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The ASJA Guide to Freelance Writing
Freelance Writing Today--and Tomorrow
People inevitably ask what it's like to be a freelance writer. My guess is that's a polite way of broaching the question they really want answered: Is that a real job? My answer is always that I get paid to learn. What could be better?
I've climbed and slept in a 243-foot-tall redwood. I've hiked high into the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico to visit the endangered winter sanctuary of 150 millionmonarch butterflies. I've walked onto the lush green of Yankee Stadium to interview baseball stars. I've interviewed CEOs and rock stars to discover how they built their companies and careers. I've spent weeks talking with teens, administrators, and judges in the juvenile justice system, looking for solutions to their problems. I've watched doctors and nurses work their postbirth miracles in a neonatal intensive care unit. I've had publications pick up the tab for trips to Venice, Aspen, New York, London, Paris, Toronto, and dozens of other places. It makes for a surplus of cocktail-party conversation starters and an unbeaten record in Trivial Pursuit.
It's easy to romanticize the freelance life. After all, you get paid to travel across the country--or the world--and talk to fascinating people. But that's only half the story. There are two pillars for building a freelance career: writing ability and marketing ability. One makes for great conversation. The other makes for a fat bank account. You need to be good at both. I've seen a remarkable number of writers who are creative thinkers and beautiful stylists, but they don't understand that it's necessary to work just as hard on the marketing end. You've got to keep banging on doors until they open or your head wears out from the pounding.
I've also seen writers who think getting assignments is all about marketing. Just find the right markets, get a few good contacts, and you'll have work. Well, at a certain level that may be true. There is a demand, even in tough times, for competent work. But never forget that the better a writer you become, the more editors will be calling.
In the quest for that next big story or big book, it's easy to lose sight of the simple fact that freelancing is a business, a business that in many ways has changed dramatically over the past decade. No matter how good a reporter and writer you are, no matter how passionate a journalist, you will not get published and earn a living unless you know the business by doing the same kind of research you would if you were working on a magazine story or a book. This book is designed as a one-stop guide to improving your business.
Those same cocktail partygoers who enjoy my stories often mistakenly assume that a freelance writer is a dilettante, not truly a professional. They're right in one way: It has never been easier to become a freelance writer; the bar has never been lower. All you need is a computer and some time. Plenty of writers contribute the occasional story to a local newspaper or small magazine, never coming close to earning a living wage. But anyone who thinks you cannot have a fascinating, rich work life and earn a good living as a freelancer is not aiming high enough. Every year at ASJA's conference we run a panel of writers who share their secrets to earning a six-figure income. They can do it and so can you. In truth, saying there are "secrets" is hype. Mostly, it's a matter of smarts, of thinking about writing as a business. You have to plan well. You have to be disciplined. You have to be creative. And you have to be persistent.
I entered the freelance life after nearly a decade as a staff writer for a metropolitan newspaper. Talk about good timing. I became a freelancer just as the World Wide Web was becoming a remarkable resource. Through the Web, I not only could research my stories; I could also research my career by reaching out to writers I'd never met. How, I've often wondered, did freelance writers survive before the world was at their fingertips?
Today, it's easier than ever to find ideas, whether by tagging a program that sends you every story with the word "endangered" from the New York Times or simply by playing around with a search on Google (www.google.com) or Electric Library (www.elibrary.com) or cruising the dozens of online news-tip sources. Finding sources is a snap, whether you search online or you put a request in at a site like Profnet (www.profnet.com). Increasingly, useful research can be found online, whether you're looking for a General Accounting Office report about school lunch nutrition or the latest from the California task forceinvestigating a pathogen killing oak trees. Of course, you still need to get out from behind your desk and rummage through library stacks and interview live people. For more, see Chapter 9 about doing research online and offline.
The overall effect has been to make freelance writers more efficient. Of course, it's made my competitors more efficient, too. Once, freelancers had to frequent East Village bars in Manhattan to talk shop. There's still something to be said for going out for a drink with other writers once in a while, no matter where you live. Perhaps the biggest transformation facilitated by the Web has been to remove the isolation of freelancing, whether you work from a ranch in Wyoming, a brownstone in Chelsea, or a suburban home outside Los Angeles. No matter where you are, you can connect with other freelancers and get their advice about the business. Over the past decade, I've participated in bulletin boards for freelance writers on Compuserve, Freelance Success (www.freelancesuccess.com), and now on ASJA's Web site (www.asja.org).
In addition to chatting online, I've come to rely on databases and resources, especially on the ASJA site. There, I often use Paycheck, a database of how much publications pay for stories, and the Query Project, examples of letters or e-mails that netted writers assignments. Before I take a shot at querying a new market, I often post a note on a writers' bulletin board or check ASJA's membership directory, which is searchable online by publication credit. It's that attention to detail and access to inside information that provides an edge. It's something I could not have conceived of doing a decade ago. Because I take the time to understand the market for my work, I know, for instance, the magazines most likely to give me a raise if I ask for more money. I know the magazines that initially offer odious work-made-for-hire contracts but then come up with a more writer-friendly First North American Serial Rights contract if I ask for one. And I know which editors are notorious for never responding to queries from new writers. I know what a book proposal that netted a six-figure advance looks like because I've seen one,thanks to a connection made online. I know how to find and evaluate an agent to sell that book proposal. And I know how to work publicity when that book hits stores. Much of that advice comes from other ASJA members, including those who have contributed to this book.
So what about the freelance market today? Like every other industry in recent times, it's been shaken and stirred enough to warrant a martini or two.
The late 1990s were a modern-day Gold Rush for freelancers. First, there was the boom of publications, online and in print, voraciously gobbling up story after story. Magazines, especially technology magazines, doubled as castle doorstops they were so large. Editors could not find enough good writers to fill their pages. Payments rose. Magazines such as Fast Company, Real Simple, Martha Stewart Living, and O, the Oprah magazine, launched and quickly established themselves. Online sites like Salon, Feed, and Slate pioneered journalism on the Web. Then came the bust. Magazines folded. Web sites disappeared or drastically dropped their rates. The already-small number of slots for freelance stories, even at the big papers, dried up. But even on the down side of that bust, as I write this introduction, there's a silver lining. Never have there been more outlets for good, solid reporting and writing. Magazines. Web sites. Custom publishing. Ghostwriting. Books.
For help with the long view of the industry, I called Samir Husni, a professor at the University of Mississippi. Husni isn't just any academic. He's "Mr. Magazine," an industry observer for twenty years. He was encouraging. "We definitely now have more freelance opportunities than ever before," Husni says. "Yes, the times have been tough. But it's not like we're seeing any letdown in terms of the new magazines that are being published." He guesses there were about 1,500 magazines in the 1960s. When he began studying the market in 1978, there werebarely 2,000 magazines. A quarter-century later, that number had mushroomed to more than 6,000.
Why? Specialization. The magazine world--and publishing in general--is more niche-oriented today. To survive, freelancers also need to have a specialty or three. Husni uses the bridal story market as an example. No longer are there just one or two magazines devoted to getting married. There are the various bride magazines, city magazines devoted to brides, wedding magazines, spin-offs from magazines like Martha Stewart Living and Elle devoted to weddings, family magazines, divorce magazines, and even "mother of the bride" magazines. How specialized have magazines become? During a recent newsstand visit, Husni counted twenty-two magazines devoted to tattoos.
He also sees custom publishing--magazines published for companies, but containing journalism--as a growth market. They are as diverse as Departures, the upscale travel-and-luxury magazine published for American Express gold card members, and Tomorrow, published by Daimler/Chrysler and the UAW for union workers. Advertisers, Husni says, are learning that custom publishing is a way to target a specific group of people and appeal to them through their lifestyle.
The other thing that has changed over the past few decades is the emphasis of magazines. Once, only a few magazines like House and Garden offered service journalism--news you can use--to readers. Now, service journalism is ubiquitous. "If you don't have service journalism, you don't exist," Husni says. That doesn't mean that writing a penetrating analysis of an issue or telling a good, dramatic story has gone out of fashion. It hasn't. Great narrative ideas or a creative way of looking at an issue remain valuable currency.
"There is still room for people who want to tell stories," Husni says. "What's changing is you have to tell your story in a package as opposed to starting on page one and ending on page fifty. You need more entry points, more exit points. You have to help the reader ... . Now we write for the eye as well as the brain. You have to grab the eyefirst with the visual. Our readers are television viewers first, skimmers second, and readers third. If we can turn them into skimmers and then readers, they will sit down and read that lengthy article. But I have to get them excited to get them into that lengthy article to start."
The market has changed and will continue to change. Technology has made freelancing easier. But that doesn't mean it's easy. If there is one failing I've seen in freelancers over the years, it's giving up too easily. A couple of years ago, I was having a drink at a party with a good friend of mine, a writer with a decade-long track record at places like GQ, Rolling Stone, and other major magazines. Someone sidled up, introduced herself, and--as people always do in New York--asked us what we do. We told her we were writers. Well, she wondered, what was the most important talent for someone in our business? Almost in unison, we answered: "Accepting rejection and moving on."
The most important skill a freelancer can hone is the ability to take being rejected--or being ignored--by an editor and to move on, whether you offer that same editor a new idea or you offer that idea to another editor. There are those wonderful exceptions. Take my first New York Times assignment. When I query a new market, I always call to find the right editor to pitch. Sending a query to a name on the masthead to me seems akin to tossing it in the trashcan under my desk. The editor may have left. She may not be responsible for assigning features. And the Times doesn't even have a masthead for its Sunday sections. So one afternoon, I dialed the Times and asked for the Styles section, which uses a lot of freelance material. When a man answered, I sputtered that I was a writer with a story idea and I wondered which editor to query.
"Me," he said. "You can send the query to me." He gave me his name, then paused. "Since you're on the phone," he added, "why don'tyou tell me the idea? We're looking for stories." I ran through it nervously.
Sounds good, he said. Who have you written for? I listed my credits.
Sounds good, he said. Can you have a written query and some clips over here tomorrow?
Um, yes. I dropped a package at the Times office on 43rd Street the next morning. By that afternoon, I had an assignment to do a 1,300-word feature for the Styles section. That was a combination of luck, timing, and a great idea--all necessary in this business.
Too many freelancers--and would-be freelancers--underestimate the work necessary to break into good markets and to make a good living from their writing. They give up too easily. Publishers rejected the first offerings of Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, H. G. Wells, John LeCarré, and Jane Austen. Mark Twain had to resort to self-publishing Huckleberry Finn. John McPhee, a Pulitzer Prize winner, suffered years of rejections before his byline appeared in the New Yorker.
Yes, freelancing has changed since then, and it continues to change. But the same persistence is required. When you read the advice in the pages that follow, remember that you need to use and apply that knowledge with passionate persistence. Do so and your business will grow.
JIM MORRISON, a full-time freelance writer since 1990, has written for Smithsonian, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, George, This Old House, Family PC, Good Housekeeping, Playboy, Biography, the Washington Post, Reader's Digest, Utne Reader, and various in-flight magazines, among others. President of the American Society of Journalists and Authors 2001-2003, he speaks often about writing and can be reached at [email protected]
THE ASJA GUIDE TO FREELANCE WRITING. Copyright © 2003 by American Society of Journalists and Authors. Foreword copyright © 2003 by Samuel G. Freedman. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.