Learning from a week of freelancing fails

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FU_Blog_HowToFail_Index_1The past week was not the most successful in my short time as a freelance writer. Not, at least, in the conventional sense. Yes, I got outstanding feedback on a piece of writing from friends. And I learned valuable professional lessons. But I did not place an article, secure a paycheck, or do anything else that will subsidize my addiction to Lay’s kettle-cooked mesquite BBQ potato chips. Instead, I was forced to relegate this week’s article to my blog – where it shall molder without a penny to its name.

So, in an effort to wring something meaningful from this experience, I will pass along those aforementioned ‘professional lessons’ – as an example of how others, embarked upon a similar path course, might find meaning in weeks like these.

Lesson 1: You Can Ask for Help (!). Last Wednesday, I came across a video of conservative pundits lamenting Pope Francis’s anti-capitalist rhetoric. The video was objectionable for a host of reasons; but it particularly galled me as an historian because the talking heads were so obviously unaware of the Catholic Church’s anti-capitalist teachings. By the time I finished the video, I had decided to make Catholic anti-capitalism the focus of my week’s writing. The only problem: my knowledge of the subject was impressionistic – the stuff of happy hour rants, not serious journalism.

To remedy this, I resigned myself, in true academic form, to hours on JSTOR and in the University of Florida’s libraries – until I realized that asking a contact to elaborate the details of a story is a typical component of the freelancer’s research toolkit. So, instead of taking to the stacks, I took to the phone – calling a friend with an encyclopedic knowledge of modern Catholic history for help. I approached him with a draft of my argument, and, within an hour, he had provided everything I needed to transform an article framework into a well-substantiated piece of prose.

Lesson 2: Freelancers Are Writers First (a Corollary to Lesson 1). As academics, we’re trained to believe that the only important statement is an original one. If it’s elegantly-stated, all the better. But it must be original. Ironing my friend’s spoken insights on Catholic history into publishable prose, this sensibility nagged at me. “You’re not an expert on this,” the disembodied voice of Academia hissed in my ear. “You didn’t even read a peer-reviewed article on this subject! And now you’re trying to sell an argument that dozens of others have already made in the scholarly literature.”

It didn’t matter if someone, somewhere had made this argument before me; it mattered that I should say it best. And so I focused on my writing, polishing it to a sheen – trying to communicate what others had merely argued.

Time was short; and my adrenaline was pumping. But still, I could feel the hot breath of Academia on my neck – casting doubt on my every word – until I realized that I was in a different world with different rules. Here, writing, not originality, took precedence.* It didn’t matter if someone, somewhere had made this argument before me; it mattered that I should say it best. And so I focused on my writing, polishing it to a sheen – trying to communicate what others had merely argued.

Lesson 3: Successful Freelancers Anticipate Stories; Unsuccessful Ones React to Them. I thought I was pretty slick. I had drafted, researched, and polished my story on Wednesday, the Pope’s second day in the US. I planned to submit it on Thursday morning, during Francis’s final few hours in Washington, DC. And I hoped that, following some whistle-stop edits on Thursday afternoon, the article would arrive in print bright and early on Friday morning. But, in addition to some tactical errors on my part (see Lesson 4 below), I soon discovered that Friday was already too late for another pope story. Indeed, as one editor told me, her magazine was already “poped out.” So, too, were the other two publications from which I received encouraging, courteous rejections.

My takeaway: even working at breakneck speed, I had been unable to outpace my competitors – because, while I had reacted to the story, my competitors had anticipated it – lining up their pitches and their research long before Francis had even set foot in the US.

Lesson 4: SMSes Are Never Worth It (a Corollary to Lesson 3). When I finished my article on Wednesday night, I knew I had to get it in print by Friday – or else the pope’s moment would pass and with it my article’s relevance. So I decided, without having consulted the Google hive mind, that, come Thursday morning, I would submit my piece to two editors at once (being sure to notify them that I was doing so). Surely one of them would say yes, I thought. And this way I wouldn’t have to wait for one editor’s response before knocking at another’s door.

My takeaway: even working at breakneck speed, I had been unable to outpace my competitors – because, while I had reacted to the story, my competitors had anticipated it – lining up their pitches and their research long before Francis had even set foot in the US.

Turns out that this practice – known in freelancing parlance as simultaneous multiple submission (or SMS) – is nearly as noxious to non-academic editors as it is to their academic counterparts. Why I had assumed otherwise is, in retrospect, a great mystery. But, after twenty-four hours of radio silence from the two editors (both of whom are ordinarily extremely prompt in their replies), I decided to research the propriety of SMSes. Discovering that I had committed a faux pas, I beat a hasty retreat – withdrawing my submission from one of the venues and apologizing to both of my editors.

Thankfully, both editors seemed to understand that my foray in SMS was a rookie mistake rather than a mature transgression of protocol. And both assured me that, SMS notwithstanding, their respective publications were already well-stocked with Catholic-related commentary. But I can’t help but suspect that their delayed response was, at least in part, a response to my SMS. Perhaps it was a muted expression of annoyance. Or perhaps they were simply waiting to see if the other editor would pick up the piece first. Either way, by the time that I got formal rejections and could continue shopping the piece around, its moment had well and truly passed. And so, to the blog it went – lucrative only in the lessons it had afforded.

 

* This is not to suggest that originality of thought is unimportant in journalism. Time and again, journalists demonstrate outstanding originality. Rather, I’m arguing that quality writing is the sin qua non of journalism. Derivative arguments can and do get published; uncommunicative articles do not.

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