Seeking creative freedom? Think twice before freelancing.

Photo: Pat Pitchaya, freedigitalphotos.net

Photo: Pat Pitchaya, freedigitalphotos.net

There’s a common narrative surrounding freelancing that goes something like this:

“I quit my job to be a freelancer in order to achieve more creative freedom.”

Sure, that’s true in some ways. But in some ways, it isn’t true. The fact is, unless you enjoy the upper echelon of commercial and critical success as a fiction writer (and maybe not even then; those guys and gals have editors, too) or you’re independently wealthy and don’t need to consider your financial resources, audience or clients when creating your passion project, you’ll have to answer to someone, somewhere, along the creative path.

When considering a freelance career, I think the real question is, ‘who do you want to answer to, and how?’ The answers will help you determine whether or not the type of creativity you want to nurture is best cultivated within a company setting or the comfort of your own home office.

Everyone’s experience with the transition to freelance writing is different, so I can only offer insight into my own foray.

In my experience, here are the ways in which freelancing helps to foster creativity.

You can diversify your subject matter.

As a freelancer, you can decide what types of things you want to write about and pitch articles according to those interests. While you might be able to write stories on one particular subject you’re interested in when you’re employed full-time by a publication, you’re not likely to pursue a diverse set of interests in that setting. As editor of a homes magazine, I wrote stories mainly about home décor and remodeling. As a freelancer, I can write on homes, but also farm equipment, kids and nutrition, plastic surgery, military lifestyles and personal finance, sometimes all in one week. That’s fun.

You can pitch stories you care about.

For example, if you read this blog regularly, you know I love to geek out on listing software and personal organization techniques. While large publications may not be devoted to these topics, as a freelancer, I can pitch the occasional story to media outlets concerned with that type of stuff and write away, blissfully, on the merits of color-coding, box-checking and getting things done using apps and programs that help readers prioritize.

Once, the designer of a listing software program I use daily and swear by, noticed me blogging my love for their product all over the place, on my own time. So they approached me and asked to try out a new version of the software and then write about it on their dime. Um, yeah, are you kidding? Of course I said I’d do it. I’m a freelancer, so I can say yes to basically whatever I want to write about.

Here’s how freelance writing does not foster creativity:

You’ll still be writing for someone else.

Be it a magazine, a newspaper, a Web site, a blog not run by you or a business looking to reach clients, each media outlet has a specific editorial voice and story angle in mind. The piece you’re hired to write will be informed by that, and you’ll be expected to write according to the outlet’s specifications.

You’ll be edited.

Some of your most creative prose, maybe the stuff you were most excited about adding to your story, may edited out. You may also be asked to add things to your story you may or may not agree with adding. But in the end, you’re being asked to write for a client, so you need to be editable. And that means compromising your own creativity from time to time in order to help achieve the publication’s goal for the article you’re producing.

You’ll be edited.

If you’re writing for multiple publications, no two editing processes will be alike, and neither will your editors, so you’ll have to be flexible. I have editors who edit heavily, editors who edit lightly, in-between editors and those who edit not at all. I have equal admiration and respect for each one, and am willing to work with them on various levels to do what needs to be done. Are you?

You’ll have to run a business.

That means you’ll have to do stuff like sales, marketing, networking and PR when you’re not being creative, in order to keep the creative work going. If you’ve never learned how to do those things, you’re likely to encounter a difficult, but not insurmountable, learning curve. I knew nothing about these parts of running a business when I began freelancing, and I had to spend a lot of time figuring it out. (True confession: I discovered I liked it.)

So, here’s the thing.

I believe there’s no “creative freedom” litmus test for freelance writers. There are no set criteria we can all use to decide if it’s the right way for each of us to explore creative expression. Instead, if you’re considering a freelance career, I suggest analyzing your own creative goals. Do you want to write on various topics, or just one? Are you interested in learning how to run a small business? Are you open to different kinds of editors and editing, and at different levels of intensity? Does all of that sound better when done independently as opposed to with a company?

It helps to gain insight from other freelancers before taking the leap, so I hope this article has helped you, even in some small way, decide if a freelance career is right for you. Sure, freelancing is a creative choice, but it deserves a measured approach.

P.S.: While we’re on this topic, I should probably tell you that some exciting change is afoot for me and my own creative work life. I’ll have more on that next week.

Contemplating the Life of a Recluse

Photo: Kittikun Atsawintarangkul, freeditigalphotos.net

Photo: Kittikun Atsawintarangkul, freeditigalphotos.net

This morning, I ran across this article in Psychology Today about the deliberate reclusive life. In it, the author discusses the merits of such an extreme choice. It’s not satire, but I had to read it twice to make sure. I couldn’t help but notice how many similarities such a life has to the freelance life and what that implies about the life of a writer.

In the piece, the author discusses some of the merits of working for yourself (a hallmark, according to the author, of an authentically reclusive existence). These include waking when you want to, working and breaking when you choose to, not having to answer to pesky bosses or co-workers, etc. These merits are also things that many freelancers put in the positives column when contemplating their chosen profession. I do.

Some of the most famous writers in history were recluses. Emilies Dickinson and Bronte come to mind. I  like this list, which names several writers among other artist / entertainer types like Dave Chappelle (Who knew?!) for their hermit-like tendencies.

I’m especially interested in this connection right now because I’ve been living the life of a shut-in for the last five days. It seems as if a nasty virus has made me into an experimental recluse, relying on my dogs, the amusement of way too many BBC / PBS miniseries, and the steady gurgle of my Vicks Vapo Steam for company. I actually lost my voice last Saturday, which means I’ve not only put off leaving the house (I left once a couple of days ago — I think it was Tuesday? — to buy dog food) but I’ve also been unable to talk to anyone; a fact that has made me avoid eye contact so as to not invite conversations of any kind.

As another famous recluse, Art Garfunkel, once said, “I am a rock. I am an island.” At least for right now.

The experience hasn’t been so bad for me, or my work. Here are a few of the more subtle reasons why:

I’ve traded my speaking voice for my writing voice.

Because I haven’t been able to utter words, I haven’t been able to just say whatever came to mind right away. Also, I haven’t felt up to much, so communicating has taken effort. Therefore, I’m saving my energy for words and thoughts that seem most important and writing and editing those, and those only. Like this post I’m writing for you. Hope you like it.

I’ve been thinking and listing more.

Listing is one of the ways I make sense of my life, and because I’ve been more prone to introspection this week, I’ve been doing more list-writing, too. I’ve been addressing life-quaking decisions that have characterized this past year (husband’s new job, our move West, my impending jump to academia, the decision to start looking for a house and more) and those that will continue to change the course of my writing life in the next few years. I’ve collected books I want to read on the topic of career and life change but haven’t cracked any of them yet. So I’ve listed all of that stuff in an attempt to make it real and hold myself to making the changes and reading the books. It’s a writerly response to upheaval, I suppose. We’ll see how it all goes.

I’ve refined my own identity as a writer, just a little bit.

There are merits to this lifestyle, sure, but at the end of the day, I’m a social animal. Having to cancel an important work trip this week as well as social and volunteer engagements have made me realize how much I miss being around people, and how much energy and inspiration I draw on for writing by interacting with others. Sure, the freelance life often looks a lot like the reclusive life. But for me, the best thing about freelancing choice. I can go underground when I want to, taking a full day to write without interruption and planning conference calls, meetings and interviews only when it’s most convenient for me. Yet, I can also resurface for networking events and social opportunities when I feel it’s time to get back into the business of being in the world. I can straddle the line.

I’ve done squat to my hair.

Because nobody cares about your hair when you’re a recluse. (See: Art Garfunkel.)

Want a healthier, more beautiful office space? Just do this one thing!

Photo: foto76, freedigitalphotos.net

Photo: foto76, freedigitalphotos.net

There are hundreds of things you can do to create a more ecofriendly, healthy workspace. Some are easy (replacing your desktop incandescent bulb with a CFL, for example). Some are more involved (repainting your desk with low- or no-VOC paint comes to mind).

If you don’t have much cash or time to invest and are looking for a quick-and-dirty way to clean up the air you breathe and enhance the beauty of your surroundings right away, I suggest investing in one or two humble houseplants.

Before you head to the nearest nursery, however, it’s important to decide on a plant that’s scientifically proven to purify the air. Believe it or not, NASA did a study on houseplants back in the 1980s in order to discern which green machines would best purify the air of a space station. Find a list of the most popular and effective ones here.

Many of the hardest workers can rid the air of gross offenders like benzene, trichlorethylene and formaldehyde.

(Spoiler alert: the Spider Plant and Golden Pothos, both of which never seem to die, even for black thumbs like yours truly, make the list. So does the pretty and powerful Gerbera Daisy.)

The bottom line: If these plants are good enough for a space station, they’re good enough for an at-home workstation.

Get growing!

Why you should stop apologizing for your work. Yesterday.

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Photo: freedigitalphotos.net

I want to share something very personal with you.

In addition to the YouTube videos I watch about how to rid my computer of malware or how to set up a portable air conditioner, I also watch videos on health and beauty stuff, like how to bump out my hair (yep, that’s a thing) or to create a natural-looking full eyebrow.

I’ve noticed a particular theme in the beauty videos. Many of the narrators serve as effective demonstrators and some have developed a cult following. People watch them, trust them and do what they say. Judging from the high number of views these videos get, I’d guess that their content is useful to hundreds, if not thousands.

Yet, so many of these narrators feel the need to begin their videos with, or interject with, and apology.

As in, “I’m sorry the video quality is so poor today” or, “I’m sorry I look so tired today” or, “Sorry my voice sounds so ______ (choose one: raspy, quiet, loud) today” followed by an explanation.

I’ve been guilty of the exact same thing.

In the past, when handing in an assignment, I’ve caught myself beginning the accompanying email with something that goes like this:

Dear ________,

Here’s the latest draft of the _________ story. As you can see, it’s a bit long, and the tone might be a bit too heavy …

We must do ourselves, our readers / watchers / listeners and our clients a favor and stop apologizing for our work. Yesterday.

Here are two ways to kick this nasty habit:

1. Revise, don’t apologize.

It has taken me a long time to realize that, if my work warrants an apology or disclaimer of some sort, it means it wasn’t ready to be packaged and sent off to begin with. The word count may indeed still be too high or the tone might very well be missing the mark. Whatever it is, it’s not my client’s job to fix, it’s mine. After all, they’re paying me to do the work as specified. So, my advice to you is, if you ever find yourself apologizing for your work on submission, hold back. Re-work it until it no longer needs an apology. Then, it will be worth your asking fee.

2. Ask yourself: What if this work were food?

I’m serious! Say you’re at a restaurant and you’re about to shell out for an expensive meal. Hey, any meal. You order, the food comes to you, and as the server hands it over, she says, “Sorry, this smoothie may not taste like it should. I used way too much agave.” Or, “I know you wanted that steak medium, but mid-well is the best I could do. Let me know how it tastes though, ok? [smile] I’ll remake it if you want me to.” It would be a total career killer for a chef or restaurant proprietor to deliver her creations with a smile and an “I’m sorry.” No one would take the time to taste the supposedly subpar stuff and wait (and then pay!) for the better stuff to appear. Don’t diminish your own work’s value before others have the chance to draw their own conclusions.

You must first create quality work worthy of no apologies. Then, be confident enough in its effectiveness to serve it straight up.

Crushing On: Aromatherapy

Photo: Lemonade, freedigitalphotos.net

Photo: Lemonade, freedigitalphotos.net

I’m studying for the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) right now and part of my preparation involves looking up the meaning of a lot of vocabulary words. That got me thinking about the definition of “aromatherapy,” a term that gets bantered about a lot. The word “therapy,” as defined by Merriam-Webster, means “treatment of physical or mental illnesses.” Add the word “aroma,” and I guess we’re talking about treatment of physical or mental illness through smell.

I’m not sure if scent can actually treat illness. But I do know that scent has a profound effect on how I feel.

Some fragrances (interestingly the smell of most fabric softeners as well as most commercial cleaning products, for example) really rub my ‘ole olfactory system the wrong way. Others, such as the crisp, naturally derived scents of lemon, eucalyptus, or lavender have the ability to make me feel relaxed, rejuvenated and just … well, happy in my space.

In the past few years, I’ve developed a little collection of can’t-live-without scented items, a few of which have proven awesome for quick at-work pick-me-ups. I’ve already written about my favorite all-purpose scented wipe. Here are the other two smell-good things I swear by at work:

 Essential Oils

Photo: Courtesy of Aura Cacia

Photo: Courtesy of Aura Cacia

I love the aromas essential oils provide. They’re called essential oils, by the way, not because they’re essential to life (how melodramatic!), but because they contain the true essence, the real scent, of the plant from which they’re derived and nothing artificial.

A tiny drop of any essential oil goes a long way, which is good news since most of these highly concentrated potions come in itty-bitty bottles. Essential oils can be used to scent natural cleaning products or personal care items. But my favorite way to use them is to dab a drop or two of lavender, lemon, orange or eucalyptus on my wrists when I’m feeling tired or stressed. The oils lift my mood or relax me, depending on which scent I reach for. Best of all, they’re 100-percent natural, so no icky chemicals on my skin, thankyouverymuch.

 P.S.: There are several trustworthy brands of essential oils out there (I buy the Aura Cacia brand at Whole Foods), but if the price is too good to be true, the oil probably is, too. If you’ve ever picked up a tiny bottle of essential oil and wondered why they’re so expensive, this article provides a great explanation / justification.

 A Naturally Scented Candle

photo

One of the many perks that come with working from home is the fact that I can burn a scented candle on my desktop. But as I mentioned earlier, I find most artificially derived scents pretty aggravating. As an alternative, I buy Izola’s lavender scented candle, which is made from 100 percent vegetable wax and relies on natural fragrance, and fire it up when I get that 2:30 feeling. I’ve already (forgive it) burned through two. I’m now on my third, and I absolutely adore the way it fills my office with subtle, feel-good scent, just when my motivation begins to flag. I doubt I’ll depart from my favorite fragrance any time soon, but I’m encouraged to know there’s a variety of non-cloying scents available (Elderflower and Sandalwood come to mind) should I ever change my mind. Again, here, I have to acknowledge the price ($35 a pop), which is pretty steep for a candle, I admit. But each one burns for 60 hours and the fragrances are all-natural, so it’s worth it for me. (And it’s cheaper than perking up with a 2:30 latte.)

What picks you up when you’re feeling low or slow at work? Does scent help?

Tell me your tricks in the comments.

Grow Your Business: The Three Elements of a Great Query Letter

Photo: bulldogza, freedigitalphotos.net

Photo: bulldogza, freedigitalphotos.net

So, you’ve built a solid prospect list and maybe you’ve even made a few cold calls. Perhaps you’ve promised a prospective editor that you’d have a few great story ideas in her inbox very soon. Good for you!

This week, we continue our Grow Your Business series with some helpful hints on how to write a great query (pitch) letter.

Here’s why you should write formal query letters.

I firmly believe that formal query letters get more attention and garner more business than one or two-sentence story idea descriptions embedded in the body of an email. The problem with firing off a short list of topics in an email message is that, just like lots of other content, your ideas are likely to get lost in the barrage of emails editors receive each day.

Instead, I prefer writing my queries in a separate word document and sending them as an attachment. I figure, if the editor or content manager is invested enough to open my document, she’s likely to sit with it for a while and read it all the way through.

When I first started writing, I had no idea how to structure query letters. But after doing a little research, I was able to begin writing them with success. My single, most beneficial, source was a little ebook by writer Linda Formichelli called “Query Letters that Rock,” which features examples of actual query letters that resulted in the writer of the letter getting the assignment. If you’re not sure where to start with regard to querying, you must get this book. I’ve modeled my query letters after the ones featured in Formichelli’s dynamo piece for the past three years and they’ve worked wonders for me.

“Query Letters that Rock,” or another book like it, will likely be your most important tool. However, to get you going, I want to list a few elements every successful query letter should have. Here goes:

1. A great query letter reads like a mini-story.

Begin with a catchy introduction or lede. Draw the reader in with a sentence or two explaining a recent experience you had or a problem you encountered that your story is likely to solve for readers. For example, if you want to write a story about the trend toward soda-fountain craft beverages, tell a story about how you came upon the trend. Were you walking through town and happened to spot signs advertising soda drinks everywhere? If you want to cover a vintage store that regularly supplies to big-name movies and TV shows, consider beginning with an anecdote about the proprietor helping to outfit one of the show’s main stars. Be interesting from the start, and your story idea will pique the editor’s interest, too.

2. A great query letter proves the story’s relevance.

If possible, provide links to other research, books or consumer media outlets, especially authorities on the subject or in the industry, that support your assertion that your idea is, indeed, worthy of a story. For example, in the aforementioned vintage clothing piece, track down pieces national affiliates or industry publications have written that feature similar businesses. The editor needs to know that your writing will either announce a current trend to a larger audience or introduce the reader to a new piece of research or product. Make sure you prove your idea is relevant and timely by showcasing other coverage in the area.

Note: If you find more than three pieces that have already been written on the subject matter you wish to cover (especially if all three of those pieces are in publications that cover a broad audience), it’s likely the trend has tipped, and is no longer worth announcing. When pitching stories, you’re looking for little-known but corroborated issues or story ideas, not stuff that people have been talking about for a while. As Sandra Rinomato of HGTV’s “Property Virgins” once said, “Think, up and coming, not been and gone.” It’s hard to strike this subtle balance, but do enough research and you’ll get the hang of it.

3. A great query letter marries the publication to the idea.

You may have the best story idea in the world up your sleeve, but if it’s not right for the outlet you’re pitching to, it won’t matter. At the end of your pitch, you’ll want to briefly explain exactly why your story belongs in your target publication. In our vintage-clothing store case, something as simple as, “I think your readers would be surprised and delighted to know that one of HBO’s most exciting and popular shows is being outfitted right here in our little town of Mayberry” is a great way to marry publication to idea. If you’re pitching to a local media outlet, your story must have a sense of place and local relevance, and a unique local spin, even if it describes a nationally-relevant idea. If the publication or Web site is national, or even worldwide, in scope, you must be able to show how your story is different from the other stories the publication has written in the past, or how it is a continuation of ideas the publication regularly covers. No matter what, you must be able to tell the editor why the story is the right fit for her publication.

Tell me about your querying process. What querying techniques have you used successfully? What didn’t work for you? Drop me a comment.