Many of you are growing as writers and seek opportunities beyond your blog. To continue this conversation, let’s talk about freelancing and getting paid to write, and the flip side of this: writing for free and exposure.
If you’d like, jump to a section within this post:
- Breaking down a typical day as a professional writer.
- Dividing time between paid and unpaid writing.
- On writing for free.
- Advice for writers thinking about writing for exposure.
- Freelance writing resources.
Many of you are growing as writers and seek opportunities beyond your blog. To continue this conversation, let’s talk about freelancing and getting paid to write, and the flip side of this: writing for free and exposure. We’ve rounded up four working writers who offer different perspectives on the business of writing:
- Julie Schwietert Collazo, a bilingual writer/editor who has written for publications such as National Geographic Traveler and Scientific American, blogs at Cuaderno Inedito.
- Caitlin Kelly, a National Magazine Award winner and frequent contributor to the New York Times, blogs at Broadside.
- Kristen Hansen Brakeman, a writer who has contributed to the Washington Post and the New York Times‘ Motherlode, blogs at KristenBrakeman.com.
- Deborah Lee Luskin, an award-winning novelist and radio commentator, blogs at Live to Write — Write to Live: a collaborative blog for the New Hampshire Writers’ Network.
Give us a breakdown of your typical day.
Julie: There’s never really a “typical” day, which is one of the reasons why I love being a writer. I have several assignments I’m working on simultaneously, and each demands a different set of skills or has different requirements. One might involve conducting a phone interview; another may involve extensive reading for research purposes. Ultimately, it involves spending a lot of time at the computer.
I get to exercise control over the shape and form of my days. I have two children, and I appreciate having a job that allows me to do what I love (write) and be a parent who is fully involved in their lives and with them all the time.
Caitlin: Every day is different. I start by reading the New York Times. I listen to BBC World News or two great WNYC radio shows, The Brian Lehrer Show and The Leonard Lopate Show, from which I get story ideas and learn about the world.
I start work by 10:00 am — I’m not a morning person! If I’m working on a story, and usually several at once, I’m seeking sources, conducting interviews, writing, reading, or revising the pieces and answering questions from my editors.
Setting boundaries between work and the rest of my life allows me to come back to it refreshed and recharged.
— Caitlin Kelly
Like most working writers, I spend a lot of time marketing my skills to new clients and checking in with former ones to see if they can use me again. I research story ideas to gather enough detail to pitch them. I pitch ideas to editors and check in on earlier pitches. I also work on longer-term projects, like ideas for nonfiction books, fellowships, and travel.
I end my workday by 4:00 or 5:00 pm and turn off the computer. Setting boundaries between work and the rest of my life allows me to come back to it refreshed and recharged.
Kristen: Oh no, here’s where the truth comes out. If I’m lucky, I’ll have showered and restored order to my house by 10:00 am and then, if I can find nothing else I “need” to do, I’ll sit down at the computer and start writing. I work on essays or on a script I’ve been rewriting for years — one that I probably should’ve let die a peaceful death — and I take time-outs to check Facebook and Twitter and read the headlines. These breaks help me stay current, and doing self-promotion on social media is work.
Deborah: I get to my desk by 8:00 am, and I start with NAMS: I narrate the state of my mind onto the page, followed by affirmations. Then I meditate, at which point my mind is clear and still for a Single Task, which these days means working on my novel, Ellen: The Autobiography of Jane Austen by Ellen Wasserman.
I work on my novel till lunch. Ideally, after lunch I go on a walk, then return to my desk to write radio commentaries, editorials, or other paying work. In reality, I often run errands, attend meetings, and do chores.
Right now, I’m in that sweet spot where I’m finishing a novel, and I often return to it in the afternoons.
How do you divide your time between paid and unpaid writing?
Julie: This “balance,” such as it is, shifts, but generally the unpaid writing takes a back seat. I have lots of blog post drafts and they’re about topics that interest me and that I think are important, but I have to give priority to editors and publishers who are paying for work to be delivered on deadline.
Caitlin: It’s all one big messy pile of work: some paid, some for my own use. I write a blog post or two in the middle of a workday as a break; I always have at least three or four revised, copy-edited, and ready to publish.
I don’t really do any “personal writing.” I focus on earning income — I live near New York City and our costs, and taxes, are high. I don’t have “passion projects” either. I find a way to fund something that intrigues me, or I set it aside until I can. The only unpaid work I do is my volunteer work for the Writers Emergency Assistance Fund, and my book proposals.
I have to give priority to editors and publishers who are paying for work to be delivered on deadline.
— Julie Schwietert Collazo
Kristen: I’ve only been paid for a handful of articles, and because I work freelance at an actual paying job and have a supportive husband who also works, I have the luxury of writing without the pressure of immediately needing to make money.
I divide my time by spending a week or two on long-term projects, like polishing my screenplay or book, and then spend the next week on writing essays or blog posts. I’m hopeful that this approach will eventually pay off in buckets of gold.
Deborah: Writing fiction comes first, even though it doesn’t pay — yet. I do my pen-for-hire work in the afternoon.
When I was more concerned with income than I am now, I was lucky and found freelancing jobs through networking. It helped that I had three salable skills: good writing ability, research skills, and medical knowledge. I did a lot of technical writing for major medical centers that was both interesting and lucrative. Now, jobs come to me, and I only take those that both interest me and pay well.
What’s your take on writing for free?
Julie: I’m not an advocate of writing for free. Most outlets who want writers to write for free (I’m looking at you, Huffington Post) have money to provide some form of remuneration for the service they’re seeking, and they’re making money off of the writing they’re not paying for.
The write-for-free model establishes a precedent that isn’t encouraging for those of us who want to write and get paid (namely, that both publishers and readers start getting accustomed to not having to pay for work). It ultimately devalues words — literally.
Caitlin: A few thoughts:
- If your work is truly excellent, people will pay you for it. If it’s not market-ready, do everything necessary to improve it.
- If you give your skills away, do so for a cause you believe in, not just some cheap-o profit-making enterprise.
- Giving your skills away to a for-profit enterprise devalues the notion of skill. And if you keep doing it, what effect is that having on your self-confidence — and your bank balance?
- If someone is unwilling to pay you for your work — even $25 as a token fee — what value, really, do they see in it? If they’re running any sort of business, they’re already paying cash for their electricity, groceries, and venti skim lattes. In the real economy, we use money.
I blog for free because I’m passionate about writing…and because it ultimately builds an audience for when my next novel comes out.
— Deborah Lee Luskin
Kristen: Writing for free is one of the many evils in today’s world. There was a piece in the New York Times by Tim Kreider, where he made the case that writers should insist on getting paid. It made sense for established writers, but wasn’t practical advice for unknowns in today’s internet-dominated world. As I said in my piece in the Huffington Post, “Why I Write for Free,” literary agents and publishers want you to have a huge internet following before they’re willing to take a chance on you. If you’re not a celebrity or well-known, you have to build an audience, and often the only way to do this is to write for free.
Deborah: I’m a great believer in “Do what you love and the money will follow.” I’m a novelist, and my first novel won both critical acclaim and an award. I hope my next novel will earn money. Currently, I earn money by writing nonfiction and taking on private clients for developmental editing. I used to teach, but I’ve decided I’d rather have time to write than money. In a world where income is our default measure of success, this can be difficult.
That said, I blog for free because I’m passionate about writing; because it connects me to a community of writers; and because it ultimately builds an audience for when my next novel comes out. I also write for nonprofits I support, which beats baking brownies for bake sales: fewer calories, larger audience, and best of all — it keeps me at my desk.
What’s one piece of advice for writers thinking about “writing for exposure”?
Julie: If you get in the habit of “writing for exposure” early, then you’ll find ways to justify writing for exposure regularly. Write on your own blog if you want to write and develop your “brand” or identity for yourself…rather than someone else.
Caitlin: Don’t ever assume that “exposure” will bring you more work, more paid work, or greater respect for your skills when you ask for money next time.
Ask them: exposure to whom, how many of them, and for how long? Is this really your best audience or target market?
What value will this unpaid “exposure” bring you right now? Not in some gauzy, indefinite future. This week. What do you really hope this “exposure” will accomplish?
I’d say do it rarely and only for clearly defined strategic reasons — like getting your name, work, and ideas before a very large audience of specific clients or thought leaders you can’t reach any other way. (Really? Are you sure?)
Writers can’t be hermits anymore, waiting for someone to discover them.
— Kristen Hansen Brakeman
Kristen: It might be one of those things you have to do. Writers can’t be hermits anymore, waiting for someone to discover them. Sometimes I write things that are a little more straight just so I can get them published in mainstream news outlets. They’re not always my favorite pieces, but agents and publishers want to see those big credits. Even writing guest posts on smaller blogs can build your audience.
Deborah: I once met a writer who aimed to receive one hundred rejections in a year. In the process, he received eight acceptances.
Digital and self-publishing have made it so easy to publish that I think a lot of good writing never happens: new writers are impatient to see something in print and what goes out isn’t really finished. I think writing for peers is the first step, and then letters to the editor, guest posts, and newsletters are a good way to move forward. It’s important to distinguish between being published and being read.
Freelance writing resources
Recommendations on the business of writing, from our roundtable of writers:
- American Society of Journalists and Authors
- Freelance Folder
- Freelance Cafe
- Dollars and Deadlines (Kelly James-Enger)
- Roy Peter Clark (@RoyPeterClark on Twitter)
- Linda Formichelli (@LFormichelli on Twitter)
- Thinking Like Your Editor (for nonfiction authors)
- Bird By Bird (Deborah Lee Luskin’s review)
- Writing to Change the World (Deborah Lee Luskin’s review)
- Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents
- Freelancers Union
- Media Bistro’s Avant Guild membership (especially its How to Pitch service)
About Julie Schwietert Collazo
Julie is a bilingual writer/editor who has written for a variety of publications, including National Geographic Traveler, DISCOVER, Scientific American, MS., and others. She is the author of Pope Francis in His Own Words and is the author of the forthcoming Moon Guide to New York State. Follow Julie on Twitter at @collazoprojects.
About Caitlin Kelly
Caitlin frequently writes for the New York Times, and has also written for Ladies Home Journal, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, Smithsonian, and more. Winner of a Canadian National Magazine Award, she’s a former reporter for the Globe and Mail, Montreal Gazette, and New York Daily News. Follow Caitlin on Twitter at @CaitlinKellyNYC.
About Kristen Hansen Brakeman
Kristen Hansen Brakeman has had essays in the Huffington Post, the New York Times Motherlode, the Washington Post, Working Mother magazine, and LA Parent, among others. She works behind-the-scenes on TV variety shows like the Screen Actors Guild Awards, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Comedy Central Roasts. Follow Kristen on Twitter at @SandwichGenMom or on Facebook.
About Deborah Lee Luskin
Deborah Lee Luskin is a commentator for Vermont Public Radio and the award-winning novelist of Into the Wilderness. She a writer by vocation and a Vermonter by choice. Learn more at deborahleeluskin.com. Follow Deborah on Facebook.