Anne Trubek, a mentor of new writers, offered this guest blog and I gratefully accepted. It illustrates that the best thing about Freelance Success is its smart and generous subscribers.
Six years ago, I received tenure at Oberlin College. I had spent my entire adult life teaching writing, studying writing and writing scholarly articles. I was successful and enjoyed my job, but something was missing: I was not enjoying writing. And, now that my job was secured, I could not imagine a goal for myself that I was eager to pursue. I had no drive to write another academic book, say, or become a dean.
Around this time, a colleague of mine published an article in the Travel section of The New York Times. I was insanely jealous of her. I realized that this was a goal that would motivate me. I asked her how she knew how to do such a curious and surprising thing. Here I was, a life-long reader of The New York Times and a lifelong teacher of writing, and I absolutely no idea how one wrote for that publication.
She told me that she had joined Freelance Success and the site helped her. So I did the same. For the next six months, I obsessively logged on to FLX, as I would come to learn to call it. I read the main boards, and I read the query forum (though it took me awhile to figure out what “query forum” meant, as I had no idea what a query was.) I read the boards and got a sense of what this place was all about — the informal codes of conduct, spirit of participation and odd language people used (what was a “graf”? What was a LOI?). I read the Newsletters and began to think of the magazines and newspapers I had consumed all my life, often clipping from to teach to my students, as “markets.”
Eventually I worked my way to the archives. I studied them as I had 19th century American literature for my dissertation. I learned how one got from idea to query by searching threads on “can anyone help me figure out an angle for this idea?” “what to include in my bio?” and “do I plunge right into the query or introduce myself first?” I began to tailor my ideas for stories more specifically for markets, and eventually realized I needed this odd thing, foreign to academics like myself, called a “news hook.”
In other words, I went to school on FLX. It taught me how to freelance. After one newsletter led to an assignment—for the History Channel Magazine — I realized I had not only had an education in freelancing for less than the cost of four “How To Break In To Magazine Writing” books, not to mention one “How To” class, but I had earned ten times that amount along the way.
I was juiced on the thrill of the hunt — can I track down an assignment?—and the gratification of payment. After a lifetime of writing for free (though with the promise of career advancement — this is how academics roll), I could not believe someone would pay me to write.
When I began to put together a book proposal, I started spending time on the author boards. And when I decided to make freelancing a part of my financial bottom line ( I am now half-time academic, half-time freelancer), I started scouring the threads and sections devoted to pay.
It took me awhile — okay, it is still taking me awhile — to learn how to develop ideas appropriate to markets. I still think like a scholar, hunting for that tiny nugget of an idea no one has thought about before, instead of keying in to the ideas people are thinking about, but presenting them in a new way, which is what most freelancing requires. I still send off queries too quickly, and need to spend more time interviewing and researching my ideas before I click send. In other words, I am still learning, and FLX remains my teacher.
These days, I teach my students at Oberlin College how to get into freelancing, and am so proud when, as just happened last month, one of them writes a successful query to a national magazine in my class, netting a feature. Others have gone on to journalism graduate school, to staff jobs, and to other writing-related endeavors that, they tell me, they would never have known how to do without my class.
The other day, a new colleague of mine asked how I got an article published in The American Prospect, and I could see that look of desire in her eyes, the same look I had when my former colleague–who, by the way, left academia completely and is now a full-time freelancer—published in The New York Times. I told my new junior colleague: “I just joined this website and learned everything there.” It sounded odd to her, and it sounds odd to me too, but it is the truth.
Associate Professor, Rhetoric & Composition