Monday, August 16, 2010

Frustrations, and possible solutions

Last week, I asked for insights into the current frustrations facing freelance writers. One Writers' Bridge member, Marilyn Noble, put it very well -- therefore, I'm posting her thoughts here, along with some comments and possible solutions.

Darrell, thanks for the nudge. I think freelancing has become markedly more difficult since I started more than a decade ago. I'm seeing challenges in several areas: Getting paid -- While there are many more markets now than there used to be, the vast majority of the...m pay so little that you can't make a living writing for them. The magazines that will pay a buck a word are few and far between, and a good number of those have seen their page counts shrink with the economy so they buy fewer articles. Magazines demand more rights than they used to and tend to pay later (after publication rather than on acceptance), making cash flow management tricky. Competition -- There are many more people freelancing than there used to be. So many journalists have been laid off and can't find jobs, and many of them have turned to freelancing. And then there are plenty of hobby writers who are willing to write for next to nothing or worse just to see their names in print. Quality -- Many markets, especially on-line, are willing to print almost anything, and they pay so little that they get inferior work from people who are either lazy or don't know better. Content mills seem to be driving this trend. So if you're a professional writer who spends time on research and lots of rewrites before you submit your work, your hourly rate is below the poverty level, while those who can slam out 300-word, semi-literate but optimized blog posts can at least make pocket change while they keep their day jobs. I guess what it boils down to is that good writers and good writing are no longer as valued as they used to be. I'm usually pretty upbeat and optimistic about the world, but I think this is a sad situation for those of us who are professionals. I don't know many writers any more who make a living solely from freelance work -- everybody is taking on whatever projects will pay the bills. A friend of mine calls this "giganomics" -- having to do lots of different gigs to make a living. So that's my take on things. What is everybody else experiencing?

A few thoughts ...

Alas, there's nothing any of us can do about the "content mills" that pay $10 an article. A lot of this is obviously exploitation, but I also know some of the folks in that business who can't afford to pay any more. And while some writers will take those jobs, no one is forcing you to be one of them. Getting mad about it is just a waste of energy.

So how do we, as experienced writers, go about standing out in the crowd with the higher-paying markets? And how can The Writers' Bridge help? I have a few long-term ideas ...

1. I would like to finish building a bridge to the other side, meaning the editors and publishers of magazines, newspapers and Websites. What TWB can do, ultimately, is provide a collective credibility. If we can guarantee as a group that articles will be written as agreed upon, submitted on time, and completely free of typos and grammatical errors, we can break through te natural reluctance of editors to use writers with whom they are unfamiliar. Every success story needs to have a matching validation from that customer. Eventually, word will get around.

Of course, how to build that bridge remains an issue. These days, there is often a "cyber-moat" around the castles of media, and one never knows if a pitch or a query or an invitation ever gets to the right person. It may take personal visits or attendance at editors' conferences, and I'm willing to do that.

2. We need to build our membership. This is obviously essential for me, since that's what pays our bills. But it's also essential for the group as a whole. The more writers we have, in more places, the more chances we have of coming across unique stories that will sell.

3. My goal is to start up at least one magazine, with TWB members as the contributors.

Any other suggestions would be welcomed. My primary reason for asking for freelance problems is to open the door for freelance solutions.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Five qualities all freelancers need

1. MOTIVATION. It's easy for freelancing to slip to the bottom of your to-do list, especially if you don't have any clients at the moment. Your "day job," your family (or your dog or cat) and the necessary rituals of living all all conspire to claim your attention and time. These responsibilities are immediate and obvious; freelancing is not. What harm will it do if you wait until Thursday to write that query you were going to produce on Tuesday? And when Thursday arrives, why not Monday?

Somehow, from somewhere, you have to dredge up the motivation to advance your freelancing career. Sit down with your partner and/or family and enlist their aid in carving out some quiet writing space each week without neglecting your other duties. If you ask them, they will probably offer support.

When you think about it, it's a lot like finding time for daily workouts or adhering to a diet. The advantages are down the road, but they are no less real.

PATIENCE. For every 100 writers who try to earn a living (or even a second income) at freelancing, I would estimate that 80 percent fall away from lack of patience. I often employ a fishing analogy -- sometimes the fish (or the clients) are biting, and sometimes no bait seems to work. Often, the first market you query isn't interested. At such times, I would invoke a line from a Jimmy Buffett song: "Breathe in, breathe out, move on."

It also helps to distance yourself somewhat from your efforts. Send out as many queries as you can, then forget about them. The worst thing you can do is pitch one major market, then sit and wait for a response that may never come.

CURIOSITY. I would list that as the No. 1 quality for any writer. If you are blessed with that, you will rarely run out of ideas. Every waking hour of your life, you'll be surrounded by them.

FLEXIBILITY. Things rarely turn out the way you envision in freelancing. The market that you've decided is perfect for one of your ideas doesn't feel the same way. On the other hand, a throwaway query for which you had no hope bears fruit. An editor sends you an e-mail asking you to rewrite an article completely. That source you really needed at the last minute is on vacation without a cell phone.

It's always good to have a plan, but realize that plans must always be fluid.

CONFIDENCE. This is perhaps the hardest quality to muster for a freelancer, because there are so many reasons to be discouraged. Even established writers often suffer from a lack of faith -- no matter how much you've achieved, you're only as good as your last project.

Writers, then, most learn not only to like themselves, but what they write. Even more importantly, they need to arrive at the sober realization that any creative endeavor is prone to subjectivity.

How many times have you confidently recommended a movie or a book to a friend, only to have them come back later with: "You know, I really didn't like that at all"?

Not everyone is going to applaud or approve of what you produce, no matter what it is.
Leave the back door open for criticism, because some of it may make you better, but know that different opinions are what make the world interesting.

Let me offer another scrap of song lyric, this one from "Garden Party," by the late Ricky Nelson.

"But it's all right now; I've learned my lesson well. You know you can't please everyone, so you've got to please yourself."

Bookmark that.