I’ve been a full time writer since early 2012 now, a lot longer than my early expectations for this career of “roughly 15 minutes and a cup of coffee.”
Getting to write for a living has been one of the signature experiences of my life. Thanks to this strangest of professions I’ve become a part of the 2014 and 2016 elections, commented on global sex trafficking, attended a stranger’s birthday party in Lima and more. I left the law and took what I thought would be a transition job, writing for a bit until I figured out what was next, only to discover this is far more than a simple job.
It’s a calling. It’s a chance to see the world and the privilege of an invitation people extend into their lives to tell their stories. It hasn’t been without its surprises though. Like…
1. You spend much of your time not writing.
In an average day I will write an article. So far so good. However I’ll also answer e-mails, research issues, read absolutely everything in search of leads, draft pitches, communicate with editors, keep up with contacts, check the back end of my site, the list goes on.
It turns out that being a freelance writer involves spending a lot of time not actually writing. At best half of my day is spent on product, while the rest is working on the extensive infrastructure that actually lets me collect a paycheck for all this. For my occasional complaints about practicing law, it’s only the time management skills I learned in the firm that lets me pull all this off.
Some folks get to just lock themselves in a garret. We call them either “best sellers” or “hungry.” The rest of us had better get used to the hustle. Speaking of which…
2. It’s a business.
You know what I did the last time I wanted to write about gun control? I pitched one listicle on Christmas villages and another on weird holiday gifts so that my editor could afford to green light 1,500 words about shooting victims. Win-win.
Freelance journalism is a microcosm of the whole news industry. Long form writing can tell valuable, fascinating stories, but it also takes serious investment. Most pieces lose money. (See: the news industry in general.) Writers need to pay attention to this and send out pitches that don’t necessarily need 10 days and a round trip ticket to get it done.
I learned this lesson the hard way not long ago when a trip to cover Chinese financial development fell apart. It was a good but expensive story, and I when couldn’t find an editor to cover $2,000 in costs the whole project fell apart (taking a valuable relationship with it). And that’s just life. This is a business and to survive as a freelancer you have to think like a business.
Artists end up as baristas. Journalists have retirement accounts.
3. It’s all volume all the time… for me.
I make my money off of volume, selling a steady enough stream of stories to draw a solid paycheck. It works because I keep my eye on the bottom line. I’m not writing the great American novel every afternoon, but I get to do what I love for a living and am a part of telling the stories that deserve to be told.
That’s my business model at least, and that’s the catch. There are any number of ways to make money in this business, but you need a plan or you’ll flounder. Personally, I like the variety that comes with working on something new all the time.
Of course that makes writer’s block a pretty common experience, but that should surprise no one.
4. It’s all about relationships.
That whole lonely writer chasing his muse with a shot of whisky? That might work for dead Irish poets, but for a freelance writer that just won’t hack it. As a freelancer many stories find you, and that’s okay. You won’t have the time or resources to Woodward up every day’s copy. Trying to do so will only lead to half-assing the research and interviews. Instead you’ll rely on an extensive network of press contacts, professors, editors, NGO workers, scumbags, drunks, degenerates, complete strangers and hundreds of other sources to kick you an e-mail when something happens.
My early instinct was the same as, I think, a lot of people’s, to see PR e-mails as somehow less than serious journalism. Baloney. PR people are in this industry just like everyone else. They have a story to tell. Like all the rest sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re bad and sometimes they make for functional light reading on a slow news day.
It’s all about relationships, and the judgment to tell good stories from bad.
5. Every story is part of a body of work, or: Don’t fear the listicle.
Your work works together.
As a daily journalist you have a limited amount of time and money to spread among all the articles you need to write, and every single article is a piece of that. Lightweight pieces, such as an entertaining listicle, can be a great way to produce solid copy in a few hours so that you can spend the afternoon researching that banking reform article. If there’s an expensive event overseas you’d like to cover, subsidize it with some fun articles about the local food. (You’ve got to eat anyway, right?)
Make your stories all work together in the trade off between time, money, word count and prestige. Your best pieces will speak for themselves.
So will your worst. There’s nothing wrong with light, fun writing, but in the age of Google something lazy, plagiarized or incompetent will hang around your neck for a long time.