Friday, November 03, 2006

How to Survive in Shark Infested Waters

Random thought: Is it so wrong that The Office is quite possibly the highlight of my week? Squee for the Diwali episode! I won't spoil it for those who haven't seen it, but needless to say, more drunk John Krasinski please!

Anyhoo, wrapping up the week of Q/As with some of my favorite freelance writers. I'll be answering your questions again starting next week, so if you have a question and want to pick my brain, email me at or post it to the comments section. Today, my fellow writer friends were kind enough to offer their thoughts on how to survive the ups and downs of the freelance world and ultimately, turn a glimmer of a dream into a lifelong career.

Here, their thoughts:

-Be absolutely sure that freelance is what you really want to be. I have a good friend who, like me, was always a magazine editor, and also always freelance-wrote "on the side." When we each had kids, it was her decision to stay with a magazine job, and mine (well, after kid 2) to freelance fulltime. I could never do what she does; seems so stressful. She feels she couldn't do what I do; she relishes the office experience and doubts her ability to stick to work with all the distractions of home (TV, food, the kids, the house...). So you have to start with a foundation of REALLY knowing that working for yourself, and largely by yourself, is what you want, and that it fits with yours and your family's lifestyle and needs. I was freelance for a short time very early in my career, and it stunk. I couldn't focus or motivate myself, and I sunk into a depression (for other reasons, too, but I believe that I'd have been in a better frame of mind if I had an office to go to each day). Other things you need for a successful freelance career:

  • Good time management skills (this, for me, is taken care of by being a mom; I'm so used to cramming 40 things into each hour of each day that prioritizing gets easier).- a good business sense. You love to write, which is fine and dandy. But you can't spend hours and days and weeks laboring over every word of every piece or you won't make any money. It's craft and a teeny bit of art, but it's mostly a business.
  • The proper spot to work, whether that's a fully kitted-out office or an armoire in the dining room. If you're squeezing in your work on the kitchen table or around your kids' artwork and your husband's stuff, you won't feel as "legit."
  • A very, very very thick skin, since rejection comes with the territory.
  • A recognition that you have to find ways to work with the editors who are out there. Sure, you can cross off your list those who are egregiously awful or abusive, but the basic premise of the freelance life is that you want work, and editors are the ones who have it to hand out, so you gotta get along. That means lots of cheerful compliance and can-do attitude. That does not mean letting yourself be walked all over; you have to find and tread the line between the two. - Denise Schipani
-I have two rules for myself: be reliable, and be easy to work with. Before I went freelance, I was an editor, so I thought long and hard about the writers I really enjoyed working with. Above all, they all shared those two traits--reliability and a desire to work with me to put out the best article possible. They didn't flake out on deadlines, they didn't have egos, and they weren't offended if I came back to them with edit questions or needed a revise. Also, I knew that as an editor, being reliable and being nice--this is so Midwestern of me, but whatever--helped me move up quickly. So I took that with me when I crossed the fence and became a full-time writer, and it's helped me stand out and get repeat assignments for the publications I want to work with. I know some people hear that and they think, "doormat!" But it's not about being a doormat. I still ask for more money, say no to impossible assignments and tell editors when they're being unreasonable. I'm just not bitchy about it, and that makes all the difference in having an editor want to work with you again. - Camille Noe Pagan

-Treat it like a business. You need to deliver a high-quality service. You need to market yourself. You need to constantly look for new outlets for your work and new ways to improve what you’re doing. You need to deliver excellent service to your clients. You need to keep track of the financials. And you need to be tenacious. I always say that the rules apply to everyone but me. That doesn’t mean ignore guidelines, editor suggestions, or solid business practices. But, when I hear about how difficult it is to break into a particular publication or how competitive this business is or how it’s impossible to make a living as a freelance writer, that doesn’t apply to me. I ignore the statistics and focus on what I need and want to do. So far, so good. - Gwen Moran

-Figure out what you want to achieve and keep your eye on your prize, not another writer's. If you're a mother with young children and you want to earn enough to keep your young ones in Huggies, well screw the person who says success as a writer means bringing in $100K + a year or writing for the Atlantic. That's his definition, not yours. - Diana Burrell

-To establish a successful freelancing career, you have to treat it as a business. Learn to say "no" when your calendar gets overwhelmed with too many activities. You have to spend an ample amount of time at your desk to make it work. Sure, it's great to be able to take an impromptu trip out of town for a few days and not have to ask permission, but be prepared to check your e-mail and voicemail when you are away and pick up the slack when you return. Some people will try to take advantage of you working from home because they think that you have all the time in the world, but you do not. You have the advantage of no commute to work and you can plug away at the keyboard in your pajamas if you wish, but this doesn't mean that you're free to babysit or chat on the phone for hours on end. Also, networking is imperative! You can learn a lot by mingling with fellow freelancers. Get involved in writers' organizations, attend conferences, etc. to keep leads flowing. - Sharon Anne Waldrop

-Make sure that you have the right disposition to be a freelancer—because really, you are an entrepreneur. If you don’t have the drive to keep going every day, even when you’re not selling anything, and to keep yourself focused on marketing and coming up with new ideas, then you should find something else to do as your career. - Leah Ingram

-1) Read--everything from books on writing to the magazines and newspapers that you want to break into. Know that this often doesn't happen overnight, and be prepared to do the work you will need to in order to get your career going. 2) Go to writers' conferences. Join Web sites like FLX. Talk to other writers--but don't pick out a few who are experienced and keep badgering them. People will usually help you, but make sure you're not taking advantage. 3) Keep sending out queries. If one comes back "dinged," have another publication ready to send it to and get it out the door within 24 hours. 4) Don't take rejections personally. Remember, these people (editors) don't know you, so they are reacting to the work. And it doesn't mean that the work is bad; it's just something they can't use right now. Chances are, if it's a good query, you'll find a home for it. Send it out again and again and again... - Michele Wojciechowski

-Treat it as you would any other start-up. It takes time. This advice is easier given than followed on somedays! But truly it takes a lot of persistence and a lot of hard work and on the darkest days when you keep going.. that is what leads to success. - Monica Bhide

-I think part of it is saying to yourself, this is it. Failing is not an option. If you have in your head that if you fail, oh well, you can go back to your cubicle, you're already setting your expectations too low. With that goes treating freelancing like a real job with a real work-arrival hour. Another key to establishing a successful freelance career too, I think, is to seek out those regular gigs. For example, in the front of the book of Men's Health and Women's Health there are the "bulletins," summaries of the latest health research that are about 100 words each. Every month I write some nutrition and weight-loss bulletins, and while it's not the most fun work, it makes for a regular pay check. And then on top of that, of course, do those fun departments and features that you pitch. But those don't come monthly for everyone, so that regular paying gig is important. - Lauren Ann Russell

-Treat it like a business. Don't think of yourself as a "writer," think of yourself as an "independent contractor." A lot of things will flow from there. Also specialize in a few topics or develop something special you're known for. You have to be able to distinguish yourself and give editors a reason to think of you. This is key to getting called with assignments as opposed to having to query all the time. - Lisbeth Levine

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am mentoring a student (a senior in high school), whose full-year project is now to become a freelance writer -- which is, in fact, what she thinks she wants to be. I am going to refer her to his blog! Thanks for all these tips.