Notes From a Hired Pen

10 items for a 10-year freelancerversary


Ten years ago, I quit my job, stuck an “A” in my byline, and struck out on my own as a full time freelance writer. I’ve been thinking about what I’d say today since I realized that this year would be the big 1-0, and I keep drawing blanks.

So I’m going to use one of those tricks freelancers use in pitching stories: I’m going to do it in an outline, with numbers.

1. Embrace rejection. I started freelancing while in graduate school. When I approached national magazines, the only clips I had were from the local newspaper and a local magazines. I didn’t let that stop me though. Instead of having stacks of clips to show them, I just wrote longer queries and hoped they wouldn’t notice. They didn’t. I’ve pitched projects that didn’t sell, gone after top tier publications I assumed would reject me. Some did. Some didn’t. I banged my head against the door of Runner’s World for four years, and took the three-year plan to becoming a book reviewer for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Despite the mess I wrote about here, I still picked myself up, dusted myself off and started all over again to sell my book. I know so many freelancers who won’t pitch a dream outlet because they think the editor will laugh at them. Who cares? The best thing that could happen is getting a yes.

2. Don’t work for assholes. Assholes in this industry come in many forms: editors who insult you, editors who write you 3,000 words in rewrite notes on a 1,000 word piece, editors who expect you to turn around revisions over holiday weekends, editors who edit with three other people who all have different options and ask for different things in three, four, five rounds of revisions. Then there are also publications that pay nothing or very little (don’t work for free!), or hold onto your money for days, weeks, months after it’s due. I have had publications tell me that they paid me when they didn’t, purposefully send my checks to an old address, and then one who said they couldn’t pay me because the accounts payable person was on maternity leave. Do not work for these people. I have never regretted firing editors or publications that treated me like shit, even when that meant dropping a client who made up 25% of my income. I did that twice. If you cut the crap clients out of your life, you’ll have time to find new ones – ones that will respect you and treat and pay you properly.

3. The only person who cares about your money is you. Do not feel bad asking about your late money. Do not feel bad for asking for a better contract. This isn’t personal. It’s business. The only reason I am owed $1,100 in reprint fees right now is because I asked for a better contract, then found the publisher was re-using my pieces, and then insisted I was owed my fees even when an editor initially said I didn’t. I could have easily signed the bad contract, not raised a hand about them using my work, backed down when I was told I wasn’t owed the money. If you’re ever in doubt about doing the right thing, think about how a full time employee would feel about not getting a check on time. Or if your doctor or a plumber would put up with that kind of late payment. Get paid, writer, even if that means taking your high school softball bat and calling it the “Where’s My Money?” bat like I do. Swing away.

4. Find your friends. I joined Freelance Success when I started freelancing full time. I also became a member of ASJA. These groups have people who do what I do. We share leads, talk about our business, and gripe about our business. It’s been essential to be part of these organizations because they showed me how to be a successful freelancer and that people made a living doing this. So every time a bullshit story like this is published, I think about the hundreds if not thousands of colleagues I have in these groups who have proven that writer wrong.

5. Save, save, save. Right now, I’m owed $12,298, $6,900 of which is late (my book advance doesn’t factor into this equation either). Could you live with that? Could you have the financial back ups to continue to live and pay your bills even with that kind of hold? I live alone and have a mortgage, bills, costs. There is no backup but the backup I create for myself. Freelancers must be disciplined in our work but also our money. I follow this system of saving (though the percentages are lower right now – I lived with someone else at the time so could save more). It’s saved my butt a few times. Now, I’m not usually owed this much money. It’s a weird confluence of a publishing company ending its check run for 2014 on Dec. 15, and confusion about an invoice for reprints. I’m still not happy about it, but my savings has saved me. Oh, and get an accountant, at least for the first few years. Freelancing is expensive. We pay more in taxes than the traditionally self employed, so I pay a good accountant a chunk of change each year to help me figure out how to write off as much as I legally can (and then I write off his fee). Worth it.

6. Don’t just stick to newsstand or name magazines. There’s a bigger freelance world out there. One of my biggest clients in 2014 was the website of a trade magazine. I do social media for an education company. I wrote for universities and hospitals in the Philadelphia and DC regions. When I switched majors from marine biology to English literature, the dean who approved the change said “If you can write, you’ll always have a job.” He’s not wrong. Also, I no longer see outlets in terms of web or print. They’re clients. Websites don’t get a discount just because they’re online – and some of my better paying clients are online online. I set rates for outlets based on the work, not where the work will be printed.

7. Do the fun stuff – ethically. I’ve written some really neat stories over the last 10 years. I even helped someone propose to his now wife. Freelancing can take you places you’d never go on your own. I never though I’d spend eight years writing about the Jersey Shore, but the opportunity presented itself, so I ran with it. And LOVED it. But when that ran its course and I wanted to do something else, I left it lovingly behind (somewhat since I still do the occasional story about the shore). But be careful with taking freebies. It could shut the doors at a lot of publications on you since those things violate their ethics policies. I stick to the right side of the line by thinking what it would be like for the New York Times public editor to write a piece about Jen A. Miller, unethical freelancer. Works well.

8. Market, constantly. My book is due on May 1, but I just signed up for a marketing challenge with Freelance Success, where a bunch of writers are put on teams and earn points for pitching and selling stories. Why on earth would I do that? Because I’ll need work when the book is done. Consistently marketing myself over the last 10 years means that work rolls in, even when I’m not trying so hard. Sometimes, those opportunities take months or even years to mature. When my assignment sheet is nearly empty, I no longer panic because every time, something will come in. That won’t happen immediately, but keep at it, and it will.

9. Every freelancer is different. My story won’t be your story. For example, teaching is only a tiny fraction of my freelance income, but it makes up a big chunk for other people. You will figure out a mix that works for you, and for some people that’s freelancing in addition to a full time job. That’s okay. This business is not for everyone, and everyone’s circumstances aren’t the same. You. Do. You.

10. You can be successful. In 2014, for the second time, I booked more than $100,000 of work. Don’t let anyone tell you that writing leads to a life of poverty. If you run your freelance business like a business, it can be the best job in the world – and a profitable one too.

I could write 10 more items here, but that’s it for today since I’m not supposed to be working. It’s important to celebrate milestones like this, so I’m taking the day off to lie on my couch with my dog to read and watch Psych on Netflix. I also bought that bag in the photo for myself as an anniversary present. These may seem like small things, but it’s exactly what I want to do today. It’s been a hell of a ride. Here’s hoping for 10 more years.

And now I’m going to go dance around my office in my sweatpants while my dog stares at me. You know why? Because I can.

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