Words that stuck with me
advice from 23 writers and editors
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Hi writer friends,
About nine months ago, I started this newsletter for you. I wanted to write about writing and share opportunities in a format that would be helpful and inspiring to anyone who is looking for support in their freelance writing career. Because I know—it’s really tough out there.
But I also started it for me. I wanted a reason to reach out to fellow writers, to ask questions, commiserate, swap stories, share advice, and connect the dots between all of us who have so much to learn from each other.
I think that’s why the Q&As I’ve done through One More Question have been such a hit. (Thank you for all of the lovely feedback you’ve sent me about these!) Through these interviews, we’ve all glimpsed inside the lives of other writers and learned a little more about what works and what doesn’t. We’ve all had a chance to peer down the various paths of figuring-it-out.
As this very strange and challenging year winds down, I thought it would be interesting to take a look back at these Q&A’s and revisit some of the most helpful advice of 2020.
So here we are. 23 interviews. 23 writers and editors. So much for all of us to learn from each other. (And so many more of these to come in 2021!)
Writers share their best advice on making it work
1. Stick with that pitch.
“If you are passionate about a pitch, and maintain that over months or even years of rejection, there's almost certainly a good idea there, the stars just haven't aligned.” — Eleanor Cummins, freelance writer and creator of We’ll Have to Pass
2. “Expertise” is a moving target.
“I don’t really know that you ever know when you’re an expert. I would say that most of us are just trying our best—I don’t want to say “fake it till you make it,” but that’s kind of how I felt for most of my career.” — Emily Atkin, creator of Heated
3. Every freelancer needs multiple income streams.
“If you didn’t have multiple income streams before, I encourage writers to start building them now. Recessions, pandemics, personal life changes—these are all a part of a writer’s life, and being prepared for them will serve you not just now but for years to come.” — Natasha Khullar Relph, freelance writer and creator of The International Freelancer
4. Someone out there needs to read exactly what you’re writing.
“I might not have 100,000 followers or partnerships with major brands but every now and then, I get an email or message from someone who says what I wrote was just what they needed to hear. That's really what writing is about for me so I take it a day at a time even when it feels like no one is paying attention.” — Quinisha Jackson-Wright, freelance writer and creator of Money the Wright Way
5. There are so many ways to find good stories.
“Another approach that’s working really well for me lately, is coming up with a story that I’m not sure exists yet. I’ll wonder, like, wouldn’t it be cool if this were true? And then I go find out if it is.” — Rebecca Renner, freelance writer
6. When working with clients, charge according to value (not time!).
“If you can get the job done in an hour because you’re super efficient and have tremendous experience, why should you be paid less than an inexperienced copywriter who takes three hours to complete the same job, perhaps not as well as you? Also, I hate tracking hours. So I don’t do it. I prefer project fees that are driven by the client’s budget and the worth of the project in the client’s eyes.” — Bizzy Coy, freelance writer
7. Look for the stories behind solutions, not just problems.
“Telling those stories isn't just mining for “good news” -- it's reflecting the messy reality of modern life, where narratives are way more complex than the biggest headlines would make you think they are… Finding solutions journalism was like opening a window in a dark room. It feels like a way out of so many problems—not just media problems, but social problems. The stories we tell are so powerful, and learning to tell really good stories about what's working feels like gaining a superpower.” — Keren Landman, freelance writer and mentor at Solutions Journalism
8. Take risks. Keep pitching.
“Bravery is a muscle and you want to exercise it every so often. Whether that’s sending a pitch every day or every week. Exercising that bravery muscle is going to look different for all of us. Really just put yourself out there and over time that confidence builds.” — Wudan Yan, freelance writer and co-founder of The Writer’s Co-op
9. Don’t forget your audience.
“So often, even when writing pieces for magazines, I get in my own head and write what I want to write rather than thinking about what’s important for the reader to hear. Looking at writing backwards (as in through the eye of the public) is really helpful in maintaining perspective and creating thoughtful organization.” — Lisa Hoehn, freelance writer and founder of Profile Polish
10. Genuine curiosity and empathy go a long way.
“When reporters show genuine curiosity in something and empathy for the people doing it, I truly believe that comes across to others — to the sources who entrust you with their stories, and to the editors who commission them. In this industry, we think a lot about connections — and I can’t pretend that doesn’t matter (sadly, it does) — but showing that you are deeply invested can also go a long way in getting others to trust you with an assignment.” — Anne Babe, freelance writer
11. Look for financial advice that is specifically designed for freelancers.
“So much personal finance advice is targeted at people looking to get promoted and work a thousand side hustles. But creatives are already working a thousand side hustles! We don’t get promoted in traditional ways. AND our full-time job may not correspond at all with our actual career goals.” — Scarlett McCarthy, creator of Literally Broke
12. Less is so often more.
“Even the most experienced writers get bogged down by too many flowery descriptions. So much so that it comes off as inauthentic and forced. My mantra is to get to the point of your story with enough description to visually set the scenes, but not with too much description that it keeps derailing the reading experience along the way.” — Lọlá Ákínmádé Åkerström, freelance writer, photographer, and founder of Geotraveler Media
13. Always, always, always write it down.
“On one of my earliest trips as a professional writer, I had an experience that I thought was so intense I would never forget it, and so I didn't write down any notes about it. About a week later, after a week of immersive experiences, I couldn't for the world recall what that unforgettable experience was. That's when I learned that you always need to take notes, and so I always try to build time into my travel schedule so that I can just sit somewhere -- a cafe, a market, or just my room -- and write what's been happening to me and also what is happening in that moment, in that place, all around me. Later on, when I'm writing about that place and experience, these passages will be portals to the past.” — Don George, writer, editor, and writing instructor
14. Freelancing is hard. (But you can make it work.)
“I think it’s important not to sugarcoat the world of freelancing or discount a staff job – being freelance can be really tough financially and emotionally especially when you’re starting out. It’s really not all writing in your PJs. I’ve been freelance twice in my career, and there was a noticeable difference between the two. The first time round I didn’t really know what I was doing, and was just taking any shifts or work I could get. I was exhausted and not really producing anything I was proud of. This time around, I’d had time to get the lay of the land a bit more, and I know where my priorities are.” — Jem Collins, freelance writer and creator of Journo Resources
15. Pay attention to the news cycle—and be patient.
“After the 2016 presidential election in the United States, I had a couple of more light-hearted stories killed, and one editor told me specifically that they were clearing the decks to make way for coverage of the Trump administration. Three and a half years later, Trump is still president, but it wasn't very long before I started getting non-Trump stories assigned again. So I think part of the answer is just patience, and in this case, taking the time to listen and reflect.” — Eva Holland, freelance writer and author of Nerve: Adventures in the Science of Fear
16. Again…keep pitching!
“I’ve found that having multiple stories that you’re pitching out simultaneously is extremely helpful. If you’re putting all your eggs into one basket, so to speak, then it can be a bummer if it doesn’t pan out. I’d say about 25% of the story ideas I pitch out haven’t gotten placed somewhere, but I don’t find it frustrating because I almost always have another idea that I’m writing or developing.” — Ari Saperstein, freelance writer and radio producer.”
“Scare us. Write the thing that makes you say holy crap, no other human being has ever written this sentence and that scares you in a good way.” — M.M. Carrigan, founder and editor of Taco Bell Quarterly
18. Finding your voice takes time. Keep writing.
“My earliest writing flows like dried concrete. I was too self-conscious, too much of my ego screaming "BE IMPORTANT AND PROFOUND YET APPROACHABLE AND CLEVER AND HEY DON'T FORGET WITTY TOO." And then I wrote, and it was none of those things. But if you keep going, at some point you've put in enough hours to be able to stumble across your own voice, and then everything gets easier.” — Mike Sowden, freelance writer and creator of Fevered Mutterings
19. Feed the wallet AND the soul.
“I'm really glad I do both; as I often say, the content marketing feeds my wallet, and the journalism feeds my soul. Without one or the other, I don't think I could've made it as a freelancer for so long. As far as advice, I recommend finding a content marketing niche that pays well, like tech or finance or science. It needs to be something that not everybody understands.” Susan Shain, freelance writer and creator of Where to Pitch
20. We need more stories about the environment!
“Do you typically write about food and travel? There's a ton to explore in the food waste solutions, eating low on the food chain, zero-waste dining, human-powered outdoor adventure, plant-based restaurant-going, etc. Like writing about art? There's all manner of cool things visual artists and musicians are doing in this space, and I love think pieces that examine, say, the efficacy of activist art, or the concept of food sovereignty. Interested in technology and social media? Tell stories about the digital innovations that are supposed to help businesses and individuals become lean, green machines. And don't be shy about pitching stories in this space—if you're not a climate scientist, remember that you're also not being paid like a climate scientist, and that the changing climate and a number of other eco hot buttons affect all areas of our lives. (And good stories are how we hope to get people to latch onto the mission and better engage!)” — Katie O’Reilly, Editor at Sierra Magazine
21. Cultivate contacts.
Contacting non profits, community orgs, and other advocates has been the best way to reach hard to reach populations. They’re also great as potential future sources, so especially if there’s an area you want to continue covering, I’d definitely recommend that you cultivate these contacts. — Eileen Guo, reporter at MIT Technology Review
22. Surround yourself with success and inspiration.
“I always have the current issue cover and editor's page of Oregon Home framed behind me so I can remember that I am successful and I do know how to finish things! I am also very much into messaging through objects, so I have a curated book collection on a set of shelves, all writers whose work feeds my own. I also keep a pinboard with checklists of the projects I'm currently working on so I can stay on task.” — Emily Grosvenor, editor at Oregon Home Magazine
23. We need your stories.
“I keep thinking about the Soviet poet Anna Akhmatova…Friends helped her memorize her poems line by line and then she burned the hard copies so they wouldn't fall into the hands of the secret police. In this way she preserved her writing until it was safe, by relying on a collective consciousness in a time of collective trauma. That's why I think we need our writers now more than ever, too. We can bear witness for one another, and carry each other through this.” — Meghan O’Dea, editor at Lonely Planet
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I’m going to go eat some pie for breakfast now.