Freelancing: Tales From the Front

Last night’s SRO “Freelancing: Tales From the Front” panel was jam-packed with advice, tips, observations, and all-too-true experiences from panelists Michael Hurd, Debi Martin, Bill Minutaglio, and Texas Monthly book critic Mike Shea. It was very cool to see the largest crowd to date at the WLT Resource Center! Here are some highlights:

Getting started:

  • If you’re starting out, don’t be afraid to work for free or next to nothing so you can build your clips and your resume.
  • One of the keys is to find a niche that you like and develop your chops. Debi said that writers can “invent their position and create their situation” by focusing on an area that may not be currently covered.

How to market yourself:

  • “The key word is ‘hustle,’ because that’s what you have to do,” Michael advised.
  • It’s not all about the writing. As Mike Shea observed, “Your full-time job isn’t writing – it’s looking for work.”
  • Debi said, “You’ve got to love it; if you don’t, you need to stop.”

As to whether a journalism degree is essential, the panelists said no. As Michael advised, “If you want to write about sports, get a business or law degree.”

Oddly enough, the panel agreed that even with the demise of so many newspapers, the chances are good for a freelancer to write for newspapers. Because of staff layoffs and cutbacks, newspapers are often open to working with more freelancers.

Advice on pitching and querying:

  • As Michael put it, “The toughest thing can be finding the right person to pitch to.” The panelists advised doing your homework by contacting friends or colleagues or even other writers at the publication.
  • Your pitch or query should convey how your proposed story would benefit the publication. “Magazine editors look at the value your story would bring to the publication,” Bill said.
  • Although e-mail pitches are standard, Debi cautioned writers to be sure to follow up with phone calls.
  • Look for other sources for writing jobs besides magazines and newspapers. A lot of businesses and associations contract with writers for press releases and newsletters and even Web site writing.

As much as we don’t like to admit this, it’s often about who you know. Getting to know other writers and going to professional organizations’ meeting and events can also lead to jobs.

Michael passed on this advice from H. L. Mencken giving a speech on writing: “So you want to be writers. Why aren’t you writing?” End of speech.

BM then said, “I can trump your Mencken with Mailer: WRITE!”

Finally, Bill summed it all up: “It’s the greatest job in the world, it’s the ultimate backstage pass.”

Next meeting: Oct. 16, featuring “The Mystique of Critique” (bring something to critique) and the annual election of new board members.

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