When I graduated from Indiana University four years ago, I had no idea I would end up a full-time freelance writer.
It was the start of the new millennium, and everything looked bright. I graduated from one of the top 10 journalism programs in the country. I was a varsity athlete at a Big Ten University. I worked on the award winning Indiana Daily Student newspaper and a local sports publication as a staff writer. I freelanced for The Associated Press, and I interned at The Indianapolis Star and the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin. I was ready to begin my career. An Association for Women in Sports Media scholarship provided a great opportunity to cap my college experience with a final internship at The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
When my summer internship came to a close, I began interviewing for full-time positions, but then an opportunity came along that was too good to pass up. The Sporting News offered me a contract job/internship to drive to every NFL city in the country with two guys I didn’t know. We attended the games, interviewed fans, wrote about life on the road and went to Super Bowl XXXV. We lived out of a suitcase and in a hotel, all paid for with The Sporting News’ dime. I had a chance to experience so many things most people only dream about.
Four months and many miles later, I was sitting in the backseat of our Grand Prix rental somewhere near Foxboro, Mass., when the driver of my car swerved to avoid a collision, and we were rear-ended by an oil tanker. I was lucky. The doctor said there was no medical explanation why I survived. The truck driver cut off my seat belt since I was choking to death and saved my life. I woke in the hospital not remembering a thing. After being bed-ridden with five broken ribs, a punctured lung, concussion and other internal damage, I started physical therapy and began looking for a full-time job. I decided to pull a gutsy move. Since the Star-Telegram wasn’t hiring, I drove to Dallas and requested a formal interview to work as a sports reporter. I then made a deal with the Dallas Morning News. At Indiana, I took Bob Knight’s basketball coaching class in college. As a student-athlete, I saw a different side of him that most people didn’t. I suggested writing a column about the class. If the Morning News liked it, they should hire me, if they didn’t, they could just pay for the article and send me on my way. The story ran verbatim.
Six months later, a month after Sept. 11, 2001, I was one of many laid off by the Dallas Morning News. Looking for work and hungry for a career in journalism, I began freelancing again. I did it in college for the AP and for a few small out-of-state newspapers while working at the Dallas Morning News. I hadn’t really considered making it a career — until I had the option of moving home or sticking it out. Not one to give up, I decided on the latter. I became a freelance writer/high school rowing coach/waitress/swim instructor. That’s when I heard about a new local sports, entertainment and lifestyle start-up publication in Dallas. I inquired about a job posting and beat out 25 other candidates to get the only steady freelancing beat. I quit some of my other odd jobs. I moved up from freelancer to staff writer and finally to assistant editor. But I continued to freelance on the side. Then one day, we came to work to find the office locked and a note on the door stating that the publication had ceased operation indefinitely.
Since then, I’ve been freelancing full time and enjoy it more as days go by. That’s not to say that if a good job offer came along I wouldn’t consider it, but freelancing takes on a new meaning when it becomes your livelihood. It’s not about living in pajamas or working for only two hours a day. Like any small business, it is a lot of hours and little pay until things start to take off. But you’d be surprised how quickly editors start calling you if they like your work. The key is to never stop querying, questioning or being persistent.
A few months ago, I had the opportunity to interview Magic Johnson when he was opening a Magic Johnson 24 Fitness in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. I asked him what he attributed his success to since so many other professional athletes don’t seem to thrive in their post-career lives.
That’s when he told me, “If you wait until you are done playing, it’s too late.”
I feel the same about freelance writing. It is about planning to make the transition easier. To have something in your back pocket for that rainy day. That transition may be small, like trying to go from sports reporting to business, or it may be large, like deciding you’ve had enough with middle management and want to be your own boss. It’s important to start when you are in college, when you have a career or if you are anticipating a change in your lifestyle. Don’t wait until you graduate. Don’t wait until you are a stay-at-home mom. Don’t wait until after you quit your job. Do it now. You never know what the future may hold. Since we all know reporters don’t have golden parachutes, it is good to plan for the worst and hope for the best.
While I’m not advocating trying to freelance so much that it affects full-time responsibilities, try to allot a small amount of time for freelance writing. An hour a day or every few days can make a big difference. Get up early and write before going to work or on your lunch break or a small part of your weekend. Especially in these economic times with media mergers and downsizing, freelancing is a great way to make extra money towards a mortgage, to help students in college or to begin the preparation before transitioning into a new career.
Once you go full time, it’s a business. Businesses need a lot of attention to flourish. Like any good story, doing the research and preparation before makes everything easier. Consider the financial ramifications, such as investing in an IRA instead of a 401(k) if you know you will leave soon. How will you cover medical insurance? Create a home office. Build contacts. Talk to editors and find out what they like in query letters. Make professional personal cards to give out with your business ones, sell yourself — not the company that cuts your paycheck. Build a personal Web site that has your background information and writing history. Attend cocktail parties and writing groups. Most importantly, pay attention. Just by being curious and talking to family, friends and strangers, you will get many new ideas that can help start a freelance writing career. I started talking to a woman who worked behind a Subway counter and found out she was from Jordan. Although westernized, women can’t drive or go to the movie theaters in her home country, even though she has a college degree. At the gym, I met a man who had breast cancer. He is a healthy man in his 40s who worked out regularly. When he went to see the doctor for a sinus infection and mentioned a small pebble-size lump in his chest, a biopsy detected breast cancer.
With a little tenacity and a devoted work ethic, freelancing can be fun and allow for some flexibility while paying the bills.
Dawn Reiss is a freelancer in Dallas and co-chair of SPJ’s newly created Freelance Committee. She has written for USA Today, The Associated Press, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Cleveland Plain-Dealer, San Diego Union-Tribune and many other media outlets. You can contact Dawn at email@example.com or her co-chair, Wendy Hoke, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tagged under: Freelancing