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Home > Publications > Quill > Freelance: Freelancing advice from the ivory tower


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Friday, August 1, 2008
Freelance: Freelancing advice from the ivory tower

By David Wheeler

One word: plastics.

When I was in college, my journalism professor (and now colleague) Marcia Hurlow put me in contact with a university research magazine called Odyssey, whose editor asked me to write about “the world’s longest plastic-deck bridge.” I knew relatively little about bridges, and less about plastics, but I wanted to set myself apart as a writer who could translate scientific jargon for readers.

Since then I have written articles for Odyssey on such diverse topics as termite control and plant viruses. If I had stayed in my non-scientific comfort zone, I would have missed out on some of the most fascinating interviews of my career, not to mention some of the most lucrative paychecks.

Now that I teach at Asbury College, I’m discovering a consensus among educators when it comes to teaching freelance writing: Students should be practical when picking a specialty.

Target the unusual

Journalism educators across the country teach freelance specialization in a variety of ways. At Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Ark., Michael Ray Taylor requires each student in his magazine class to research the history, mission and freelance needs of a special interest or trade magazine. His students also brainstorm story ideas on obscure hobbies and submit query letters to specialized slots at magazines of their choice.

“Throughout the semester, I encourage students to bring in and share lesser-known specialized magazines as they find them, and as a class, we will spend a few minutes figuring how to target that specialty,” he said.

In 20 years, Taylor has developed freelance specialties in caving, planetary science, eco-travel and obscure sports. If students are skeptical about the advantages of specializing in unusual topics, Taylor can simply show them his Sports Illustrated clips on turkey calling and tournament Scrabble.

Consider specialty training

One practical way to distinguish yourself as a freelancer is to pursue academic training in your chosen specialty field.

“I don’t think you have to go to medical school to cover science and health, and I don’t think you have to go to law school to cover law, but it doesn’t hurt,” said Victor Navasky, a magazine journalism professor at Columbia University and a former editor of The New York Times Magazine and The Nation. “Some kind of academic investment of time and energy might be the wisest decision” for someone who wants to specialize, he said.

Scholarships are sometimes available for working journalists who want academic training. For example, the Religion Newswriters Association offers $5,000 scholarships, funded by the Lilly Endowment, for journalists who want to take religion courses at colleges, universities or seminaries.

Many journalism schools have created programs for students who want to cover specific subjects. This fall, the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication will launch a master’s degree in specialized journalism.

Start with knowledge you have

David Standish, who teaches graduate magazine writing at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, has written for Esquire, Rolling Stone, Smithsonian and Audubon, among other publications. In addition to specialty areas in music, history and bird-watching, Standish has numerous travel writing clips, which have served as a springboard for discussion on how to get started as a travel writer.

“You don’t have to go anywhere,” he said. “You can treat the area you are at home with, and know about, as travel material. If you think about it that way, you can begin writing travel pieces without having to convince somebody to send you to Tahiti.”

Likewise, students who want a freelance specialty in hobbies can start with activities they already participate in.

Let each assignment inspire you

Because my wife’s parents live in Europe, I had the opportunity last summer to interview Kentucky expatriates in England, Germany and Belgium for an article published in The Lexington Herald-Leader. That article sounded more impressive than the one on the world’s longest plastic-deck bridge. However, driving to a tiny Kentucky town called River (population: 695) to write about the world-record bridge turned into an adventure that enriched my writing life and encouraged me to continue freelancing.

As a result of this experience and others, I urge my students to be open-minded; after all, the practical can often turn into the inspirational.

David Wheeler teaches journalism and advises the student newspaper at Asbury College in Wilmore, Ky. His latest freelance article, forthcoming in The Lexington Herald-Leader, tells the ironic story of technology professionals who collect books. He can be reached at david.wheeler@asbury.edu.

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