The Serious Business of Writing

I have always found it fun to imagine “the life” of a writer. Poring over works-in-progress, sitting in coffee shops alone for hours on end, possibly while wearing a beret. Writers, like other artists, have a mystique about them that makes the process of their work seem romantic and viewed through a lens that makes the edges all soft and fuzzy.

It simply isn’t true.

There are two problems with being a writer if you ever intend to make a living at it. One is that there is an endless supply of people and organizations out there who want you to fit into a mold that works for them. Imagine a search for a writer by a group or individual. The search will involve a long list of required credentials, experience, and probably writing style. Ability to write is a criteria, but it usually comes after the ability to mold yourself to what others want.

Problem number two: writing is LONELY. Really working as a writer involves many, many, many hours of laborious, painstaking work, often under the threat of a deadline. You have to abandon your spouse, your kids, your friends, and anything fun you might want to do in the pursuit of completing the task at hand. Therein lies the crux of being a writer: the task at hand will always involve an exclusive relationship between you and the written word. No matter how many editors you work with, they can’t hold your hand while you do the actual work.

Even though writing is fraught with potentially depressing moments of working so hard you can’t believe this was your dream, it’s still worth it. 100 times over it’s worth it. With work, work, work comes practice. With denying yourself personal time to have fun and spend time with loved ones, comes discipline and understanding about what it takes to really make it. It takes serious, hard work. But man, is it a wondrous labor.

Just Say No to Being a Content Producer

It’s seriously tempting as a journalist these days to take the low road when it comes to finding work. But if you calculate the time and energy it takes to search for freelance work, you’re better off getting really good at being a journalist.

The trick of dressing up hack journalism with the title of “content producer” is a great example. These are the so-called jobs that want someone to crank out anywhere from 3-30 articles a week for publication online. The first clue that this is NOT journalism is the part of the job description that notes you must have SEO keyword knowledge. I don’t know what the name for this kind of writing is, but it sure isn’t journalism. In fact, I think it is at odds with journalism.

I’ve come to realize that when it comes to being a journalist, I’m a purist. I’ve had those points in my career where I was an “editor” for some “content” project that paid pretty well. At the time, it was a great way to get cash for equipment I needed–a new laptop, a DSLR camera and lens, a recorder, et cetera. But at the end of the day, wherever you put your time and energy and effort is where you are going to see results.

Instead of wasting your most precious resource–your time–on searching for freelance/telecommute jobs that are vaguely related to being a journalist, spend that time working on pitches and story ideas.

Write your ideas down, let them ruminate in the back of your head. Try writing pitches and sending them out. I guarantee you will see where the holes are and what you need to work on. And I guarantee that if you’re serious about getting your pitch perfect and are passionate about the story (why bother choosing topics that you are lukewarm about?), you will get an assignment. Just keep at it–and say “no” to being a content producer. You won’t be sorry.



Don’t Give in to the Temptation to Give Up

It’s tempting as a journalist to give up and just find some other job. Something more stable, predictable and that feeds a steady paycheck into the bank account. There is also the in-between realm of working a “day job” that pays the bills and doing journalism on the side in one’s spare time.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to pay the bills, but I can speak from experience on this one–working a day job and being a journalist on the side is an incredibly slow way to get the experience you need and want. There are cases of those who are incredibly focused and get themselves into a niche and ride it all the way to quitting their day job and becoming a full-time journalist. But if you add much of a personal life in there–spouse or kids, for example–you are probably looking at several years of dragging along and not making much progress.

Then there is the temptation to just find “other people’s projects” and tag yourself on to them. In other words, “get hired” for other jobs. There again, you are going to have to spend precious time working at finding work. All time that you will not be spending working as a journalist.

I had an epiphany recently about the structure that makes the most sense for a freelance journalist who wants to be their own man. Or woman. My theory is not tested yet, but in my head it makes a lot of sense, and it is measured against 7 years of experience as a freelancer.

It goes something like this:

1. BE CREATIVE. Designate at least 1-2 projects you are working on that have no current market or audience, but that you feel strongly about. This could be a book or short story or essay you are working on.

2. BE PRODUCTIVE. Spend some time every day writing. Try to make it the same time or time frame. Test different times and see what makes the most sense for you. Put aside everything else during that time, including hiding your cell phone and email accounts. Writing emails does NOT count.

3. BE IN CONTROL. Realize that you are the one who is in control of what you work on. Don’t let yourself get pushed and pulled into doing things that have nothing to do with your work as a journalist. If that means you have to take your camera with you when you take your kid for a walk so you can practice photography, then just do it. Integrate your craft into your life–don’t try to manipulate your life to fit what you imagine your career is.

4. STAY IN THE LOOP. Be in touch frequently with other journalists. Meet them in person, connect through social media, send emails. Whatever you need to do. When you know what other journalists are doing with their time, it will inspire and push you to do more, do better, and quite simply–just do.

5. MANAGE YOURSELF. If your goal is to try to make a living as a freelance journalist, you are your most valuable resource. Don’t underestimate the value of being able to write, report, photograph, interview, research, find good stories. Despite the current market’s general disrespect for journalists (in terms of pay), realize that this is a highly valuable skill set. Market your skills with that in mind, and don’t take any wooden nickels.

6. MIX PROJECTS. Use a mixture of projects to advance your experience and credibility and livelihood as a journalist. Take on some projects that are just because you want to do them, some that are paid but have little to do with your real passions, and some that might develop into something better. You will know what works based on your financial needs. Don’t do only projects that are your dream projects, nor all jobs that are just to pay the bills.

Any other points to add to this list, let me know. I’d love to hear them.