I just received read the best piece of advice I've ever ever seen for freelance writers and their careers. It's too bad that I read it today and not five and a half years ago when I finished graduate school.
If you're just starting out as a freelance writer -- hell, if you're well-established as a freelancer -- I strongly urge you to read this piece by Scott Carney, a Colorado-based investigative journalist and anthropologist. In the piece Carney suggests freelancers abandon the long-held practice of "silo" pitching, wherein writers pitch articles to one outlet at a time and rather take their publications out to multiple editors simultaneously. The advice itself isn't new to me, but Carney makes the best case I've seen for so-called "market pitching." As an example, Carney points to Hollywood, where studios often have to pay writers significantly for the opportunity to exclusively consider their work. There's no reason journalists shouldn't value their work just as much and not worry they'll upset their editors.
"But any editor that doesn’t understand the pressures that freelancers face is probably not worth working with anyway," Carney writes. "Risking the ire of one person is not a reason to submit yourself to a life of poverty."
Indeed, I'll add that there may be a moral imperative: if we truly believe it's important to bring the public's attention to stories that might otherwise go unnoticed, then we should be doing everything we can to get those stories read, and that often means publishing quickly while the story we cover is still relevant.
After I completed my master's program at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Journalism and Communication, I thought it made the most sense to carve my own path into a freelance career. At the beginning, I shopped around my master's project, a magazine-style longform piece about Los Angeles's rapidly evolving transportation system. So I queried a few publications I thought would like the piece and kept it off of my web site. At the time, Mother Jones was interested in putting an issue together about transportation and senior editor Dave Gilson expressed an interest in the piece, but it ultimately never ran. A month after I pitched him Gilson, to his credit, told me he wouldn't be bothered if I continued to shop it around. Ultimately, though, I never found a home for the piece -- in part because other publications were bothered when I told them Gilson was considering it. By December, 2009, Gilson had stopped responding to my monthly follow-ups on the pitch and no one else bit. What had once been one of the first in-depth explorations of L.A.'s reinvention of its transportation identity amid a historic vote to increase sales taxes and raise $30 billion for transportation infrastructure was now stale. Still, it was interesting enough that I decided to post it myself on my web site. Other articles I'd worked on similarly floundered. Over the five and a half years that followed my graduation from USC, rather than aggressively try to market my work, I slowly pitched pieces from publication to publication, piecing together a career from a few successes and spending much of my time waiting, endlessly waiting, for responses. Even the pieces I did place took months to see the light of day. Over the past few years not only have I struggled to make ends meet because I have irrationally allowed myself to be so fearful of editors -- I say irrational because editors cannot exist without good content; even content aggregators need content to aggregate -- but I have also felt like a fraud among my peers who'd hear about the stories I was constantly working on but never see them in completion.
Fortunately, I survived, and perhaps I wouldn't be working on a book under contract -- at least not this particular one -- had my career taken a different trajectory. Nevertheless, I wish I'd read something as cogently written as Carney's piece when I finished school.
Even better, I wished an essay like his had been required reading.