Freelance Writing For A Living--An Interview
May 4, 2008
My niece, Kallen, who I think is 14, called me today to ask if she could interview me for a career-day project for school. She e-mailed me the questions and I answered them and asked her if it would be okay to post them on my blog here. She said yes, so here's the interview.
In my particular case, I'm a full-time freelance writer and editor. I have a couple of regular clients--I'm the editor of a technical journal that comes out four times a year, for instance. I write for one or two magazines regularly--Podiatry Management and Bankrate.com--but the bulk of my work at the moment involves market research reports, which are often almost book-length. I'm contracted to write one this year called the Laboratory Industry Strategic Outlook 2009 and it will be over 200 pages when I'm done. So part of what I do for that is read a lot about the clinical laboratory industry, read company annual reports, research government databases and write about them. They also conduct surveys of people in the industry and I organize those responses and incorporate it into the report. For magazine work I typically will pitch an editor a story idea--sometimes they pitch me ideas--and then I interview experts on the subject and write the story. So a writer's life comes down to: think up ideas, pitch ideas, interview people, write the story. There's a business aspect to it as well--sending out invoices, keeping track of records, taking checks to the bank, paying taxes, looking for new clients, that sort of thing. I'm also a novelist, at least from time to time, so I spend part of my writing day working on a novel. When I have one published, there's some involvement in marketing--book signings, sending out mailings, etc.
It's both, although for me freelance writing is also a career because I love doing it. It's a job, because some days you'd rather just go to the beach, no matter how much you love it. I worked in a genetics lab for a long time and I never thought of it as a career--it was just a job. So my definition of a career is more than something you do for money, but something you also enjoy and find rewarding.
Uh, so I make money and pay bills. I think there's value in work, though, in doing something because it needs to be done and you can do it. I like to think that if I suddenly received millions of dollars, I'd continue to write and work simply because I enjoyed doing it and got something besides money out of it. Part of that is how you define yourself. Are you a musician, a writer, an artist, a doctor, a lawyer? That may be how you define yourself, who you are, versus just something you do to make money.
My situation is different. When I went to college I earned a B.Sc. degree in microbiology & public health. I spent 18 years working in a genetics lab. But in my senior year in college I discovered I wanted to be a writer--specifically a novelist. So I started writing, found out I enjoyed it. Had I started writing nonfiction, magazine articles and the like, earlier, I probably would have gone into writing earlier. The skills needed for writing novels and writing magazine articles and such are similar, but there's a bigger market for nonfiction writing and in most cases, it pays better.
Here's the funny thing. The answer to this is: none and all of them. I didn't do any writing on my jobs. But most of the writing I do now revolves around the business of the clinical laboratory industry. Not all of it. I've written about doggy daycare and genetics and government regulation and plumbing and electricians and all sorts of other odd topics. One of the things that's true about freelance writing for a living is it's helpful to have something to write about--some kind of expertise, like business or computers or healthcare. You don't have to, but it gives you a little bit of an edge.
That's kind of hard to say. If you go and write for a newspaper, the pay's not all that great and it would depend on the size and type of newspaper. A small daily newspaper like you probably have in Bluffton might pay their reporters (who probably acts as editor, graphic artist and salesperson and is probably on-call 24/7) to start off in the high $20,000 range to mid-$30,000 range. A bigger newspaper, something like The New York Times, might double that (maybe). Freelancers like myself, it varies a lot. I know freelancers who make about $40,000 a year and I know freelancers that make $120,000 a year. I'm in between. A lot of that depends on your experience, the types of writing you do because some types of writing and some publications pay a lot better than others, and how hard you are willing to work. I would also emphasize that there are a lot of different ways to make a living as a writer--writing for newspapers, magazines, websites, professional blogging, public relations companies, advertising agencies... even that thing we call junk mail is written by somebody (and they call it "direct marketing"), and even for freelancers like myself there are areas like technical writing and trade magazines and travel writing and business writing. Just think of every place you see some writing--some professional writer probably wrote it.
Almost all of them, because you never know what you're going to end up writing about. The easy answer is Advanced Composition and Creative Writing, but I'm not really sure that's the true story. The best thing to prepare you for a writing job is to write and to read. My music education taught me a lot about grinding away at things until they're ready, at how important it is to work on things every day, how setting goals is important. Learning the importance of deadlines--in any subject--is important to success as a writer. Being dependable is important. Curiosity about a broad range of subjects (at least while you're writing about them) is important.
I've been a full-time freelance writer for 3-1/2 years. My first paid-to-be-published piece was in 1993. I wrote part-time for a long time before deciding to go full-time, so in that respect I worked my way up. When I broke into some higher-paying markets and spent more and more time on the nonfiction instead of the fiction, that's when it all seemed do-able.
Now you're asking about philosophy. I'm not sure my 18 years in genetics were wasted. I'm not ready to go back and change things, but I definitely would have benefited back in my 20's or so had I met a full-time freelance writer, just so I knew it was possible. And don't forget, I started out writing about genetics and still do. For a writer, everything goes into the "experience bin" that you draw on in writing, no matter if it's fiction or nonfiction.
I decided when I was 21 or 22 that I wanted to be a writer. It was the summer between my junior and senior years in college. I read an essay written by Stephen King called something like, "The Making Of A Brand Name" and the big take-away message in it was that a writer wasn't necessarily created in a writing program or a school somewhere. A writer writes. There's no real school for novelists (there are creative writing programs, but there's no guarantee you'll become a novelist by taking part in one), just people who write their stories and submit them to publishers. And so I tried it and decided I loved it. It's been an odd, convoluted journey for me, but that's okay, it gives me a lot of different things to write about.
Leaving the hospital I worked at to write full-time. October 20, 2004. I'm pretty sure your Dad and Aunt Beth thought I was crazy and having a mid-life crisis. I've had lots of high points since then, but that was pretty special.
I get to do what I love to do and I get paid pretty well to do it and I don't have a boss standing behind me looking over my shoulder telling me how I should do it.
One of the "joys" of being a freelance writer is not all clients pay you in a timely fashion, so you sometimes have to nag and nag to get them to pay you. It's annoying, but it's part of the business.
Pretty much the same thing. I'd like more (or all) of my income to come from writing fiction or nonfiction books, but I'll be happy doing what I'm doing.
First, if you don't like to write, don't consider it. You don't have to be a "great" writer (whatever that is) in order to make a living as a writer, but it should be something that comes fairly easy to you. You should be comfortable with grammar and spelling and putting words down. Write a lot. Read a lot. Read a lot of different things. Read novels and magazine articles and newspapers and everything in between. Occasionally read magazine articles or blog articles about subjects you've never heard of before or think you're not interested in, because you might learn something and you might find you like it more than you thought you did. I think one of the more important things a freelance writer needs is a kind of general curiosity. I'm not particularly interested in plumbing or electricians or, for that matter, government regulation of the healthcare industry. But while I'm working on those articles, I'm VERY interested in those subjects. It really helps if you can get away from the attitude that "oh, this is boring I don't want to write about it" to "everything is interesting to someone at some level, so I need to be interested in it so I can share it with the people interested in it."
Think of the bills I need to pay or the new toy--kayak, iPhone, MacBook, trip somewhere--that I want. That's helpful. In a lot of ways I don't believe in writer's block. Like the Nike commercials, I think you need to "Just Do It." When I have so-called writer's block, it usually means I'm too worried about something else, like whether a piece of fiction will sell or I haven't done enough research or I'm intimidated by the subject. But writing isn't necessarily any different from say, a plumber or a teacher or a football player--just because you don't feel like working doesn't mean you don't. In that respect, it's a job and I just do it.
Well, I did something else for a long time and wasn't really happy doing it. So I'm happy to be doing what I'm doing. That said, there are days when the work doesn't go smoothly or the check didn't come when I wanted it to that I might think, "Oh, I wish I were a guitar teacher" or "I wish I was a professional surfer" or "It would be nice to own a little surf shop on a beach somewhere." But no, mostly I'm just happy doing what I'm doing. And I think I would have a lot of problems going back to working in an office with a boss watching me.