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.