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Home > Publications > Quill > Enjoy the freelancer’s journey


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Friday, May 1, 2009
Enjoy the freelancer’s journey

Jeff Cutler

When you first stand up on water skis, you’re gripped by a singular euphoria. The air and surf rush past while you struggle to figure out how you succeeded in standing. But you’re there, white-knuckled and shaking, a grin pasted from ear-to-ear.

Even as you remain upright, you’re keenly aware that a little chop on the water or a minor weight shift could toss you headlong into the ocean. You depend on your senses, your companions and your equipment to ensure a safe and enjoyable ride.

The same holds true for successful freelancing. When you know your environment, maintain and nurture your relationships, and plan appropriately for the future, you give yourself the best chance for prosperity as a free-agent.

At speeds up to 40 knots, glancing away from the water can spell disaster on water skis. The same holds true in freelancing. The day you stop focusing on the product is the day your writing suffers.

You know the stories you’ve written that would have benefited from more time, more detail and more language love: the undervalued school-committee meeting that bored you to tears, the feature on the local pizza shop owner who had nothing to say and the fundraiser that raised a grand total of $17 for the neighborhood nursing home.

But each of these stories had a role in the local-news environment.

Knowing how the school budget would affect police staffing could have spelled a front-page above-the-fold feature.

Understanding that the pizza shop owner was recently granted U.S. citizenship could change a puff piece into a deeper expose on business opportunities in the community.

And if you looked at the $17 in terms of what it could buy — two doses of medication, four movie rentals, a visit from a care dog — you’d touch more readers than you ever imagined.

Knowing the environment is critical.

Next is your ability to forge and sustain relationships. In a motorboat, there are three pieces to the water skiing equation: the driver, the spotter and the skier.

The driver controls the boat, but is also attentive and responsive to the directions of the spotter. In traditional media, the driver is the editor. He or she knows the calendar and drives the publication in that direction.

Next is the spotter. If the skier falls, the spotter commands the driver to cut power. If the skier asks for more speed or a different direction, the spotter communicates that as well.

Traditionally, the spotter is the writer, and he wouldn’t exist without the skier or the driver.

Lastly, the skier is the traditional news consumer. By communicating where he wants to go, the skier gets a pleasurable ride. Similarly, readers and newsmakers help shape the product we create.

But freelancing changes the equation. A freelancer performs all of these roles.

We follow editorial calendars and pitch editors with ideas that fit their needs. We write the stories that make editors and readers sit up and take notice. We put on the hat of the content consumer when we evaluate hot-button topics and possible story ideas.

While playing specific roles is important, nothing productive occurs if a freelancer isn’t keenly aware of the challenges of change. I’ve been freelancing for 20 years, and the hardest part of the job is looking ahead while still completing my current assignments.

On skis, there’s nothing you can do if the driver plows onto the beach and drags you with him. As a staff writer, as the publication goes, so do you. As a freelancer, it’s different. You need to keep an eye on the path ahead and adjust your game with every assignment and query.

The demand for story-telling isn’t going away. The only thing that’s changing is how the stories are delivered and who’s delivering them.

Freelancers who know how to share information and communicate clearly will hold the power to succeed.

Specifically, freelancers have to be good reporters, great writers and disciplined business people. They have to know which tasks are worth doing and which are a timesuck.

The eye-opening and enriching result will be a more efficient and successful operation. You’ll spend more time reaching readers and selling your writing.

Think of freelancing as an opportunity, not a punishment. Steer the boat, communicate with your partners, watch the path ahead.

It might be uncomfortable at first, but once you’ve got the boat under way, you’ll be amazed at how exhilarating the ride can be, from every point of view.

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Quill
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