Journalist and podcaster Wudan Yan recently tweeted that she hit her target income for the year—by June. During a pandemic. I have to admit, my first reaction was…a little irritated? Like, how?! But once I reigned in the petulance, I felt grateful for her having shared that.
Because it’s possible to kick ass at freelance writing. Wudan is doing it. A lot of people are doing it. It’s not easy. But it’s possible.
So many of the conversations about freelance writing are centered on how hard it is and how little money is available and how editors never respond to our pitches. But Wudan’s transparency around success opens the door to conversation about possibilities. And she generously offers a ton of great advice on how to build that kind of success through The Writers’ Co-op, a podcast and “career handbook” she co-hosts with Jenni Gritters.
I was super excited to talk to Wudan about her approach to freelance writing, her podcast, how we can build more equitable communities in freelance journalism, and much more…
Wudan Yan on Confidence, Community, and Treating Your Work Like A Business
At our core we’re all artists, but we have to present ourselves as businesses, so there’s a lot of imposter syndrome wrapped up in that.
Photo credit: Daniel Berman
BR: So you've had a lot of success with bylines in top publications, grants, and plenty of work to keep you crazy busy. Tell us all your secrets to success!!! lol just kidding. But really.... tell us one.
WY: This is a really hard question. I think my brain needs goals. So I’m very good at goal setting for myself, and I’ve realized once I verbalize the goal I can actually move towards it. I didn’t realize how important this would be for me. But my goals for the year, I usually keep on the side of my computer with the app Stickies.
Every quarter I look at them, and I ask am I moving towards that? And if I’m not, I have to reevaluate. Why haven’t I made progress? Is there something I could be doing to move myself further in that direction?
I think freelancing means you really have to keep yourself on track—nobody else is going to do that for you. So I have a lot of post-it notes.
A few months ago I realized I needed to take on less work so I put a physical post-it note on my monitor that says, “I don’t have to do everything.” And then another one two weeks later that said “I will not be at the whims of the news cycle.”
I’m always looking for ways to hold myself accountable.
Success is a moving target for everyone. But can you point to one accomplishment or assignment that felt like a turning point for you? What brought you to it?
I don’t know if there has been one assignment that has led to a turning point for me. I actually think the podcast that Jenni and I created has been a huge turning point for both of us. Because before, like many freelancers, we were silently toiling away behind our computer screens, doing our own work. And now I feel a lot more attuned to the struggles of everyone else.
Now I have to figure out for myself how much of the podcast and coaching do I want to take over my life.
What brought us to The Writer’s Co-op is also an interesting question. About a year ago I wrote a piece that’s now self-published on my website about late fees because I returned from a vacation, and I was owed about $5,000 [when I left]—and nobody had paid me on time. So I had to chase down all this money and hold these clients accountable and also charge a late fee.
After that so many people came to me for advice. Slowly people realized I really knew what I was doing from a business perspective. And ya know, late payments also have to do with contracts and how good or bad contracts are. It just led to people asking a lot of the same questions.
Jenni and I, we’re friends and colleagues here in Seattle, so we’ve traded a lot of notes about what other people are telling us and our own struggles. We were sounding like broken records to each other. So ultimately we were like, we should just make a podcast and have all of that live somewhere.
As freelance writers face new challenges (like social distancing) and the persistence or worsening or old ones (systemic racism, insufficient budgets), it seems like the freelance community is coming together in new ways to try and come up with some answers lately. What have you seen change recently about the community that surrounds freelance writing? Any changes in the wrong direction?
I think during this pandemic there has been a focus on so many freelancer resources. Tim Herrera at The New York Times is doing something really special. He’s using his privilege as a staff writer with so many connections, his privilege as an editor living in New York City, and his privilege having an enormous twitter following—and he’s creating a lot of educational resources. Sonia Weiser has been doing an incredible job on her doggedly curated newsletter. I think these are all changes in the right direction.
Obviously there are always changes in the wrong direction, but it kind of has to with the community at large. In cases like that, I try to extricate myself out of communities that are toxic, especially towards women and people of color, and situations surrounding favoritism.
Community is really important, but I never want to get pulled into extraneous drama.
You offer coaching to freelancers on grant writing and career development, so you hear all the issues that freelance writers are facing lately. If you had a magic wand to fix one challenge that lots of writers seem to be facing, which one would it be?
I think a lot of freelance writers have a reckoning to do with their own confidence.
Confidence impacts who we want to pitch, what we think our work is worth, whether or not we should negotiate a fee or a pretty exploitative contract, or push back on edits from an editor. Confidence has to do with how people run a business.
I think a lot has to do with whether or not people have an abundance mindset with freelancing, or a scarcity mindset.
It’s not surprising that a lot of writers struggle with confidence. At our core we’re all artists, but we have to present ourselves as businesses, so there’s a lot of imposter syndrome wrapped up in that. So I think confidence, scarcity versus abundance mindset, and imposter syndrome are all very intrinsically tied to one another for better or worse. And they play into so many ways that freelancers vouch and stand up for themselves.
I’d love to infuse a giant batch of confidence into everyone.
And since you don't actually have a magic wand, what needs to be done in order to solve that problem?
It needs to be normalized that freelance writing is not an art. It’s not a monetized hobby for people who can afford it. It’s an actual career. If people started talking about themselves in business terms, that would help. That doesn’t help the confidence issue. Confidence requires so much self-work. And one thing that I really encourage people I coach in building confidence is to think about small acts of bravery. They add up.
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.
With so many of us vying for less and less available work (it would seem), the idea that some writers are more privileged and have advantages over others is easy to ignore. There's this scarcity mentality that can make us all forget or even reluctant to make space for those who have even less space. Do you have any advice for how writers who are struggling to secure enough work themselves can contribute to making our industry more equitable and accessible to everyone?
This question is so important. One thing I think about a lot is when I was just starting out in journalism, I was a remote intern at Nautilus Magazine, and another writer who was also an intern offered to hop on a Skype call. She had written a little more than me, and she had fact checked at more places than me. And she just held the door wide open and was like, let me know if I can connect you to these places, and oh you should try this, you should try that. It was just so helpful.
That’s what I try to do with the podcast now. I am not a well-known magazine writer. I think I am well-known for yelling at freelancers a lot on the internet and I’ve built kind of a reputation around that. But yeah, if there’s something I can do for someone else… we all have something, some wisdom we can impart on others. I definitely took a lot of advice when I was younger, so now I think it’s time to give back. Once you’re in a position to open a door for someone else, just keep it open.
You recently wrapped up the first season of your podcast, The Writer's Co-op, with Jenni Gritters, in which you share so much valuable advice for freelance writers. You're the expert on this show, but what is something you learned while making it?
I think the industry is actually bigger than how we define it. It’s not just freelance journalism. It’s not just freelance magazine journalism. It’s not just copywriting. It’s not just freelance fact checking. [The podcast] opened up a lot of opportunities for me to see all the different ways that writers can monetize ourselves and our expertise and our business.
I really love thinking about it in that frame—it’s really tied up in the abundance mindset. It’s not just like, I am just doing this very specific thing. (Which is also totally valid.) But it’s more like, I am doing this very specific thing AND it can be applied in all these different ways that can make me money. I think that’s really important.
One fascinating thing happened when I went on vacation this summer and came back to a bunch of assignments from clients that I never would have thought of working with. And that really goes to show how many ways there are to make a living as a freelance writer.
We all wish that rates and everything money-related was more transparent. What's another element of freelance writing you wish there was more transparency around?
Contracts and what is negotiable.
I also wish (and we’re going to work on this in season two) there was [more transparency] around how other writers build their business. Because everyone does it differently. We can see someone’s glossy byline in New York Magazine. But that raises questions for me: How else are they supporting their work? I think it’s really curious to hear about other people’s hustles. We’re all kind of hustling and yeah, learning about different models could be really helpful in creating a more equitable industry.
How has access to community impacted your own writing?
I like having a good community to talk about struggles, share negotiation wins and fails—I think from the business side of things, access to that community is really important. I don’t know if it’s impacted my own writing. But going on Twitter and seeing and hearing about other writer’s rituals makes me interrogate my own.
You always seem to be helping other writers with their own struggles and challenges. Can you share one challenge you've been facing in your own work lately, and how you're working through it?
I’m increasingly struggling with managing my time. For context, we are still in the middle of a global pandemic and there’s this question of, well if I’m not doing something, it’s better to take on an assignment than nothing because we’re in a pandemic and we’re probably heading into a deep recession. So there’s a general inclination to say yes.
Right now I’m in an interesting situation because at the end of quarter two, I hit my target annual income. That’s really led to a revolution in how i think about what I want to take on and what I don’t want to take on. I know there’s a lot of stuff I want to cut out. But there’s also an abundance of interesting projects out there, and I still have to wrestle with that and balance that with everything else that exists on my plate.
What is one piece you've recently written that you're really proud of and why?
Last December I published a story in Longreads titled Anyone’s Son, and it’s a story about the death of Cody Dalton Eyre. Cody Dalton Eyre was an Alaskan Native; he was killed by law enforcement a few years before I wrote my story. I was really proud of it because it was my longest story, and it involved the most investigative, on- the-ground reporting. It was an incredibly sensitive topic. I got really close with the family. I’m disappointed to say, I don’t think enough people read it. But it’s so relevant to this present moment in regards to conversations around racial equity, police brutality, and mental health.
Thanks so much to Wudan! You can follow her on Twitter and check out The Writers’ Co-op for so much more advice on building a successful freelance writing business.
That’s all for today, friends. If you’re a paying subscriber, I’ll be back in your inbox on Tuesday! If you’re not… consider getting in on this 3X weekly resource of inspiration and opportunities for freelance writers.
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Really enjoying the writer Q&A's you've featured so far (at least since I became a subscriber this summer). Thanks for highlighting the many types of writing that writers actually do.