by Abbey Cleland
The life of the freelance writer-for-hire is not a glamorous one, even if you write for glamorous people. Have you ever seen a billboard featuring Shane Halter’s face? Would you spend a week’s pay for Shane Halter’s rookie card? Probably not because chances are you’ve never even heard of the guy.
You’ve probably never heard of Shane Halter because he is a utility player. And not just any utility player, but the go-to, “we can depend on you” utility player for my favorite baseball team, the Detroit Tigers, from 2000 to 2003. In fact, on October 1st of 2000, Shane Halter played all nine positions in one single game—the fourth in history to do so— and still you’ve never heard of him. How unfair is that?
See, in our society, we don’t like to hunt about to determine who deserves recognition. No, we like it to hit us in the face, or in this case, we like the ball they hit to hit us in the mitt, should our mitt be four hundred feet from home plate. After middle school, few trophies go to the player who’s most well-rounded. When was the last time your boss patted you on the back for your charming versatility? Probably never. Because you are an adult now, and adults specialize.
Well, specialization means death if you’re new to the world of freelance writing. In order to survive as a new freelance writer you cannot hit a homerun once every ten at-bats. You just need to get on base every time, and the way you get on base is by saying, “Yes I can write that,” even if it means you go home and frantically Google: “Angstrom compensation pyrheliometer” (which I learned quite a lot about during one assignment).
Simply, freelancers are the writing world’s utility ballplayers. We must have the “can-do” attitude of a Marine and the heart of Notre Dame’s Rudy. We must be impeccably punctual and fiercely self-disciplined, for our livelihood depends on it. Most importantly, we must be style chameleons, able to articulate ideas in every tone from clinical to flirtatious, and snap between these settings with the grace of a seasoned short stop.
Now maybe you’re thinking, “Okay, I can do this. I can be versatile. I’ve got the discipline. Put me in, Coach.” Great, glad to have you. But how do you go from the bench to the freelance field? And how do you ensure you stay a key player? (Sidebar: I promise, [probably, hopefully] no more baseball analogies.)
Here’s your mission:
1. Create a killer portfolio.
While you may feel pressured to create a portfolio that is pigeon-hole-proof, meaning it wouldn’t fix you into any one niche, genre, or medium, you should feel comforted that the grand versatility you must possess does not need to be initially presented in your portfolio. For example, my first official writer-for-hire assignment was to adapt two binders packed with interviews and notes in prose and bullet-point form into a feature-length biopic screenplay. The subject was a real-life ’60s jazz prodigy conman who, when he wasn’t playing brilliant jazz, spent most of his time in jail, or buying, selling, and using heavy drugs (which warranted his return to jail). At the time, I was marketing myself as a children’s writer, toting around an educational TV show pilot and pitch bible that would never be produced (if you’re interested, give me a call; my mom and I still think it’s quite clever). For some reason I may never understand, an independent producer read my children’s work and thought I may be a good fit to write this racy biopic. Since then, I have secured several other jobs using both the biopic feature and the children’s educational TV show as writing samples, and hence learned this valuable, albeit obvious, lesson: good writing is good writing. This lesson yields another valuable, albeit obvious, lesson: good writers are good writers. So, if you hope to secure jobs writing grants, manuals, dissertations, business plans, screenplays, treatments, poems, and editorials, you needn’t spend three years developing sample content for each niche. Simply write a few exceptional pieces and be convincing (through the confidence and composure you project in the interview) when you say, “Yes, I can write that.”
2. Tap into the invisible resources around you.
In each of our daily lives (think dinner parties, the hair salon, charity events, PTA meetings), we encounter people who at some point need to write, but do not know how or just do not have the time. While trying to avoid morphing into some shameless self-promoter, acknowledge the quiet opportunities around you, especially while you’re building your client base. Maybe you’re waiting to hear back regarding a slew of submissions you sent to your dream publications, or maybe you need a little extra cash. You truly never know when one of these random “side projects” may grow to be your bread and butter, or a one-time-only jackpot. Once, purely by mentioning a ghostwriting anecdote at a holiday mixer, I was connected to an aging multi-millionaire who hoped to have his personal biography penned quickly. This casual conversation led to one of my most fascinating and lucrative gigs to date.
In that same respect, once you secure a job out of your realm of expertise (which, chances are, if you’re good, should happen quite often), tap into your friends, family members, and colleagues as resources. Everyone likes to feel like an expert at something, and I assure you, most will welcome providing you with some insight into your topic du jour. That leads us nicely into our next task:
3. Research like your life depends on it (because it sort of does).
It can be difficult to sound convincing all of the time, right? In a single week, you may have to critique a red wine reduction sauce, write a retirement center’s brochure, and polish a TV repair manual. But what if you’re a thirty-something technologically challenged wine neophyte? Research. Research. Research. (And thank your lucky stars that Al Gore invented the Internet.)
4. Always appear to be in high demand.
Now, we don’t have to get crazy with this one. No need to answer your cell pretending to be your fictitious, over-worked assistant, but number four should not go overlooked, either. No one wants to hire anyone who seems too eager for the work. If the potential client, publication, or employer discovers you are always available, they may assume others don’t acknowledge your talent. This won’t work in your favor, especially when you’re just starting out. Also, on this note, should you maintain a “day job” while dipping into the freelance marketplace, it’s best not to share this with the potential employer. If you expect to be paid professionally, then you must appear to be pursuing this as your primary profession. (Note: Some feel “freelance” is synonymous with “part time.” This is a dangerous misinterpretation. “Freelance” simply means that you work for different companies at different times rather than being permanently employed by one company. To avoid confusion, I have come to refer to myself as a “full-time freelance writer.”)
5. Always appear happy to write a variety of content in a variety of media.
No one likes to hear the prom queen complain about being asked to the dance by too many fellows, right? Doesn’t exactly inspire sympathy. Some will find your freelance writing life to be a glamorous, creative way to make a living, and, as mentioned earlier, it is not. Not at all. So keep the whining about “today I have to write about this,” and “tomorrow I have to write about that,” to yourself. Your friends and family members won’t want to hear it, and your potential employers definitely won’t. Vent to your writer friends. We are your tribe, and we know what’s really “behind the curtain”: sweat, blood, pulled hair, vats of coffee, etc.
We get that sometimes upon hitting the final “send” button, you’ll fight a tear, as you’ll regret having to say goodbye to a topic that you enjoyed exploring so very much. We get that other times, you’ll be forced to create incentives to fulfill the pettiest interim deadlines. At those moments, it doesn’t matter that you can work in your pajamas. The assignment is miserable, which means your little writer life is miserable. Just yesterday I said aloud to myself: “Two more pages and you get to watch <em>Downton Abbey</em> and eat half a sleeve of Girl Scout Samoas.” Do what you have to do (within reasonable means) to complete both your favorite and most dreaded gigs, and always keep in mind that, either way, they come and they go.
6. Never short-change yourself.
Most successful writers will admit that writing has always come somewhat naturally to them. It’s understandable that one could feel uncomfortable monetizing what comes naturally. To make matters worse, by and large, we writers are a brittle, highly opinionated, highly insecure lot—a population predisposed to self-scrutiny. It may feel funny to demand $100+ an hour. For heftier, more complex and more time-consuming projects you may even have to propose some serious flat compensation figures. I’m telling you now, do yourself a favor and get over any reluctance immediately. Most people cannot write, though they can acknowledge when something is poorly written, and then there’s a whole population of others who can write well but simply don’t have the time. If relevant, don’t balk at mentioning in your pitch that the potential employer could probably do a fine job tackling the writing of the project herself but that her time would surely be better spent focusing on different aspects of the business. This way, you acknowledge her intelligence, while emphasizing the time-consuming nature of the work—double win for you, especially if you charge by the hour.
Years ago, a friend of mine demanded to know my base pay. She flinched when I told her $80 an hour. “What are you, a frickin’ neurosurgeon?” she said. (She’s not my best friend.) Two distinctions must be made, and I hope you find this comforting: 1. Unlike neurosurgeons, at slow times freelance writers may work just five hours a week. And, more importantly, 2. Like neurosurgeons, the freelance writer is a high demand professional who provides a unique, rare skill, oftentimes with very short notice. Value yourself, value your skill, and don’t work for anyone who doesn’t.
So, should you create that killer portfolio, tap into the invisible resources around you, research like mad, appear busy and happy, and demand you remain valued all the while, I think it’s fair to say you’re doing everything in your power to excel in the wild freelance marketplace. Just remember to keep the phrase, “Yes, I can write that,” on the tip of your tongue, and who knows, maybe you’ll end up like unsung utility ballplayer Shane Halter, doing what you love from all different angles in the field. Would that really be so bad?