This is Ann Friedman’s excellent guide for separating haterade from productive feedback, which can be applied to life in general as well as journalism. Or both at the same time - at least that’s the goal.
Critics: These are smart people who know something about your field. They are taking a hard look at your work and are not loving it. You’ll probably want to listen to what they have to say, and make some adjustments to your work based on their thoughtful comments.
Lovers: These people are invested in you and are also giving you negative but rational feedback because they want you to improve. Listen to them, too.
Frenemies: Ooooh, this quadrant is tricky. These people really know how to hurt you, because they know you personally or know your work pretty well. But at the end of the day, their criticism is not actually about your work—it’s about you personally. And they aren’t actually interested in a productive conversation that will result in you becoming better at what you do. They just wanna undermine you. Dishonorable mention goes to The Hater Within, aka the irrational voice inside you that says you suck, which usually falls into this quadrant. Tell all of these fools to sit down and shut up.
Haters: This is your garden-variety, often anonymous troll who wants to tear down everything about you for no rational reason. Folks in this quadrant are easy to write off because they’re counterproductive and you don’t even know them. Ignore! Engaging won’t make you any better at what you do. And then rest easy, because having haters is proof your work is finding a wide audience and is sparking conversation. Own it.
Lots of interesting and frank commentary has been circling about on the topic of freelancing and money these past few days. After having written far too many words without getting paid for them in the past, my recent stance on this topic has been simple: I won’t write for free for anyone who can afford to pay me. And if they can’t afford to pay me, I will only write for free if I’m super-keen on the piece and would probably have written it for my blog anyway. As an old editor of mine used to say: exposure is nice, but you can’t take that to the grocery.
The latest #realtalk piece by Ann Friedman in the Columbia Journalism Review does however make some good points about the instances where writing for free, just a little bit, may be in your own best interest. Just a little bit.
To establish expertise. Let’s say you’d really like to be a tech reporter, but you’ve got no clips to prove your interest in and knowledge of the subject. Maybe you’re transitioning from another beat or type of journalism. It can be worth writing on spec or for little to no payment in order to build up a few clips that prove to future assigning editors that you know your stuff. […]
Because I was writing it anyway. If you love to write, I’m guessing you find yourself with odd notes and journal entries and weird essays that you wrote just because you felt like it. And maybe you want to find a more public home for some of this work—somewhere that’s bigger than your personal website. I, for example, make these silly, hand-drawn charts, which I publish at The Hairpin. This is something I do for fun, and I’d make these pie charts whether or not anyone wanted to publish them. After I published a few and people seemed to like them, I made it a goal to find a publication to pay me for similar work. And I did—a monthly magazine commissioned me to do a recurring chart feature for its front-of-book. It’s a paid gig I never would have gotten without an unpaid one.
To raise my profile. Some of the lowest rates I accept for reported work are for the Web counterparts of prestigious legacy print publications. I do so because I want to be affiliated with these publications. I want to reach their readers. And I want higher-up editors there to know my name and recognize my voice as one that’s a good fit with their editorial product. At many legacy publications, the website is the farm team for the print product, which has higher barriers to entry but also pays much higher rates. I believe that earning a mere $200 for a piece it took two days to report is an investment in my future—and this is a financial choice that I balance by saying yes to higher-paid assignments that may be less interesting to me or result in less exposure. It’s up to individual writers to determine when “writing for exposure” is a scam and when it’s a career boost. Personally, I play a long game.
February is here! That means we’re a little closer to spring, as even though it’s still cold we have lots more light and everyone’s moods seem to have improved accordingly. Project 2013 is underway, in which I shall be focusing on something new and worthwhile every month, one thing for work and one for leisure. January’s work resolution was about pitching, because skiving was no longer fun, to put it bluntly. And I’m happy to say I pitched like a trooper. The personal target was to be a person who goes to yoga again, taking the Yoda approach: There is no ‘try’. So now I go to yoga every week, having committed financially as well as emotionally. And I’m surprised to say it wasn’t even that hard.
February’s work thing is about time management. I’ve been letting things slide a bit in terms of setting aside dedicated time to work, and need to be better at saying ‘no’ to things that happen in the middle of the day just because I’m technically free. Because if I’m to get where I want to go I need to put the hours in. On a related note, I’m also thinking it would be wonderful if 2013 could be the year where I stop racing along pavements muttering curses under my breath because I’m five minutes late for everything … ? February’s personal goal is about cooking, something that has fallen by the wayside in a big way over the past few years. I’m approaching this challenge by making it into a social thing with the boy, which incidentally makes me a part-time vegetarian and that can’t be bad. … But before the #cleanliving smugness becomes blinding, I should admit I stood frozen in front of a corner shop for a full five minutes yesterday, 2.5 months since the last drag, contemplating whether to buy fags. The lights were bright and I wavered back and forth and back again, before in the end I didn’t. Because after all is said and done, the question is simple: Who do I want to be?
I wrote this in the spring of 2011 when I was a brand new freelancer terrified by the sudden opportunity to do all the things I’d wanted so badly for so long. I don’t feel like that anymore, but lately I’ve been feeling distracted and it’s made me wonder what’s going on with time again. I’m thinking something’s up, that some change is pressing, but it’s allright because as the philosopher once said: Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.
[Originally published in Lionheart Magazine issue 2, in June 2012.]
‘Time flies’ – it’s an old person’s saying and I keep saying it. But instead of getting used to it, this racing of time, it just seems to scurry on more intensely. Time rushes along at an increasing pace, which doesn’t make any sense because there is more, not less, to do. Weekends come along thick and fast and all of a sudden it’s summer again when I could have sworn it was mid-winter only yesterday. When I was a kid, an hour was an age and winter seemed to never end. I walked home from school, one little foot in front of the other in seemingly infinite repetition, but I know now it was no more than fifteen minutes. I think time is supposed to be a constant element, but I’m really not all that convinced.
I keep getting distracted. I pick at the seam of my shirt, turning the hem upward to examine how the hastily assembled item is unravelling as I wear it. I feel my skin tingle and how my cardigan rests on my collarbone, my fingers wander up and slide into my hair. There they have work to keep busy for ages, twirling around the short, soft whisks underneath my ponytail, digging for rough strands near the crown and greedily feeling their coarseness when one is found. I look up and the sun has moved across the sky.
The dizziness of this new freedom is subsiding and I have more good days than bad days now; when it’s one of the latter the thoughts no longer feel like my own but as if there’s an intruder. Pragmatic as I am, I evoke my mother for the task at hand: ‘Don’t be so helpless,’ I hear her say inside my head, not unkindly. I get a broom and sweep the intruder away. I read back those last few sentences and realise how precious and melodramatic it sounds, to say things like that, but it’s the truth and don’t you think I wish it wasn’t. As I figure out what I want I can feel the world opening up but at the same time it’s getting narrower. I haven’t really changed anything but I am becoming determined and with it, ruthless; just a pinch.
And all of a sudden it’s the weekend again and we’re waiting for the green man so we can shuffle on in flimsy sandals, soles tapping against paving stones and there’s that feeling again: I want to be working. I’ve had the moment where I’ve realised that work is no longer something I’m trying to dodge – no more clock-watching for Jessie. There’s just me here, and all the things I’ve always wanted. And I’ve wanted them for a bloody long time too – so long that I was starting to wonder if waiting was all I could do.
Now that my time is my own I feel like it should be slowing down again, back to its leisurely, trusty ticking of the days before double-digit birthdays. ‘The day is long,’ my grandma used to say, as I stood in front of her wall-clock which counted the seconds so loudly they rattled through the whole house. Outside that living room, time runs like rabbits and I know it. So why isn’t all that dead-end inspiration of office afternoons here for me now, waiting like water in the tap? I spent so much time wanting to be ‘big’, for my time to be my own. Now both those wishes have come true, but there are other forces at play. Again I catch myself staring into the middle distance.
In “How not to not-write”, Lindsay Zoladz paints a painfully accurate picture of what it’s like to be a young writer desperate to get the words out, but being overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. I remember that feeling, of life as a 20-something wanting to be great, of having these vague thoughts that refused to translate onto the page in any way remotely good enough for what I expected of myself. Needless to say, I spent far more time starting at blank pages than I ever did writing on them. I know the solution to this problem now: practice. Talent isn’t enough, you have to work at it; in order to be a good writer, you need to write a lot of crap. I’m not sure if my 20-something would have been happy to learn this though, in fact she probably would have resented it and maybe even rejected it. She wanted to be great but she wanted it to come from raw talent instead of work; the perfectionist was in for a rude awakening.
I spent years wanting to write a book, and around the time I was 27 I somehow managed to get 40,000 words out. I haven’t looked at it since I put it away, for reasons best summed by way of Thoreau: “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.” I think I still want to write a book someday though, but it’s nowhere near the top of my list of priorities anymore. What I want to do now is to write articles, and the occasional meandering blog post where I start out with one thought and end up with another, making it up as I go along. When this works out, it feels wonderful. I’m still nowhere as good as I want to be, but I’ve realised that for a writer, the only thing harder than writing, is not to.
I write differently now than I did ten years ago, but when I think about it I realise my motivation is the same: I’m chasing that feeling of closing my fist around a point, hammering it down, or maybe just brushing up against it. Some of the writers I admire the most do this: they start writing about one thing but then you realise it’s actually about something else, something vague and big, and you’re left with this itch inside your body like something’s happening but you can’t quite get at it. That’s the other thing about becoming a good writer by the way: you have to read a lot. You have to take in lots and lots of words if you expect to have good ones at your disposal when you sit down to conjure them up later.
I’ve been writing a lot this summer. I’ve wondered many times why I love writing so much when so often it’s so painful, but recently there’s been an ease about it that seems like the way it was always supposed to be. The thing that changed was that I started a second blog, anonymously, and it’s true what they say about what comes out of your fingers when you write as if no one is reading. But what’s also happened is that my frankness on my secret blog is spilling into other parts of my life, both on my real-name blog and in general conversation. As an introvert with a general fear of being misunderstood, this probably isn’t a bad thing. I look at my new openness and I like it a lot. Because as much as I have always loved writing, so often it’s been brutally hard to get it out, to make a concrete shape out of a fuzzy thought. Maybe this is starting to change now, with this confidence that’s been coming on over the past few years. Maybe that’s what being a grown-up means, to feel at home with your choices. Or maybe I’ve just finally started to get enough practice.
A freelancer walks into an office
I’ve been doing some in-house shifts over the past few days. This is the first time I’ve done this since January, after which I started saying no to anything that meant 9-5 attendance as I had too much regular freelancing work. That was a big moment. Now, however, we’re in the summer slump, meaning I can’t really justify saying no. Plus one of my best clients have managed to go under and take a good chunk of my money with them; as cranky I am about having to stand nose-to-armpit on the Jubilee line, my main resentment is having to earn this money twice.
They warn you that freelancing will ruin you for office work, but it’s only now, a year and a half in, that I am really starting to understand the extent of this. Of course, this assumes you are actually happy as a free agent, which I am and deliriously so … so all I can say is oh my god. I have had to sit on my hands to avoid whinging to friends and social media about my, eh, issues with adjusting back into so-called normal office life. I may be far gone, but I’m not so way off with the freelancing fairies that I don’t realise that my reaction is completely ridiculous and reeks of spoilt brat. It’s a bit like when posh people take their kids on the bus “so they can see what it’s like” (I can’t find the link but I’ve read about this), before stepping off again in the blissful knowledge that this is not really their life.
So to be clear: I have nothing against hard work, and this past year I’ve put in more hours at freelancing than I ever did in any office. What I mind is the mad rush in the morning, both having to get up at 7am (Jessie’s not so good in the morning) and having to do the rush hour commute (which makes beasts of us all). And then there’s the sitting around. I’ve actually found this to be the worst of all, as being a freelancer means you develop your own particular work patterns and these are a bitch to break. My habits are based equally on what I like, and what actually works better for me in terms of productivity. This is a genuine grievance about 9-5 shifts; it is probably the only one.
As today’s the last day in the office and Friday belongs to me, all I can think is how I really, really, really just want to go home and WORK. I’ve been a bit lazy over the summer, partially because it’s naturally slower anyway but also because I’ve been taking the sunniest days off without hesitation. But not anymore. There is nothing like re-visiting an old life to inspire you all over again to go and work your ass off to make the new life work. At least this is how I feel. As my boyfriend said, after having graciously listened to me go on about the horrors of instant coffee: “Yes but Jess, you know you have a bloody good life, right?” Yes. Yes I do.
How to go freelance and still afford to travel
“5. Keep your eye on the prize. I can spend a hundred on a big night out, or I can use that money to pay for a whole week in a hostel in Istanbul. Of course, there has to be a balance, but chances are you can have just as good a time on half that money if you’re careful. And while being a new-ish freelancer puts me at a disadvantage when it comes to cash, the time saved on commuting alone means I now have time to cook from scratch. But all this presumes one thing: That there is something you want, and badly. For me, it was a Mission burrito and a view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Now I’m thinking it’s high time I go to a little place called New York. I hear it’s incredible.”
The thing is this: we tend to encourage other people to do whatever happened to make us happy. You should really buy a house, my father says to me, as that made him happy. Don’t quit your job during the recession, said friends for whom job security was worth more than anything else you could put on the table. As far as advice goes, all this is sound. Spending a fortune on rent is possibly insane, and leaving a reasonably well-paid job during a time of economic hardship is probably taking on more risk than strictly necessary. Still, I have never felt compelled by it, and I guess it’s because my own baseline for happiness is different. I like renting as I can move every year, and I need to feel challenged by my work or I lose interest and get sloppy. (That was the real reason I left my in-house job: my restlessness had started to translate into me messing up, and it was making me miserable. I like to be good at what I do.)
So when people ask me about freelancing I try to not just tell them to do what made me happy, but to find out whether it’s the right thing for them. Because I’m realising that lots of people like the idea of freelancing, but when they hear what it’s really like they find it’s not right for them. Here are a few points to consider:
“There’s more to life than work,” a friend said to me recently. We’d got back in touch after a few years, and I discovered he was still in the same job as the one he used to regularly plot his getaway from. But this time he explained how he is happy because he is focusing on other things: family, friends, personal projects. I get it and I respect this decision, even though my own happiness is very much dependent on what is going on with work. But I’m realising that lots of people want to leave work at the office and not think about it until the next morning, and freelancing probably isn’t entirely compatible with that. I love switching off after a long day as much as the next person, but I have to admit I’m never really switched off, not completely. It’s not my work so much as what I do, and I guess that for better or worse, that makes it a lifestyle.
All freelancers live in spotlessly clean houses, with alphabetised spice racks and an encyclopaedic knowledge of disused Tube stations following endless fits of procrastination … right? A lot of people seem to think this is the case, as did I to an extent before I went freelance myself. As an employee I needed the structure of the office to get anything done, and I worried I wouldn’t be able to work once I didn’t have that to push me anymore. But what I didn’t realise was that when my boss and I became the same person, everything would change. In short: it’s not really “work”, it’s just what I do.
It takes a little while to figure out how to structure things when no one stands over you, but the challenge is no longer to keep myself motivated; I don’t think I’ve ever worked as hard as I do now. The trick is to strike a balance where I can keep my eyes on the road while also getting the details right, because the project is massive and I have to cover all the roles myself. The project being, I should add, making enough money to live while also doing work that interests me. So here are a few things I found are worth considering in order to get things done as a freelancer:
This may all look quite structured for a freelancing life, which is supposed to be about freedom, but I have found that only by making sure I am on top of everything can I actually let go and enjoy myself. Only by having a list to refer to each Monday morning can I be sure to keep a pace that means I don’t have to work the weekend – taking time off is very, very important to stay motivated. And only by checking in with the long-term plan can I make sure I progress towards bigger goals, by chasing after new opportunities instead of just keep doing the same old work. Spending my time pursuing things I want rather than just reacting to requests is a big part of why I went freelance in the first place.
Each person will have to figure out what works best for them, but for me, the system of two lists, one long-term and one short-term, were the key. Making sure I am on the right track motivates me to do the boring but necessary things, and breaking down the big issues into manageable action points means I’m more likely to move forward. Which is what this is really about, isn’t it. … Actually, one more thing:
I got an email recently from a young journalist who wanted advice on freelancing. This made me feel tremendously wise and sage for a moment, and then I remembered I am a rookie too and referred the writer to Catherine Quinn’s excellent book: ‘No Contacts? No Problem’. But the email exchange reminded me there is value in being honest about what something is really like, because freelancing is not for everyone. And I think it has to be written down while in the midst of it too, before the hard slog mercifully fades from memory. When I left my full time job I was inspired by Ev Bogue’s now-defunct blog, Far Beyond the Stars - it offered me one particularly excellent piece of advice for leaving the office: expect nothing from yourself for several weeks at least, because you will be burnt out. Bogue writes about different subjects now and has deleted his old blog, which is his prerogative but also a shame because it was refreshingly practical. Telling someone keen to make a career change to follow their bliss is not nearly as useful as reminding them to save up six months’ worth of living money.
My piece on the things I did that worked when I went freelance lists some points about money, cutting back and, eh, following said bliss. But the email from the young journalist made me think maybe I should list some of the things I did that came before all that – although be warned, many of these things didn’t work at all.
As I’ve said, there are good and bad things about freelancing and you need to work out which issues are important to you. Most likely this will mean choosing autonomy over the ability to pay for a cable TV subscription. But for me it was the dream, like when the wonderful author John Irving said: “Anything I did except writing was going to be vaguely unsatisfying.” … I remember walking down the street after an interview for a non-writing job once (while in the abyss), and the confusion I felt: “If there isn’t anything written at the end of the day, what’s it all about?” I’m still not entirely sure.