. Because my children carry both my husband’s last name and my last name (and because this confounds so many officials), I also carry birth certificates, a copy of our marriage certificate, and vaccination records as evidence of our respective identities and relationships.

3. Accept help if offered and ask for it if it’s not.
The toughest thing about a 14-hour day of travel was–I kid you not–finding a way to go pee without worrying that my one year old would tumble head-first out of her plane seat and onto the floor. Pressing my five year old into service worked for much of the trip and those tasks where I needed an extra set of hands, but never when I needed to go to the bathroom. I searched for a trustworthy-looking adult and asked them if they could watch my kids for a few minutes.

4. Trust your oldest with age-appropriate responsibilities…
… and reward them with praise (and, if you can, a special treat) for shouldering an extra load. My five year old pushed one of her siblings in a stroller through all three airports and even operated a special elevator by herself when we couldn’t all fit into the elevator for a single trip. I knew that she was a little scared, but I also told her I was totally confident in her abilities and that I was watching her the whole time (which was true). When we had a free moment, I bought her a small bag of chocolate-covered coconut as a thank you.

5. Know your danger zones.
I wish I’d thought to ask whether my airline, Interjet, had milk on its afternoon and evening flights, as both of my youngest children drink milk from bottles. It does not– it only has milk available on morning flights. On the last leg of our return flight home, I had no milk and kid #2 spent the last 20 minutes curled up in the fetal position on top of his tray table.

6. Ease your reentry.
I scheduled in a two-night layover in Mexico City on our return trip, mainly because I love Mexico City, my former home, and because I had some reporting work I needed to do there. But it also ended up being a welcome way to transition between Cuba and home, what with a comfy hotel bed, running water (which we did not have in Cuba), and a room service splurge. If you can break up your travels into more manageable bits, it will be easier on kids… and on you.

7. Take advantage of Trusted Traveler, Global Entry, and similar services.
When booking your tickets, make sure you elect for TSA pre-check if you’re eligible, and take advantage of your trusted traveler/Global Entry memberships if you have them so you don’t have to wait in line for ages when you return home.

8. Bring snacks. Lots of snacks.
Cheerios, fruit chews, apple bars… these are my go-to snacks for kids when we’re on the road or in the air. A snack produced with a parental flourish at the precise moment preceding a meltdown can prevent crisis.

Also, if traveling in areas where you’re not the one in control of when, what, or how you’re eating (as was the case at my in-laws’), bring some breakfast basics for your kids. Instant oatmeal is the best choice; it packs flat, weighs practically nothing, is easy to make, and is filling.

9. Have a clear work plan.
I had A LOT to do in Havana, and while I had my sister-in-law and niece to help care for the kids, I was still the one who had to fit all the usual parenting tasks in at the beginning and end of the day. Being organized before I landed and staying organized each day by following a work plan I’d set for myself was essential to not losing my mind.

“[Y]ou can still perform.”

Some wisdom from world champion triathlete Gwen Jorgensen that’s useful not only for athletes:

“What are the chances that you go to the Olympics, it’s race morning, and you wake up feeling awesome? The likelihood of that is so low.
You have to realize that no matter how you feel, you can still perform.”

Dispirited but not defeated

I don’t know about you, fellow freelancers, but the past eight weeks have felt like “The Twilight Zone” when it comes to getting paid.

Only you know that the problem won’t end after a 30-minute episode.

At first, I chalked it up to The August Doldrums: you know, editors and publishers going on that elusive thing called “vacation” while you continue to sit, fingers to keyboard, filing assignments and checking accounts to see if those outstanding invoices have been paid.

Once the calendar flipped its page to September, I was ready to follow up. With nearly $9,000 of unpaid invoices, most of which represented work filed months ago, I set aside time in my hectic reporting and writing schedule marked “INVOICE F/U.”

That “F/U” is for “follow-up,” in case you were wondering. I know- the temptation to read a double entendre into that is real.

I always feel resentful about spending time chasing down money I’m owed. It’s time for which I’m not getting paid, spent on work for which I’m owed, taking time away from new work that could be getting done, asking for something I shouldn’t have to ask for because I’ve followed all the rules and have honored my end of contractual agreements. But I suck it up, send out inquiries, pull up and reattach invoices “for your quick reference and convenience,” and look at what kind of crazy mathematics I have to pull off to cover my own obligations while I wait to get paid.

But this September has, thus far, been particularly bad. A publisher who owed $3,200, separated into two invoices, paid one invoice but not the other. When I followed up, they were surprised. There was another invoice? Well, yes. Yes, there was. Another publisher lost my invoices: could I send them again? And a third promised, repeatedly, that “payment was being processed this week,” only this week turned into three weeks, and no, I still haven’t been paid.

The kicker came today, when, after filing an assignment for a reputable outlet for which I’ve written a couple times (and have two more commissions in the pipeline), I wrote accounts payable to check on the status of an invoice filed at the beginning of August. I double-checked our contract: net 30. They were past it. Where was my money? I wrote, politely, to inquire.

What ensued has been an exchange of emails that has left me dispirited and disgusted, but not at all defeated. Many freelancers don’t follow up on payments; others apologize for doing so (“Sorry to be a pest, but I just wanted to check on my invoice, dated months and months ago!”). After the series of exchanges below, I am, more than ever, determined to be both diligent and dogged in pursuit of compensation for my work.

I hope you will feel the same. I also hope you will share this widely. Don’t let others devalue your work. Don’t continue to contribute to a system that doesn’t compensate you for your product; I can think of no other profession that permits this. Feel free to lift any of the language of my own emails and edit them to fit your own situation as you seek the payment you are owed.
Email One: From Me to the Accounts Payable Department of the Publisher


My name is Julie Schwietert Collazo and I’m writing to check on the status of an invoice that was filed on or around August 5. The project was [description of project], which was assigned by [name of editor]. The total due was [$xxx.00]. I have not yet received payment for this project; could you please advise regarding the status and when payment can be expected?


Email Two: From Someone in Accounts Payable Who Did Not Indicate His Position/Title

“Hi Julie: We are currently have a backlog with our freelance payments, we will get payment out as soon as we can. Please be patient and we’ll get you paid. Thank you!”

Upon receiving this, I stepped away from the computer to think. Would I write a “Ok, thanks!” email or would I let him know that no, this wasn’t okay? I thought about it for about 20 minutes and then responded:

Email Three: From Me to Untitled Guy #1 in Accounts Payable

“Hi, [name redacted]. Thank you for the update. Do you have an estimate of when the invoice will be paid?”

Email Four: From Untitled Guy #1 in Accounts Payable

“Not at this time. Sorry.”

Email Five: From Me to Untitled Guy #1 in Accounts Payable

“Dear [name redacted]-

This is an utterly unacceptable response, and one that I find disrespectful and unprofessional. I am not writing for a hobby; this is my profession. Like [name of publisher], I have bills to pay and not a single one of the people or companies waiting for payments from me would accept this type of response.

According to the contract with [name of publisher], it is clearly articulated that your obligation is to pay within 30 days of receiving the invoice. Please see the contract here, if there is any doubt as to that fact.

[I inserted a link to the contract, signed by both parties.]

If I do not receive payment by the close of business on Monday, September 21, I will pursue legal action.

Julie Schwietert Collazo”

Email Six: From Untitled Guy #2 in Accounts Payable

“Hi Julie,

My apology for the delay in payment. Please understand that the AP team was in no way trying to be rude or disrespectful and we do appreciate the service you provide to our Company. I’d like to talk to you live if you are available this afternoon so we can discuss your invoice and payment. Please let me know if you are available after 2pm PST and if [my phone number, redacted] is still a valid number to reach you at.

[name of guy #2 from Accounts Payable, who also doesn’t indicate his title]”

Email Seven: From Me to Untitled Guy #2

“Dear [name redacted]-

Thank you for your prompt reply. I’d rather receive explanation and next steps/payment schedule via email so that we have mutual documentation.

Julie Schwietert Collazo”

Email Eight: From CFO of Publishing Company to Me


[Name redacted] forwarded your email to me. I’m happy to jump on a call to discuss, but we will not discuss via email. Sorry if that is an inconvenience for you, but I’ve found email insufficient to discuss payment matters. Please let me know a good day/time/number to call you.

[Name redacted]”

Email Nine: From Me to CFO

“Dear [Name redacted]-

I’m not sure why you find email ‘insufficient’ for discussing payment matters; as far as I’m concerned, I only want to know when you intend to process payment and whether this problem with paying freelancers will continue, as I have another invoice I’ll be submitting for a work filed yesterday and I have two more assignments pending. If you are insistent that you must call, please be aware that I will record the conversation, which is legal under New York State law.

You are welcome to call me at [number redacted] anytime after 8 AM tomorrow. After tomorrow, I will be out of the country on assignment and without phone and Internet for 10 days, so I ask that this issue be resolved as quickly as possible.

Thank you.”

Email Ten: From CFO to Me


I’m sorry, we will not consent to being recorded. If you’d like to discuss payment without recording, please let me know; otherwise, we’ll tender payment when able.

[Name redacted]”

Email Eleven: From Me to CFO

“[Name redacted]-

I’m not asking for your consent. New York law clearly indicates I’m within my rights to record a call, with or without your consent.

It’s clear to me that you and your colleagues don’t intend to act honorably; you’ve made a clear-cut situation far more complicated than necessary, and your contract is absolutely clear about the terms of payment. If I do not near from you by tomorrow, whether by email or phone, with a specific plan of action and timeline for payment, I will initiate legal action.

Julie Schwietert Collazo”

Email Twelve: From CFO to Me


I understand your frustration on payment (I would be frustrated if I were in your position). I would like to discuss it with you. Payment issues happen in business from time to time. When they occur, they are not necessarily (and absolutely not in this case) a function of dishonorable behavior or deceit. We had a significant partner file bankruptcy, which has created this issue. We are working through it. You will be paid in full. If you would like to discuss the timing of this, I am very happy to call you to do so. But, I am in California, which does not allow recording conversations without consent. I do not consent to being recorded. If you want to discuss your payment without recording, I am standing by to do so. If you do not want to do that, you will still be paid in full.”

Email Thirteen: From Me to CFO

“[Name redacted]-

I certainly understand that ‘payment issues happen in business from time to time.’ I’ve been a business owner and, of course, as a freelancer, I’m frequently in the unfair position of being put at the mercy of a publisher’s ‘payment issues’… though I doubt you or others on staff absorb the similar–and very real– tangible, literal costs of such issues. Nor does your landlord, electric company, or Internet service provider, I’m sure, wait until issues resolve for you to pay them. Yet [name of publisher redacted], like too many publishers, expects freelancers to bear the brunt of the effects of problems they didn’t create. And, unfortunately, too many freelancers don’t assert themselves because they’re afraid they’ll never get paid, or that they’ll ‘burn bridges,’ a ridiculous notion, considering that they’re not the one who caused the problem.

It’s not unreasonable to want to be paid according to the contract we both signed. In addition, what continues to confound is: (1) why you would feel it is at all ethical to allow editors to continue commissioning freelance content in the midst of such problems (which clearly don’t have a resolution), and (2) why you wouldn’t inform freelancers who are due money what the generalities of the problem are, detail how it affects them, and present them with a reasonable resolution, one that has a timeframe attached to it. That’s fair and professional business.

I am not willing to have an off-the-record phone conversation. You can expect to hear from my lawyer.

Julie Schwietert Collazo”

and his final reply, which will not be met with a response from me, other than the one I’ve clearly indicated is my recourse:

“Understood. Please put him or her in touch with me. Happy to discuss with them.

[Name redacted]”

Book Fests & Bookstores: September Appearances

Yes, yes, I know: Pope Francis in His Own Words was published two years ago.

So why am I starting a book tour of sorts right now?

Well, as you’re probably aware, Pope Francis will be visiting Cuba and the United States next month, and it seems like a prime time to reintroduce the book to English- and Spanish-speaking audiences (did you know the book has been translated into about 15 languages?). Plus, I received a few lovely invitations to do so, and I couldn’t turn them down.

If you’re in one of the cities below, I hope you’ll spread the word and join me at one (or more!) of these events:

Decatur Book Festival: Decatur, Georgia, USA
I’m grateful to my alma mater, Emory University, for inviting me to participate in this beloved book festival. I’ll be signing books in the Emory tent from 3-4 pm on Saturday, September 5.

Brooklyn Book Festival, Bookend Event Series: Brooklyn, New York, USA
Before I head out of the country to cover Pope Francis’s visit in Cuba, I’ll be talking about the book and signing copies as part of the Brooklyn Book Festival. My generous host is the delightful Hullabaloo Books, and I couldn’t think of a better bookstore to have a conversation about Pope Francis. This is an Official Brooklyn Book Festival Bookend Event.

This event will take place at 8 pm on Tuesday, September 15.

Cuba Libro Bookstore: Havana, Cuba
I’m so excited that I’ll have the chance to talk about the book the day before Pope Francis will be giving his mass at Plaza de la Revolución in Havana.

This event will take place at 5 pm on Saturday, September 19.

Would you like to add Pope Francis in His Own Words to your bookshelf or inventory? Need a speaker or expert to interview about the Pope? Get in touch by emailing me: writingjulie[at]gmail[dot]com!

How to Sell a “Cold Case” Article

“What do you do,” a colleague asked recently, “when you have a piece you just can’t seem to sell?”

It happens. It’s frustrating when an idea or article you’ve worked on so hard becomes the journalistic equivalent of a cold case, but that doesn’t mean all the work you’ve put into an assignment is for naught. Here are a few strategies worth trying before giving up on a piece.

1. Use your running pitch list to your advantage.
If you don’t know what I mean by running pitch list, read this post and take a close look at the visual. A running pitch list allows you to track the progress of a piece continually, and if you get in the habit of scheduling one day a week on which you dedicate an hour or two to pitch follow ups, you’ll whittle away at your cold case rate.

Every time you pitch an article, be sure to fill out the field on your pitch list that indicates the other outlets and editors you’ll try if your Plan A publication doesn’t pan out. I put that information in the “Other” field. If you haven’t heard from Plan A, move on and pitch the back-up publication. Exhaust all possibilities.

2. Turn to colleagues.
Tell your colleagues where you’ve pitched and ask for other suggestions. They may have outlets you haven’t considered or ones you don’t even know.

3. Call in a favor.
Ask a trusted colleague to read a pitch that’s gotten nowhere and request her input. Is there something you’re missing that a second set of eyes might help identify and correct to strengthen the idea that hasn’t yet found a home?

4. Take feedback to heart.
Sometimes we’re too close to our ideas and stories to understand what may be missing for a more general audience. If your trusted colleague gives feedback, take it into consideration and rework your pitch accordingly.

5. Relax– sometimes it’s all about the timing.
You may have an incredible article idea, but if no editor’s picking it up, consider the possibility that the timing just isn’t good for some reason… and there can be lots of reasons why it might not be. That doesn’t mean the idea or the resulting story will never sell; it may just mean that you need to sit with it for a while and wait for the timing to be better. For an example of this, check out my guest post on Jordan Rosenfeld’s blog; it’s about a story idea I sat with for seven years.

Hold it until it’s sellable and peg it, if you can, to a timely event or news.

6. Rework the angle.
Let’s say the story idea you’ve been sitting on has suddenly been done to death. Maybe you had a story about the famous chef Rene Redzepi, but it feels like you’ve been seeing stories about him everywhere and maybe your idea has been played out.

In these situations, see if you can tweak your angle. The question to always ask yourself about a person, place, or phenomenon that’s been hyped ad infinitum is this: What’s the story that hasn’t been told? How can you offer a fresh take? In our Redzepi example, can you focus less on the food and more on his family? Some new entrepreneurial venture that’s underreported? His right-hand man (or woman)? Tell the story no one else is telling.

7. Put it into a package.
If you’re having a hard time selling a piece as a stand-alone, figure out a way to put it into a bigger package. Using our Redzepi example again, turn what you intended to be a profile of him (done. tired.) into a package. This isn’t always ideal, of course– none of us wants to kill off our darlings, the original ideas we had about how we wanted to frame a story–but if your goal is to sell, then you have to consider this as an option.

How do you do it? Consider all the material you have and pull out pieces that can be rolled up into another package. It may be a single sentence or idea that then gets pulled into a round-up style piece. You may need to do a little more reporting to fill out the new article.

Have some other tips about how to give new life to cold cases? Please share them in the comments.

Fact-checking workshop at CUNY on August 2

Just announced!

I’ll be teaching a class about fact-checking at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism on August 2. More information and registration are here.


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