Tuesday, May 8, 2012

You're a freelance writer? Maybe not.

When someone asked the other day about my occupation, I told her I have two: I work during business hours as a professional communicator for a financial-services provider, and at night and on weekends -- and occasionally at lunchtime -- I'm a freelance writer.

Her response? "Oh, I'm a freelancer, too!" I asked her what publications she writes for, and she said, "Lots of them! I write stories and send them to websites and magazines." After a little more conversation, it became clear that the woman is indeed a writer, but she's not a freelance writer.

I'm splitting hairs now, I know. But the conversation irritated me.

It didn't irritate me because I corner the market on freelance writing, by any means, or that I'm a better writer than this woman or anyone else. It bothered me because I believe in this distinction: If you're not getting published, let alone paid for it, you're not a freelance anything. Not yet, anyway.

And here's an illustration to show you why that is. I'm fairly good at baking; I love to create cakes and brownies and pies and all sorts of options to satisfy the sweet teeth of the people I care about. But when someone asks me what I do, I sure don't reply, "I'm a baker." Why? Because I'm not. It's a hobby and a pastime, but no one pays me to do it, and I'm not trying to build a business from it.

I'm also not a professional blogger. Blogging is not freelance writing; it's writing, no doubt, and it's a passion and an avocation and something I engage in to express myself. But no one is advertising on my site, and I obviously don't earn a penny for it.

I do earn some pennies freelancing, though, in large part because I've worked really hard and earned the trust of some good people. My editors know these things about me: I'm accurate, I'm thorough, and I meet my deadlines. There are a ton of good reporters and writers in this market, but because I've been around for quite a while and have rarely screwed up -- we won't mention the mayor whose name I misspelled back in the day -- my editors know they can count on receiving a usable story from me without investing a whole lot of time and energy.

Also, freelancing isn't easy. Try covering a meeting at which you don't know any of the players and aren't familiar with any of the issues and finding a way to get a story out of the whole thing anyway. Freelancers -- many more than just myself, obviously -- do that daily, and often after working a full day somewhere else.

And in this age of "anyone can be a writer" social media, I take pride in the fact that I was taught well, and that I know the mechanics necessary for a person to make herself readable. Don't get me wrong -- I love that social media has brought out the writer in so many of us, and I freely encourage everyone I know to jump on board. But if you're not on deadline, you don't do what I do. That doesn't make your writing any less valid; it just makes it a different type of writing.

Writing is one of those things in which we all participate, like eating and walking and bathing, so it's probably a little harder to determine a degree of professionalism than it would be for, say, a sword-swallower or a rock climber. (If I were to say, "I climb mountains" -- and that were true -- you'd be less likely to say, "Oh, so do I.")

But if I were to be totally honest, maybe there's more to this: Maybe I'm protective of my writing because it's the one thing that's always defined me. As a little girl, maybe I didn't have a mom and maybe I was too tall and maybe I was awkward and nervous and had bad hair. But with a pen or a typewriter, I wasn't "less than." I had all the confidence I needed.

So I guess it comes down to this: I am not the only game in town by any means, and I'd lend my full support to anyone who wants to be a freelance writer. If you want to be one, don't stop trying; chances are your hard work eventually will pay off.

But until that day, respect the fact that for quite a few of us, writing is not a choice; it's not a hobby. It's a way to pay the bills and, if we're lucky, create something that might make a difference to someone.

Don't call yourself a freelancer, and I won't call myself a mountain climber ... that is, unless I become one. Anything can happen.


  1. I also blame those out there "hiring" freelancers. They prey on wanna-be writers, don't pay them and promise that by being on their site/in their publication will create future opportunities. It's a scam to get free work. And that great desire and NEED to write -- which so many of us have -- makes too many people blind and naive about this.

  2. In other words, writers out there: Don't sell yourself short by selling your work for nothing. End of story.

  3. Jane, such a good point. It took me many years to understand that concept and not feel as if a publication was doing me a favor by running my work.

  4. In college, I took a freelance writing class from a burnt out freelance writing professor. He had a give 10 topic ideas a week from us, shooting down good ones. We all determined it was so he could use them to write them for personal use. We hated him. It is funny this is your current topic, I was just talking about writers vs bloggers vs real news writers and ow just because you post on the Internet, doesn't make you a 'real' writer. Like me, I like to write, I'm not a pro, I do it for fun.

  5. Vaune, the guy probably was using them to generate ideas of his own. What a jerk. I taught freelance writing for a while and loved encouraging others to write. I hope he's not teaching anymore. And your writing is good enough that you could be a pro, by the way.