April 23, 2014

Gretchen Roberts on Part-Time Freelance Writing

Full-Time Income in Part-Time Hours covers

Freelance food and wine writer Gretchen Roberts has contributed to publications like Better Homes & Gardens, Real Simple, Woman’s Day, Health, and Cooking Light, working roughly 20 hours a week. Sound like the kind of lifestyle you want?

She recently published an ebook called Full-Time Income in Part-Time Hours (full disclosure: Gretchen sent me a review copy and it seriously rocks!) in which she shares strategies for maximizing your income on less than 40 hours per week. Here she answers a few questions on the topic.

Urban Muse: What inspired you to write this ebook?
Gretchen: In 2008, I pitched a panel for the American Society of Journalists and Authors annual conference in New York City called Full-Time Income in Part-Time Hours. I always have enjoyed the conference’s popular “Six-Figure Freelancing” panel, because it’s inspiring, and so many of the tips apply to my business even though I’m part time. But I thought we part-timers deserved our own panel. I got some great speakers, and it was a hit. I still occasionally get emails from people who downloaded the conference recording and listened to the panel.

Now that ebooks are the Next Big Thing, I thought it would be fun to take the points I talked about in the panel and expand them into an ebook.

Based on what you’ve observed, what is the biggest mistake that part-time writers (or writers in general) make? Is there something from the beginnings of your freelance career that you would do differently now?
I think writers get stuck in ruts. When you’re starting out and building your body of work and your expertise, it’s appropriate and usually necessary to take lower-paying jobs. But many writers never rise out of that. You have to consciously set goals that help you aim for bigger and better jobs. It takes energy and hard work, but in the end, you reap so many more benefits.

I certainly didn’t do everything right starting off, but one thing I did do that made a world of difference was join Freelance Success, an online writer’s forum/weekly market newsletter. I didn’t know any other freelance writers personally, so seeing the level of professionalism on that forum made me realize I could do it, too.

Gretchen RobertsIs there a time management tip you learned while writing the ebook that might be applicable to both part-time writers and full timers?
One bad habit I have, when I’m thinking about what to say or struggling for just the right words, is to click over to my email, or Facebook, or a writer’s forum “just for a minute” while I figure out what to write. Of course, it’s impossible to actively think about what to write when I’m engaging in social media or reading email. I have to consciously stop myself from doing the click-over by saying, “You may not do anything else until the first draft of this piece is written” or whatever. That’s my personal time management tip.

Some of the writers you interviewed actually earn more money writing part time than the full-time freelancers I know. What do you think many of these successful part-time writers have in common?
I’d say diligence and efficiency. Having fewer hours can actually make you more productive, because you don’t have a whole day in which to work. Instead, you focus during the few hours you do work, and then you’re done, because you have to be.

You suggest that part-time writers shouldn’t spend too much time on social media, but I know a lot of writers who fear that if they aren’t active on Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. it will put them at a disadvantage. Have you found that to be case?
I think you have to do a cost-benefit analysis. If you’re on Twitter, who is reading your tweets? Are you getting work (even in a roundabout way, perhaps via recommendations from other writers or by establishing yourself as a particular expert) from it?

If you feel obligated to tweet all day to an audience that isn’t necessarily helping further your career in any meaningful way, then why are you doing it? Could you be spending that time elsewhere? These questions will have different answers for every writer, but they’re important for every writer to consider.

All of this said, I do think it’s important to have a community, one in which you participate because you need the camaraderie of like-minded professionals and not because you reap monetary benefits from it. That’s why I love Freelance Success.

I love hearing the backstories on how freelance writers land assignments. Could you tell us about a favorite assignment or your most unusual one?
People think it must be so much fun to be a wine and food writer…and they’re right! One fabulously fun story I got to do was for Wine Enthusiast, a Valentine’s story called Chocolates, Liqueurs, and Love. For the story, I paired liqueurs with types of chocolate. My husband and I decided to turn it into a party, and we invited a bunch of friends over to taste-test the liqueurs and chocolates.

As to how I landed that assignment, it was given to me by the editor—but that’s just one more great argument for specializing. He thought of me because I’m a wine and food writer. Lucky me!

Want to win a copy of Gretchen’s ebook, along with other cool prizes? Of course you do! Enter out the Tales from the Trenches contest. Deadline is September 30. 

Open Thread: What Surprised You Most About Freelancing?

Surprised woman on the phoneBefore you trade your cubicle for a spot on the couch, freelancing seems like a pretty sweet deal. And it can be. But often there are a few surprises along the way, both good and bad.

Spending the afternoon following up on overdue invoices? Bad! Not at how you pictured freelancing, is it? Realizing you’ve just earned more in a day than you did in a week at your old job? Good, really good (but don’t expect that to happen every day). Self-employment taxes? Don’t get me started on that one!

So, this week’s open thread is devoted to all those little (and not so little) surprises that come with the territory. What surprised you most about freelancing? And knowing what you know now, are you happy with your decision? Despite the overdue invoices and the self-employment tax, I’m still glad to be freelancing, and I’d love to hear what you think!

Image courtesy of Ambro / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The Freelance Writer’s Ultimate Guide to Queries

Freelance Writer

Welcome to the new and improved Urban Muse! I recently switched to WordPress with the help of Joseph at Blog Tweaks and Martyn at Two Hour Blogger. Mr. Muse proposed that very same day (cue the sappy music), so I’m still working out a few bugs and getting caught up after being swept off my feet. In the meantime, I’ve gotten a few questions about querying, so I put together this list of resources.

In all honesty, I haven’t been as aggressive with querying as I used to be. That’s because I have so many reoccurring projects that I don’t need to constantly hunt down new ones. Yes, it’s exciting when you land a new assignment or score a gig with a new client, but reaching that point where you have several steady gigs, editors you work with on a regular business, yes, even clients who come to you with assignments means less hustling and more actual writing.

That said, if you want to write articles for magazines or websites, you’ll generally need a solid idea and a well-crafted query to get your first break. Here are some tips to help you hone your querying skills.

Your turn! What do you think? Are there additional resources you’d add to this list? Do you love or hate querying?

Image courtesy of photostock / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

5 Ways to Trendspot New Article Ideas

The trouble with trendspotting is that writers have a very small window of opportunity. When I wrote for a popular lifestyle newsletter, my editor would only assign us to cover brand-spanking new restaurants, bars, salons, what-have-you’s. If it had already opened, it was old news in most cases, regardless of how otherwise trendy or novel or photo-worthy it was.

It’s tough for the owners of these brand new ventures because many of them want to focus on opening before they deal with press. But by then, it’s often too late for publications that pride themselves for being fresh, cool, on the cutting edge. The newness factor comes into play when you’re covering movies, books, restaurants, startup companies, etc. and it’s almost always a challenge when you’re freelancing for a daily newspaper. Here’s how to find great new stories before they grow stale.

  1. Pound the pavement.
    Nowadays, a lot of reporting happens via phone and email, but that’s not the best approach for finding a hot scoop. A lot of the places I covered for the lifestyle newsletter were spots I discovered while walking around. I’d notice a “now hiring baristas, email _____” or “coming fall 2011″ sign in front of a soon-to-open coffee shop, boutique, or other venue, snap a photo with my iPhone, and continue checking on the space to monitor its progress. If contacting the hiring email listed on the sign didn’t elicit a response, I’d search online for information about the restaurant’s permit, which usually led me to the owner’s name. If that didn’t work, I’d slide a note under the door. In one case, all those avenues failed until I walked by one morning, saw someone testing the coffee machine, and knocked on the door to introduce myself. This style of on-the-street reporting is way more work than online reporting, but it’s also more rewarding when you discover the latest hotspot in your area. I’ve also enlisted non-writer friends as scouts. When they see something new in their neighborhood, they know to alert me!
  2. Follow the trail.
    Whatever beat you cover, whether it’s books, movies, restaurants, business, there’s probably a newsletter or organization that covers happenings in that beat. If you interview authors, you might read Publisher’s Weekly to find out who’s sold a book or movie rights and start pitching well in advance of the release date. If you’re looking for unusual art projects or emerging bands, subscribe to the Kickstarter newsletter or click around the site (that’s how I discovered this journalism experiment just before it happened). All you need is a kernel of an idea and you can dig deeper to fill in the details. If it’s fully fleshed out, someone has probably beat you to the punch.
  3. Ask your sources.
    Whenever I interview a source, I always ask what trends they’re noticing in their industry or if there’s someone else I should talk to. Several of my entrepreneur sources have connected me with their entrepreneur friends who run cool startups. Moral of the story: smart people doing creative things tend to know other smart people doing creative things, so don’t be shy about telling people the kinds of stories you cover.
  4. Befriend PR folks.
    If I’m getting a press releases, chances are my editor and the other contributors are getting it, too. Occasionally I’ll get a great idea from a press release but the real value of PR contacts is when they take the time to understand what you need and connect you with timely ideas rather than sending mass emails. I have a few go-to PR sources who know the kinds of stories that appeal to me and realize the importance of timing so they can coax their clients into returning emails or answering phone calls.
  5. Rethink “new.”
    This won’t work for some publications, but it’s sometimes possible to revisit a topic by finding another time hook. Say you missed your chance to write about a vegan tapas restaurant when it opened earlier this year. Then your waitress mentions that the restaurant is revamping its menu when a new chef starts next month. Time your article to the unveiling of the new menu, interview the incoming chef, and you’ve cooked up an idea that’s “fresh” enough for many editors. Other twists: the paperback release of a book or the expansion or relaunch of an up-and-coming company.

Your turn! Do you find it challenging to satisfy the need for “new, new, new”? How do you uncover these fresh ideas?

Image courtesy of David Gallagher / Flickr