Thursday, December 14, 2006

Freelance Prostitution

I took a freelance applications class at Columbia not knowing what to expect. I had always considered myself a fiction writer, not a journalist, but I thought it would be productive to expand my horizons. As the semester progressed, we had many guest speakers, who pretty much all said the same thing.

The career freelancer is always working on numerous deadlines, pitching constantly, and even then, it's still hard to make a living.

Fortunately, I have a day job and wasn't looking to make a living; I just wanted some publication credits. But when I began pitching to magazines and websites, I soon learned what they meant. The turnaround time from pitch to publish takes forever. Right now I'm working on an article, which I got assigned in November. It's due in January and won't hit the shelves until February, which is when I'll receive my pay check. If I was counting on assignments in order to pay my rent, I would always have to be on a deadline. I would have to pitch every day, probably write an article a week, conduct interviews, juggle deadlines, researching possible markets, etc. Even then, would it be enough?

Another lesson I learned in that class was about loyalty. I have always stuck to the mantra, "write what you know" not only because it's true but because I loathe research. It makes no sense for me to pitch to House and Gardens about decorating ideas for the Christmas season when I'm Jewish and decorating-retarded. In the class we did numerous exercises brainstorming about what we know. I came up with a few things: lesbian, Judaism, swimming, writing, books, and Chicago. Not much, but it was a start. So I began pitching to publications such as Curve, Bitch and Time Out, I even pitched to Child Magazine because they pay a buck a word and I thought I could do an article about children's swim lessons. But as I pitched, I thought about how a lot of my article ideas were similar and if one got accepted, would I have to turn down others for purposes of loyalty?

Another woman in my class had been writing for boxing magazines about the Golden Gloves and other tournaments. She pitched to two publications, both of which got accepted. One article was about going to the Golden Gloves and how it was a fun event to attend. The other was about the history of the Golden Gloves, more of a profile piece. When the first "fun thing to do" article came out, the second publication contacted her, saying how they were appalled that she had written a similar article for a competing publication. While both articles were completely different in content and slant, because they were about the same event and both were written for Chicago publications, the latter article was killed.

If we are constantly pitching and writing, trying to make a living freelancing, is it unrealistic to expect completely different ideas and subject matter to be churned out at such a high frequency? If I write regularly for one publication, is it disloyal to pitch to one of their competitors? I'm not on staff, I'm freelance, doesn't that mean I'm free to write for any magazine I want?

Anyone who has worked with me knows that I have an exceptional work ethic. Because of that, I'm very wary of where and what I pitch. However, it seems that freelancers are the prostitutes of the writing world: we'll take clients wherever we can get them, even if a few of them are "competitors" and we have no loyalty to the publication we are writing for. We do the job, the check's in the mail, and it's on to the next assignment. If we write an article for the Chicago Tribune one week, we wouldn't turn down an assignment from the Chicago Sun-Times the next. This is where my work ethic comes into play. Because I write so regularly for Curve and Crimespree, I don't think I could, in good conscience, write for Girlfriends or The Strand. I love my editors and wouldn't want to do anything to jeopardize my relationship with them. But just because I've written one article for Gapers Block doesn't mean I can't write for another Chicago lifestyle publication again.

While a conclusion has yet to be drawn, I think it is an important question that freelancers should ask themselves. When pitching to magazines and newspapers, desperately trying to get enough assignments to pay the phone bill, you should always keep in mind your previous publications. Have you written a similar article for a similar publication? How would that affect your relationships with current contacts? Just because your prostituting yourself for a publication credit, doesn't mean you shouldn't do it with a little bit of class.

1 comment:

Sarah Weinman said...

A (very) late comment but I never thought about this issue at all. Maybe it's because my own freelance experience is primarily slanted towards the world of books, where it's almost expected that you write for as many publications as possible (one of the most prolific examples of this approach is John Freeman, currently president of the National Book Critics Circle who has appeared in something like 150 publications.) And because the pay for book reviews is so low, the more outlets you can reach, the more money you make. Having said that, I still persist in the notion of providing original content to every venue I work with, so that if I review a book for one paper, it won't appear elsewhere.

So what happened with the lady who got two successful boxing pitches, I would have done the same thing b/c in my mind, the pieces were distinct enough to warrant two separate pieces. A pity publication #2 didn't see it that way, but hopefully she got a decent kill fee out of it.