In an effort to share my road to being a journalist and the lessons I've learned along the way (and hopefully save a little bit of time in the cover letter process), I'm going to do another edition of FAQ's about journalism. Please drop me an email at email@example.com if you wish to learn more about freelance writing and how you might be able to achieve your goals if this FAQ session sparks you.
For reference purposes, FAQ's about journalism stems from the fact that people find it interesting that I'm a journalist and often ask me questions about it.
Q: So you're a freelance journalist and freelance writer. What does that mean?
A: I have consistently been working on freelance writing in some form or another since around October of 2010. This means I am either spending my time in one of five phases:
1) Working on writing projects
2) Working on writing projects while searching for a job
3) Splitting my time between writing and an odd or part-time job (I've worked for betteredit.com, in pizza delivery, and for the election board)
4) Searching for a freelance writing opportunity (this happens when I don't have much on my plate)
5) On a PR project or working towards helping other writers get into the business (this is more of an upstart phase)
Between phases two and four, I am more likely to spend time seeking a freelance writing opportunity than I am to seek full-time work at this point, nowadays. I'm not seeking out the 9-to-5 world so much unless the right opportunity comes to me and I would prefer to enter a salaried job organically. Ideally, I would like to work for them freelance so that we both see if each other are good fits.
Q: Wow that’s so awesome! You’re my hero. I don’t like my day job and you’re so free to do whatever you want. How much do you make?
A: Hmmm, I don’t think enough to live off of. Although, that could change. Let’s hypothetically say that I don’t make enough for me to continue to hold your admiration.
Q: You useless bum! Why don’t you just go get a job rather than using that energy towards freelance writing?
A: Now that is a good question! A few different reasons: I’m attracted to the short-term gain of a freelance job rather than wasting my time applying for a competitive job in a market where my resume will be dropped into a pile along with a hundred other resumes and I’ll have to B.S. my way through an interview for a job I might not necessarily want but have to take because it might be my only option and I would like to eat. Worse, I wouldn’t want to take a job only to discover I might not be of use or not legitimately a good fit for it. That happened in one of my recent work experiences.
Q: Tell me about that.
A: Well, I was working at the Department of Defense’s Defense Logistics Agency. I was a management technician or something in Management and Supply of Department 3314 or…honestly, I have no clue and that was the whole problem. Despite being well on my way towards a master’s degree, I was hired for some random desk job that had nothing to do with my training or interests, I felt expendable. Wow, you’re a really good career counselor.
Q: Well, I'm a hypothetical construct of your imagination. If you went full-schizophrenic and I became a distinctly different personality, we could work something out.
A: Well, I wasn’t pleased earning a paycheck in that manner. With freelance work, there’s a simplicity and honesty to the business relationship and those are things I value more than a paycheck. I also feel that in freelance writing, I’m learning a lot and exploring what I like doing. I don’t think the 9-to-5 job world is going anywhere and I’ll only be more experienced when I’m ready to re-enter it on my own terms.
Q: So when did you begin as a journalist?
A: I began seeing myself as a freelance writer sometime around October 2010. I had just finished grad school and finished working for Census 2010 and the only thing I knew is that I had been living at home for over a year and wanted to move to a different city, but didn't really have a plan in place. I didn't know what I was going to do next at all which rendered me pretty unproductive on the job front, the moving front, and, truth be told, the doing anything front. I was immersing myself in the fall TV schedule and noticed one day that a writer who's name I recognized from the AV Club Podcast I downloaded (Noel Murray) popped up on the facebook queue for "people you might want to be friends with" (another blogger I met in cyberspace was a mutual friend).
I contacted Noel on a whim, and asked to be considered for a show they weren't reviewing at the time. I offered as a sample to post a review of "Raising Hope" within a couple hours of the show airing on my blog, so they could use that as a sample. He redirected me to the head editor who asked me to send him some samples. (Lesson: Find out who the editors are, and go after them. Even editors of websites that don't have highly-advertised open submissions policies [of which AV Club is a prime example] usually won't be able to resist a good idea if presented to them and IT NEVER HURTS TO ASK). The head editor of the TV site, eventually rejected me but took two weeks to do so, and in that span of two weeks, wanting to keep myself busy, I reached out for other opportunities, some of which eventually accepted me. Before I knew it, a couple doors to local newspapers and a couple other outlets on the web opened to me, that previously were shut. The opening of more and more doors and seeing new avenues for which I could make writing work for me has been rewarding.
Q: So did you write before that?
A: When I was a high school junior, I was looking to distinguish myself among a crowd of over achievers by doing something big and important. The opportunity came when I was at the local courthouse outside of a job fair.
Having never seen a county board meeting before, I was curious and went inside where I sat next to a reporter for a local paper. I asked him if they took interns and he gave me a card. I then got some bylines in the community newspaper while I was still in high school. This was kind of ironic because I wasn't on my school newspaper staff.
(Lesson learned: Now that I think about it, what led me to the courthouse that day is a curiosity to see and experience different things around me and that’s been a big part of both why I like journalism and why I’ve had any success with it.)
Q: So you’ve been doing journalism your whole life since then?
A: Not exactly. Journalism was one of a few things I was interested in when I arrived at college. In my first college, I took two or three journalism courses. That was my main formal education in the process which, make no mistake, has been pretty much the foundation through which I've gotten everything else. (Lesson learned: A little bit of formal education goes along way. One must definitely learn AP Style, the basic structure of a newspapers and the reasons behind why news stories get published in order to get published yourself). I tried to make a dent in the school paper without much success, before deciding on geography as a major. When I transferred to my second college, I was eager to take on a minor in journalism but discovered it had been abolished. I decided the best way to cope with my disappointment in these new surroundings was to reinvent myself and because I had messed around with writing movie reviews on imdb and had a strong interest in film history, I would take a minor in film studies.
I wasn’t initially planning on writing for the school newspaper when I transferred to JMU. I was a track and field buff and I noticed that the editors asked why they didn’t cover that particular sport and they replied that no one knows much about it or wants to cover it.. I said, what the hell, I’ll cover it and they were surprised and when I turned in my first article, they were surprised that I knew what I was doing and how to write a story and asked me to stay on as a beat writer for the track team the first year and although there were a couple slight bumps in the road the first year (I wasn't good at juggling deadlines and homework at first. Since improved), I got promoted to staff writer the second year and working the style department.
Q: After that, is it smooth sailing to a career in journalism and freelance writing?
A: Not really. It took about four years. Out of college, I was hired to be a film critic for a newspaper in Takoma Park. To do this, I went to 50states.com, looked up every newspaper in Maryland and Virginia and just called them all until I reached somewhere (Lesson: If I had to have done this again, I would have gone to the Virginia Press Association's Website where they have a convenient listing of nearly every newspaper in the state). Anyways, I was dropped before anything I wrote was ever published or I was ever paid. I didn’t know whether I wanted to continue with journalism but I wanted to at least find a way to professionally publish the movie reviews I’d written for the first newspaper. About six months later, I got hired to write for NBC 4’s DC Scene as an unpaid contributor. They published nearly everything I submitted including some of those early movies I reviewed (by then, they weren't in the theater but on DVD), gave my writing a professional editing job (Maggie from Minnesota was my assigned editor, my first random writing friend [Lesson: Networking with other writers is the lifeblood that keeps you going]), and put everything on a website with the logo NBC 4 under it.
For the most part, I saw writing as an option and though I kept a blog, I saw myself as an aspiring geographer and a year later, a grad student who aspired to a job in that field after he graduated. Between when I got hired from NBC and approximately 4 years out of college, I was hoping to be employed at a job and it was between stints at jobs-a couple rounds of substitute teaching, a relief worker in New Orleans, a long-term intern at a traffic planning company, a desk drone for the department of defense, a practicum for AARP- that I would go after journalism and give it a shot to make some money. I even botched my opportunity to be published at one newspaper because I got hired by a job and subsequently stopped writing my story for them.
I did have a few articles published in various places here and there over that span and was put in charge of uboast's job blog in addition to getting a column at examiner.com. It was mostly a matter of steadiness in the work that kept me from really being attached to journalism in the first four years.