The Making of a Full-Time Freelancer, Part 2

This is the second of two posts recapping the last 20 months I spent working as a full-time freelance journalist—what worked, what didn’t, and what I’d suggest to others going down the same road. The first post is here.

The thought of sending pitches to an unimpressed editor may have given me the most sleepless nights, but it’s still only a small part of the freelance process. Most of your time will be spent doing two things: 1) actually writing, and 2) haggling over/worrying about/counting/realizing you don’t have enough money.

How to Get Paid

If there is one piece of advice I would give to freelancers (and young people in general), it’s this:

TALK WITH YOUR PEERS ABOUT MONEY—OPENLY AND CONSTANTLY.

This is rarely a comfortable conversation, because we’ve been taught to stigmatize these questions. But freelance journalism right now is a buyers’ market, and it’s easy for young people to get stiffed. The most egregious example is when outlets offer to pay a writer “in exposure.” If you must work for free, do it only as a favor to people you like and respect, and who don’t have a ton of institutional resources behind them. Other outlets will pay you, but at rock-bottom rates—watch out for those guys, too.

Before you negotiate a rate with your editor, do some research and talk to friends who have done similar work so that you can go into the conversation with a rough idea of what the going rate might be for a piece like yours. The most invaluable resource here is the Who Pays Writers blog and Twitter feed, the author of whom deserves a goddamn Nobel Prize. Susie Cagle, a freelance journalist based in Oakland, California, is also a must-follow on this beat.

General trends that I’ve found to be true:

  1. When you are starting out, expect to get paid by the piece, not by the word.
  2. A reported piece will take a lot more time and effort to write than an opinion piece, and therefore you ought to charge more for it — at least double what you’d ask for a non-reported piece of the same length, IMO. (Don’t back down on this point, or you’ll be on the hook for a whole lot of underpaid labor.)
  3. The corollary to trend 2 is that reported pieces are harder to successfully pitch than opinion pieces. This explains the abundance of shitty opinion writing, both in print and online, the rise of the thinkpiece as a major part of the media ecosystem, the number of outlets that are committed to aggregating stories, and so on. Reporting is expensive and time-consuming, and that’s just the way it is.
  4. Remember that you will pay self-employment tax at the end of the year. However much money you need to make a living, try to have a net income of about 20% more than that.
    4A. You should prepare for the possibility that paying your living expenses *plus* setting aside 20% for taxes will not be financially possible. At the end of last year, I knew I was going to owe the IRS a lot of money and was prepared to pay it, but I definitely didn’t break even once my bills were all paid.

And in the interest of practicing what I preach, here are some hard numbers. If you want specifics on who paid me what, shoot me an email and I’ll be happy to talk—seriously.

For straight op-eds, whether they were for fun, bloggy affairs or Very Serious Journalism Endeavors, I could make anywhere from $100 to $500 per piece, with both of those numbers being extreme outliers. When I got $100, I was willing to take a low rate because I really loved the outlet in question, thought the Web Editor there did a great job working with my articles, and knew that they were not exactly flush with cash. (Many outlets will tell you they simply aren’t able to pay you that much—sometimes this will be bullshit, but sometimes there’s truth to it. Use your instinct.)

For reported pieces, it depended on the intensity of the reporting involved, but I’ve netted anywhere from $200 for 800 words (in retrospect, I should have asked for more) to $700 for 1500 words of heavy reporting and interviewing. I should also note that I’ve written heavily reported, 2000+ word pieces that I’m confident could have fetched $1000 or more at established publications. Owing largely to the financial circumstances of the outlets that ran the pieces (I knew they were hard-up and/or had limited freelance budgets), I made in the $250-500 range for each piece.

The point of this isn’t to brag about how magnanimous I am, obviously—it’s to let you know that if a piece is long and detailed enough, many outlets will be happy to pay you a lot of money for it. Whether you want to sell an article to a scrappy web magazine with limited cash or an internationally recognized brand is a call only you can make, and IMO should be done on a case-by-case basis.

Me Write Pretty One Day

This is the part where I feel weirdest about giving advice, because writing is such a deeply personal act that I wouldn’t feel comfortable going all Strunk and White on you. Instead of prose style tips, then, some general thoughts I’ve gathered over the last 20 months about how to write, what to write about, and how to maintain your sanity in a brutally competitive industry.

  • Develop a beat, and stick to it. It took me several months before I realized that “Urban planning and millennials and politics and media and occasional jokes” wasn’t really a compelling personal brand. Narrowing my focus to city-planning issues and local politics benefitted my career in a number of ways: It put me in touch with a group of fellow journalists and wonks whose work I really respect. It allowed me to acquaint myself with the ins and outs of a particular cluster of issues, and become more confident talking about them. It gave me really great reporting opportunities by putting me in the middle of a field where there’s a lot going on at the moment. Being associated with a particular topic, I suspect, also made it easier for editors to approach me when they wanted to commission an article. The handful of times someone came to me and said “Would you like to write on this for us?” it was because I already had a track record writing on housing, gentrification, infrastructure, etc. And speaking of which…
  • Love your editors. There is seriously no substitute for knowing that your article is in capable hands. The more you can establish a consistent working relationship with someone, the better you’ll be able to craft a consistent voice yourself.
  • Pick up the phone. So many outlets now aggregate or repackage news that it’s easy to forget how important (and hard) the act of reporting is. My new year’s resolution for work was to include a piece of reporting or research in everything I wrote. I don’t think I’ve *totally* followed through, but I have no doubt that the “Report first, opine later” mindset has led me to produce consistently higher-quality writing.
  • Don’t be afraid to go long if you need to. A lot of editors and media critics make a great virtue of brevity. (Insert your own “snackable content” joke here.) Looking over what I think is my best work, I’d put it differently: Make your article as long as it needs to be, but no longer. Most of the time you won’t need 1000+ words to make your point. But on the rare occasion that you do, don’t apologize for it.
  • You are not the most interesting part of your story. Good writers who only write about themselves are not actually good writers.. Find other people, let them speak for themselves, and elevate their stories above your own.
  • Be generous with your time and network of contacts, especially when other freelancers are involved. I got pieces published because other people were willing to get coffee with me, make introductions, do favors they didn’t expect me to pay back, etc. Pulling up the ladder behind me would make me officially The Worst. (Caveat: Never send single-opt-in emails!)
  • The best articles are about things that actually happened, not about narratives, discourses, framing, or what we’re really talking about when we talk about x. Finding somebody who said something stupid on the internet is easy. Any one thing can feed into a narrative that posits some other thing if you massage the language enough, or write with enough bad faith. (#CancelDerrida) But to use an example from my own beat, what’s more useful: writing about how we should understand gentrification as a continuation of settler-colonialist discourse, or writing about actual poor people of color who are getting illegally evicted from their homes?
  • Twitter is useful for finding like-minded writers and staying informed on your topic of choice. Tweet about whatever you want, and follow whoever you want, but it’s just Twitter. You don’t owe any one issue, or any one person, your attention.
  • You will almost always have more work than time. Set clear boundaries for work/life balance, and follow them.

That’s all I’ve got. Would love to hear questions/comments/concerns/disagreements—every freelancer has a different story.

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