Freelance writing: Revelations arrived at while teaching a class


This past week I had a great time teaching a Twin Cities Media Alliance workshop, with Jay Gabler, called “Tips and Tricks for Freelance Writers.” We had a good turnout, comprising some people who have been freelancing for a while, others who were just getting back into it, and some who were just starting out. I feel like I learned a lot from the discussions, and a couple of revelations hit me.

One revelation was sparked by a comment by one of the people taking a class, whose background is as a small business owner. He said, after listening to some of the group members’ experiences, that freelance writing is kind of like owning a small business. It is pretty much a small business—that’s how we pay taxes, anyway. But I tend to think of myself more as my own nonprofit organization, due to the pay scale.

Either way, a lot of being a freelance writing is not actually writing at all: you search for stories, you develop relationships with sources, you make pitches, you research, interview and report, then you write, then you go back and forth with your editor, and finally, you send your invoice and get paid. Each step can take more and more time, depending on the story and publication. Luckily, with the Daily Planet I never have to worry about getting paid on time, but I realized during the class how common it is for writers to have difficulty with this step, and I’m not alone in having to wait for months and months before receiving a check from certain place (in one case, the publication went into bankruptcy and I was never paid at all).

My other revelation is that I’m remarkably unambitious. These days, I’ve got my regular gigs and I pretty much do those and maybe a few outside projects, but don’t stress too much about finding new work. My needs are small in life—as a person without kids and without a mortgage, I don’t need much to get by.

I supposed it might be partially to do with a lack of self-confidence that I don’t pitch to new, bigger publications more. That, combined with the fact that I always feel behind, and spend all my time catching up on the work I have—so it doesn’t feel right to seek out more work.

Plus, I like writing about my own community. I like writing about things going in neighborhoods, in schools, on the streets of the Twin Cities. I like knowing what’s going on in the art scene locally, so writing about stories that go beyond the Twin Cities seems like a difficult shift for me. There have been a few times where I story I’m covering hits on a bigger issue, and blows up. In such cases, my work has been linked to occasionally, or mentioned. I guess I get a little ego boost from that, but it doesn’t really matter.

I know it irks some writers when something they’ve been covering suddenly goes viral, especially when credit isn’t given to the writers who’ve been covering it all along. I definitely get that, but for me, especially if it’s for something that I feel needs more attention, I’m glad when other larger publications finally look at an issue I think is important. 

There have been a couple of times when one of my sources has bypassed me, giving a scoop to a bigger publication. That does annoy me, but I can’t really blame them either. In my ideal world, journalists from all sorts of different publications would feel to work together anyway, collaborating on the common good of telling the truth. 

So I’ll keep plugging along. I hope I get to keep doing this writing thing. It’s the best job-that’s-not-really-a-job I’ve ever had.

Coverage of issues and events affecting Central Corridor Communities is funded in part by a grant from the Central Corridor Collaborative.