Things are going well, but being a freelance writer isnt the free-and-easy life that most people think. So if youre thinking about getting into the biz and I know lots of you are, because people ask me about it all the time Im here to debunk a few of the more popular myths about the writing life:
Myth 1: You write an article, send it to a magazine, and wait for the check to arrive in the mail.
Oh, if only it were that easy. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. For most magazines, it goes something like this: write up a one-page query (an outline of the article you intend to write), email it to an editor at the magazine, then wait about three months for a reply. Ok, sometimes they get back to you quicker than that, but it can range from a few weeks to a year! In short, you have to have a LOT of queries circulating at any given time I usually have about 20 out there. Oh, and you also have to follow-up with the editor every few weeks, otherwise theyll forget about you and your query.
Myth 2: The pay is steady.
Freelancers across the country are laughing their fool heads off right now over this notion. Most of the time, you have no idea when youll get a check. It could be a month, it could be six months. And you can usually count on sending your invoice two or three times because it will keep mysteriously disappearing in the magazines black hole of an accounting system.
Myth 3: You have lots of free time to spend with your kids, do house chores, and run errands.
Oy. I probably have less free time than most people who work at an office job. Thats partly my fault for working all the time, but on the other hand, I have to work all the time to make enough money to support the family I never see. Ok, Im getting better about the juggling act. Ive even started shutting my computer down when the kids get home from school and forcing myself to keep it off on weekends. Sometimes its a struggle, but my emotional health and home-life are much the better for it.
Myth 4: Magazine writers are rolling in dough.
Not really. Although national pay is much better than local publications, the stories are also much harder to get. Local pay generally ranges from $50 to $100 for a 1,000-word article about five cents to 10 cents per word. When I wrote for locals, it was not uncommon for me to write four or five stories each week. In fact, I HAD to write that many to make ends meet. The good thing is, I never had to query. My editors gave me a list of stories, and I wrote them up. I miss that.
The pay from national magazines ranges from 50 cents per word up to $2 per word $500 to $2,000 for a 1,000-word article. But it could take up to a year for an article to see the light of day. Theres a long process of querying, sending clips (samples of your work), writing the story, rewriting the story several times because the editors cant make up their minds what they want, then waiting for that elusive check to arrive. The same is true for book writers, most of whom do not fall into the six-figure advance territory of Stephen King and John Grisham.
Myth 5: You deal with one editor and theyre REALLY easy to get hold of.
Not so. You submit your query to one editor, but they in turn take it to their editorial committee, a half-dozen or so editors who must approve the story before it goes to the editor-in-chief (EIC), who has the final say. Also, many editors are so swamped with work at magazines with ever-declining budgets, they simply wont respond to you unless you stalk, er, follow-up with them.
Myth 6: Your daily life is exciting and full of interactions with other people.
The truth is, freelancing is a lonely and isolating business. I work alone and spend most of my time silently tapping away on a keyboard, a situation that promotes a borderline-disturbing friendliness with every Fed Ex guy and meter-reader that comes to the house. Many freelancers take part-time jobs just to talk with someone besides their dog every day.
Myth 7: Anyone can write articles, and this business is easy to get into.
If I had a dime for every time someone said to me, Oh, Im thinking of being a freelance writer, too or I plan to do that when I retire. Its not that easy, folks, even for local writers and reporters whove been writing all their life. It takes a lot of networking and establishing relationships with editors before theyll even consider you for an assignment. I joined an online writers group thats been invaluable in this regard.
Myth 8: Editors always grab up great stories.
Sometimes. More often, though, the best stories never see the light of day because the subject is too controversial, too scary for readers, or might offend advertisers. The key sources also have to be a perfect fit. They might be too old, too young, not cute enough, or they simply dont fit the magazines target readership demographics.
And more often than not, editors are looking for stories with a sensational twist. Its not enough to find someone whos saved another person from jumping off a bridge. The two people must then become soul sisters, and the person rescued must then donate a kidney to the others child. Even better: a surprise happy ending where they find out theyre long-lost sisters separated at birth and sent to foster homes after their parents died in a plane crash. Far-fetched? Youd be surprised.
Myth 9: Its easy to get a column or recurring gig.
You almost always have to know someone on the inside. My goal this year was to pursue a long-time passion of becoming a movie critic. I set up a Web site, branded myself, marketed my syndicated movie column (Reel Life With Jane) to papers around the country, even wrote columns for little money, just to get my name out there. I finally hit the mother-lode recently when I was offered the job of reviewing movies, DVDs and TV shows for iVillage.com. The clincher? I knew the editor, a member of my online writers group.
Myth 10: Freelance writing isnt a real job.
Anne Tyler, noted author of The Accidental Tourist and other bestsellers, was once asked by another mother at school when she went to pick up her daughter, Have you found a job yet, or are you still just writing? The truth is, most of us out here in Freelance World are supporting families with our writing business. Its not a hobby. Its a business that requires the same business savvy as other jobs probably more so.
And yes, we actually DO get paid for the stuff we write. The writers making the best income usually have a mix of clients: consumer magazines, trade magazines, national newspapers, corporate writing, columns, and books. As they say, its best not to put all our eggs in one basket.
So there you have it. The awful truth about my life as a freelance writer. So why do I stick with it? Because I love being my own boss. Because I love firing clients who dont meet my standards. Because I love networking with my online writer-buddies. And because I cant imagine NOT writing.
Jane Louise Boursaw writes the family entertainment section for iVillage.com. She also writes a syndicated movie column, Reel Life With Jane, and is a regular contributor to Oxygen Magazine, USA Weekend, AARP Magazine, Womens Health & Fitness, and Harris Farmers Almanac. Shes also written for Womans Day, Family Circle, Ladies Home Journal, Fitness, The New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Pages
Magazine, and others. Check out
her Web sites, www.reellifewithjane.com, www.janeboursaw.com, or email email@example.com.