SPECS IN THE CITY: A LIFE IN FREELANCING
by Albert Lanier
For long as I remember I always wanted to be a freelance writer…
Actually, if this were the opening of a movie like Martin Scorcese’s GOODFELLAS, the phrase above might be accurate.
However, truth be told, I always wanted to just be a writer not a freelance writer per se.
So, How did I become a freelancer and why did I stay one? That’s one of the million dollar questions I have gotten asked in nearly 20 years of being a freelance writer and journalist. After all, being a freelancer in America is about as common as being an Opera singer ( please dont e-mail or message me about singing an Aria please) so people are naturally curious.
I actually wanted to be a novelist when I was in college. Being a lifelong pragmatist, I figured that with my experience writing for high school and college newspapers that I could most likely seek a job with daily or weekly newspaper or magazine when I graduated to make a stable income. Then, after saving up some money, I could quit and then begin writing and sending out manuscripts to publishers.
Im amused when I think about this initial plan now. I actually ended up working in radio initially after getting my Bachelor’s degree.I was what is known as a board operator. Instead of writing articles for a big city daily, I was playing songs from artists like The Beatles, The Doors and even Hall and Oates. Instead of spending my days and nights in front of a computer pounding out articles, I was in a small studio in front of a radio prodcution board playing “carts” -cartridges with radio callsigns, promos and commercials recorded on them-as well as my required playlist of tunes.
My stint in radio proved brief-they were bringing in DJs to staff the new station so the writing was on the wall. Out of work, I was considering the potential job options in the market. For some strange and to this day unexplainable reason, the idea of freelancing popped up in my mind. I had never done any freelancing even in college and I knew absolutely nothing about the freelance business.
Out of the blue, I got the yellow pages out and started calling newspapers and magazines. I simply asked editors at these publications whether they needed or used freelancers. Keep in mind-I knew nothing about freelancing. Zero. Normally, being a rational, fairly orderly person, I would never do something so random and unprepared as essentially cold calling publications. Call it the new normal at the time but I called up nearly all the publications listed.
I finally got a hit- a suburban community newspaper was looking for a film reviewer. Being a film buff, this was right up my alley. I got hired-and then I got fired. The editor didnt like my article. Among other things, she didn’t like the fact I used words like “formulaic” which is interesting since I thought that word summed up her rejection of my work.
However, fate was on my side. I had also got a deal to write an article about childrens’ and family films for a local family publication. Even though I lost the film reviewer gig, I still had this freelance article to write. I then went on pitch a couple of articles about the elections that year to a new publication for the elderly and got another freelance deal. These two deals basically jump started my freelance career and I was on my way to being a stringer of sorts for nearly 2 decades.
Its interesting to think that had I not had a deal to write another article after my film reviewer gig dried up, I would not have been a freelancer. I likely would have continued my frustrating slog through the job market.
Instead, I have had a career that has seen me interview an occasional celebrity like Kevin Smith and Pat Sajak, cover elections and talk to Governors, Mayors and Legislators, review films, books and music, write a column for a suburban newspaper for several years and write in nearly every journalistic category possible from news to features for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
So, what’s the secret to being a veteran freelancer? Well, the secret is…there is no secret.
To begin with, being a freelancer requires knowledge. I advise anyone who wants to be a freelancer to start by taking 3-6 months to do research-read magazines like Writer’s Digest, books and even watch informative videos online. You also need to know what markets you might want to write for and what it takes to write in those markets. No matter how much overall education you have, you have to train and educate yourself before becoming a freelancer.
Then, when you have enough knowledge about the business and have the basic skills to produce articles and other materials, then start contacting publications in order to get work.
My seminar/talk “The Goods” which I can give to organizations and groups deals with freelancing. In my seminar, I talk about the 3 C’s-Competence, Consistency and Confidence-necessary to being a working freelance writer.
Another way that I explain what it takes to be a freelancer is what a shortened version of what a Literary Agent once said about getting a book published-Hook, Book and Cook.
HOOK-You have to hook a magazine or newspaper editor with your idea for an article. Freelancing usually involves pitching an concept for an article usually through query letters. However, freelancers can also work on an assignment basis for publications and thus, your skill in being able hook editors by demonstrating an ability to produce articles on time can lead to getting assignments.
BOOK-You need to be able to book writing jobs. The more, the merrier and the better for you and your career. In freelancing, less is not more. If you have written one article in six months, then you need to seriously change the equasion and find a way to get more work regardless if you freelance on just a part -time basis.
COOK-You need to be able to have the basic skills (good grammar, spelling, syntax) to write and the ability to master all the tasks necessary to putting an article together including interviewing and research. In a sense, its like cooking a meal-you add and mix the ingrediants to creat something that will hopefully be intellectually edible. Finally, you have to be able to deliver on time and without fuss.
In the end, what it takes to be a freelance writer is the ability to produce useable, saleable and marketable articles. Useable in that these articles can be printed without any difficulty (not filled with grammatical errors or lapses of syntax). Saleable in that you can get your work sold to publications for a fee on a consistent basis. Marketable in that you can use your printed work to get more writing gigs and thus get printed and paid yet again and again.
Now that you have some of the facts about freelancing, the choice is up to you.
Those of you that are serious will get cracking and hopefully get to work.
Those of you who arent? Well, GOODFELLAS might be worth checking out on Netflix…
Albert Lanier is a freelance writer and journalist who has written for a number of publications in Hawaii, California and Washington over a span of nearly 20 years. His work has appeared in Honolulu Weekly, Pacific Business News, Hawaii Magazine, Asianweek and Puget Sound Business Journal. He also contributed online to Modern Luxury Hawaii’s website. In addition, he has written for Where Hawaii’s Guest Informant guide to Maui.
Lanier can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org as well as on Facebook, Google Plus and Twitter (@CriticInc.com).