In 2006 Gigi Douban quit her newspaper job to raise her two kids as a full-time freelancer, which at the time involved waiting for emails in coffee shops and digging into her savings. Eight years later her clip file sports Bloomberg, The New York Times, NPR and a fistful of other heavy-hitters across several platforms. She was kind enough to speak with me on the phone about starting out as a pen-for-hire.
To sum up: “It was rough. It was really, really rough. It was really rough.”
The deck is almost perfectly stacked against the new freelancer, Gigi said. Where company folk take workplace routine for granted, a freelancer has to carve one out from scratch and then muster the discipline to stick to it. Lulls are as frequent as they are long, rejection is constant (if you get a response at all) and the pressure is higher when you do find work because editors have no reason cut you any slack – or hire you again if you screw up. “You can’t be like, ‘Oh, I’m working on this story for the Birmingham News and for Bloomberg, so, NPR, could you, you know, back off a little bit and give me another month?’”
But there is hope for the rookie with one, simple trick: Tough it the hell out. If nothing else, the writing life rewards persistence. Gigi talks about the first days like boot camp, weeding out the ones who don’t have the stuff to make it. “It takes time. And I think only the most patient and persistent people are the ones who are going to find success,” she said. “When there are those lulls, editors are not calling you back, emails going unreturned, you cannot be discouraged by that.”
It teaches newbies to keep track of several things at once, stay calm during the dry spells and get rejected day after day without losing morale, because – here’s the twist – those problems don’t ever really go away, even for someone who uses Bloomberg and NPR in her hypotheticals. In the end, it isn’t the biz that changes, it’s the writer.
Fortunately, Gigi did leave me with some survival tips for the early stage:
Set out with a bunch of cash. If you’re broke, start putting a little away in savings, because unless you’ve already made it big, you almost certainly won’t be able to support yourself with your writing for a while.
Nail organization early. The tangle of ideas, pitches, editors and sources will only get worse once you start picking up assignments. Gigi recommends a good organization software, like Evernote.
Make use of the idle periods. Just because you aren’t getting paid doesn’t mean you can’t be productive, so make a bowl of ramen noodles and then use the opportunity to, say, learn video editing or update your site.
Put your clips online. Even a basic WordPress or Blogspot site makes things easier for editors. And even if your clip file is thin, Gigi said a weak online presence looks better than none at all. (More on this in part II.)
Consider joining a professional organization. These include groups like the Society of Professional Journalists or the Association of Independents in Radio, and are good places to seek advice from people in the biz.
Keep track of your cash. Your earnings will be a mosaic of contracts and checks, and it can be tricky to track who owes you what and when, so get good accounting and tax softwares.
Don’t forget to have friends. “…to talk you off the ledge. Sometimes you forget how much you socialize in an office, not just professionally.”