Will freelance for food


Wake up at noon, enjoy a leisurely coffee, then get to work in the comfort of your home office. You’re in the middle of a writing project you’re deeply passionate about. You’re thriving emotionally, creatively, and financially. Best yet, you’re wearing pajamas—because what else does one wear in her freelance fantasy life?

For those who’ve never done it, the thought of freelancing tends to elicit one of two things: the cliché described above or abject terror. The Graham School's March 4 freelance editing and writing panel discussion tackled both. Held at the Gleacher Center, the panel featured University of Chicago Press managing editor Anita Samen; freelance editor Sonia Fulop, who earned a Graham School editing certificate in 2006; and freelance theater, arts, and cultural critic Monica Westin, AM’08.

The panel gave some useful tips. The first set below comes from Ruthie Kott, AM’07, the Magazine’s Alumni News Editor and aspiring freelancer who wants to balance a full-time job with writing gigs on the side. The second comes from former Magazine staffer Brooke O’Neill, AM’04, a full-time freelancer since 2008.

So you’re wondering how to get started...
Ruthie Kott, AM’07

Avoid procrastination With constant temptations like Facebook, Bejeweled (my personal favorite), or even some old-fashioned Solitaire, this can be a hard rule to follow. But to freelance right, says Fulop, you need to be “very self-motivated, to be able to get work done without schedule and deadlines enforced in the office setting.” Westin agrees: “You do not want to get a reputation for being someone who turns copy in late.”

Get your foot in the door
A clip is all you need to break in, says Westin. “As soon as you’re writing for some publication, you have credibility to other editors.” She also recommends doing informational interviews with editors at publications you want to write for. And when you send a story pitch, she says, don’t just say that you’ll call and touch base within the next week; do it. Make contact with the people you want to work with.

Take advantage of the Web
In late 2009 Fulop started a Web site, which she has found useful when courting new clients. “I have found that, when I have my Web site at the bottom of an e-mail, people will go to it.” But Westin cautions against sending potential editors links to your personal blog. Some editors would consider it unprofessional; at best, a personal blog can help you connect with other writers. “I wouldn’t rely on any editors taking you seriously because you have a blog,” she says.

Get connected
Networking doesn’t have to be a terrifying experience. Westin imagined networking to be “a bunch of sleazy people, really fake and artificial,” but instead she's found that it’s “a community of people you can talk to and get advice from.” And the U of C connection was helpful; her editor at Newcity, where she is a regular arts writer, is Brian Hieggelke, AB’83, AM’84. Fulop also recommends LinkedIn and other professional social-networking sites.

So you’re already a freelancer (and wondering if you’re doing it right)...
Brooke O’Neill, AM’04

Hustle and flow The longer I freelance, the more I realize that no matter how many clients you woo, there’s never an end to the hustling. “You have to be persistent without feeling like you’re stalking people,” says Fulop. Stay at the top of editors’ minds by pitching story ideas regularly. After all, says Westin, “you’re going to have to make a case for your writing for the rest of your life.”

Fear not the long-distance relationship
When I moved back to Chicago from the West Coast a year ago, I fantasized about forging lifelong connections with editors over cocktails à la Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw. Yet right now only two of my major clients are Windy City-based. With every e-mail sent off to another faceless individual halfway across the country, I wonder what I’m doing wrong. Nothing, it turns out. U of C Press editor Samen revealed that most of her freelancers live outside Chicago, and Fulop confessed that she’s never met most of hers.

Be formal
I sometimes worry that I’m excessively formal in an informal age. My e-mails to clients start with a proper salutation and end with a sign-off (“Sincerely,” “Best Regards,” “Best Wishes”). Call me old-fashioned, but I’ve never quite gotten used to the brusque one-sentence missive that leaves out both. And according to Samen, formal is the way to go. ”The way I’m approached makes a huge difference,” she says. “Err on the side of honorifics.” A new writer who addresses her by first name raises a red flag for Samen. After all, if they're too casual with her, they might also be that way with her authors, who could get offended.

Find friends
“Often as a freelancer you feel isolated,” says Westin. For many writers, this solitude can come as a shock. After all, don’t many of us pursue this profession because we grew up as quiet children prone to reading in private and scribbling our ruminations in diaries? OK, maybe just me. Regardless, my latent extrovert is never more loud and irritating than when I’ve worked alone in my apartment all day, speaking only to a small, withering houseplant. Make sure you’re “someone who will not go crazy working from home,” advises Fulop. Coffee shops, lunch dates, and any other form of human contact can ease the pain.

For more great advice, check out the complete panel on video.

Ruthie Kott, AM'07, and Brooke O'Neill, AM'04

March 18, 2010