I’ve been freelancing on and off for more than 15 years. While I’ve been lucky to land some decent-paying projects with a few well-known publishers and online outlets, I’ve always wondered whether there is a secret formula to getting more work.
In fact, there is a secret formula to getting more freelance assignments, just as there is a secret formula to getting a fitter body: do more, work more. In both cases that’s easier said than done. I know what I should be doing but often I lack the motivation and stamina to get to the next level.
This is why I’ve been thinking about how to approach this issue from the opposite direction. I am not sure how one succeeds as a freelance writer — success is subjective and hard to define — but I do know what it takes not to succeed.
With the hindsight of 15 years, here are the things I should’ve done to get further as a writer. Consider it anti-advice from someone who knows better.
“There are a lot of ways to stay safe as a writer: by not writing, by writing to no one, by writing to a single admirer, by challenging the judgment of those with the power to judge, by not putting much effort into your work. ‘It’s hard,’ Zink writes in ‘The Wallcreeper,’ ‘trying to defend your territory and advertise your presence and keep out of predators’ line of sight.'”
Every word of this Kathryn Schulz profile of novelist Nell Zink is perfect. It helps that Zink’s life story and book plots are brimming with zaniness and improbability. This was such a joy to read.
If you’re a travel writer, this is a topic that often comes up. Will you take a sponsored press trip, a trip that is planned for you and/or a group of other writers, so that you can see places you may not be able to afford to go? Or, do you go it alone, rebuffing PR offers in order to maintain your objectivity or, at least, to stay in the good graces of publications like the New York Times, which blacklists – at least temporarily – those writers who have taken them?
Being sponsored is murky territory in the travel writing domain. It is the crux of discussions over travel writing ethics, conversations which seem to come up every time there is a conspicuous travel blogger hashtag campaign on Twitter. Sponsorship in travel writing – that is, having a trip partially- or fully- funded by a third party – is a grey area because many of those who write about travel cannot afford to work otherwise.
But there is another type of sponsorship that has been setting the writer discussion boards ablaze. At the end of January, Ann Bauer published “Sponsored by my husband: Why it’s a problem that writers never talk about where their money comes from,” an article with a cringe-worthy title and similarly obnoxious anecdotes relating to writers with money. Bauer offers a sympathetic tale of her own writing career path, one that she forged while poor, overworked, and living with her parents and that is now sustained by her second husband’s “hefty salary.” She makes the point that writers “do an enormous ‘let them eat cake’ disservice to our community when we obfuscate the circumstances that help us write, publish and in some ways succeed.”
I read many angry responses to Bauer’s piece. The article seemed to draw a line in the sand between those who are “sponsored,” i.e., those who come from money, have connected families, or married well, and those who are the “real” writers, i.e., those who hustle while living paycheck to paycheck or write on the side while working a full-time job. Writing from the perspective of those in the second camp, Laura Bogart, for Dame Magazine, writes, “I live in that in between of deadlines and bagged lunches, scrawling dialogue and outlines of scenes on the back of an agenda for a nine a.m. meeting. But it’s better than relying on anyone else for the roof over my head.”
As I read both of these articles, I couldn’t help but think there is a third reality. It is my reality. And in the interest of full disclosure, I will reveal the circumstances that allow me to write and publish.