Friday, January 11, 2008

Freelancers and the Dark Side

What do freelance writers and baseball players have in common?

We both have to factor in the inevitability of failure as part of our job.

If a batter hits .300, he’s considered a star – yet that means he succeeds only once out of every three attempts. If a freelancer sells one article for every three queries, he or she will probably be driving a Mercedes.

And freelancing is arguably more difficult than baseball. If you’re in a baseball game, you always get the chance to show what you can do. Freelancers, all too often, never even make it to the plate.

This harsh reality has given rise to a culture of negativity that surrounds and smothers many freelancers. Still, based on the ancient principle of yin and yang, there's an antidote for every glum statement.

1. Statement: I can’t stand rejection.

Antidote: Realize that it’s not personal. Every editor has a very specific sense of what he or she wants their publication or Website to be. These likes and dislikes are generally very subjective.

One way to minimize rejection in the case of non-fiction writing is to approach the editor with a query rather than a completed manuscript. Editors like to be able to determine the length, tone and focus of articles that they print, and chances are what you send won’t fit those criteria. Also, the rejection of an idea always seems less personal than that of a piece of your heart – er, work.

2. Statement: I’m not a very good writer.

Antidote: Maybe not, but there’s no reason why you couldn’t be. Writing is not some magical gift handed down from above. Like anything else, you start out rather shakily and grow more accomplished as you go along. The more you write, the better you get.

The biggest mistake a lot of freelancers make is trying to operate in a vacuum. I’d suggest finding another writer with whom you’re compatible and agree to read each other’s work before it goes out – not as a critic, but simply as a reader. This relationship would, however, have to be based on honesty. Perhaps we could generate some of these “pairings” via this blog.

3. Statement: There’s nobody out there to write for.

Antidote: The fact is, there has never been a better time to be a freelancer. Websites began to proliferate about 15 years ago and have been multiplying ever since, and all of them need content. Magazines have been shedding staff members, which means more freelance opportunities. Newspapers are in financial trouble (which doesn’t make me happy, since I work for one), and they, too, are beginning to look to the freelance market. Readers, meanwhile, are more plentiful than ever.

4. Statement: I don’t have time.

Antidote: Sure, you do. Again, the trick is to query ideas instead of laboriously cranking out finished pieces that stand a better chance of being rejected. Most editors aren’t going to ask for your article tomorrow – line up your “ducks” in advance, and be ready to round them up when you need them. It’s amazing how much time you’ll find to write something when you know there’s a check waiting at the end of the rainbow.

5. Statement: You can’t make any money freelancing.

Antidote: Yes you can – but you have to be flexible in your thinking. Sending queries to Smithsonian, Atlantic Monthly and Vogue and waiting impatiently for a response is not the way to go (although there’s nothing wrong with aiming high). The world is full of smaller markets, not to mention editing, proofreading and other writing-related jobs. Think volume, and keep lots of lines in the water.

Making money as a full-time freelancer isn’t easy – you have to put in as much time, and probably more, than you did at the job you discarded. But it can also provide a wonderful supplement to a “day job,” or the regular income of your spouse or partner.

6. Statement: I can’t think of anything to write about.

Antidote: Keep your eyes open as you drive around your community. Be alert to story ideas that spring from conversations with other people. Read your local newspaper and watch your local TV newscasts. If you go on vacation to some interesting place, you don’t have to spoil it by “working” – just take a few notes to follow up on when you get back. Find something that interests you and become an expert in it.

7. Why should anyone care what I have to say?

Antidote: Because no one else can say it quite the way you can. No one else has your precise combination of genes, ethnicity, philosophy, childhood, education, life experience and geographic location, and no one else ever will. No one else has lived your life. You are one of a kind.

No comments: