Feast or Famine

I’ve been plugging away as the whole freelance-journalist thing for the better part of 15 years now. I got my first freelance assignment as a copyeditor for the International Engineering Consortium back in 1997. From there I began pitching and selling stories to the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Reader. I ended up getting some gigs at both papers right away. They didn’t pay much, but it sure was cool landing full-length lifestyle features jobs at major newspapers as a freelancer with basically no experience (or even formal journalism training, natch—my degrees were in English Literature, and I never took a single journalism course in college or grad school, though I did write for my college paper occasionally) from the get-go. These pieces paid approximately the price of a Chinese dinner, but they were serious street cred as a writer. Not a living by any means, but I had various staff position day jobs to pay the bills (editor at a financial brokerage, book purchasing manager for a library, proposal writer/copywriter at various ad agencies, plus some work as an executive assistant and even a waitress between the inevitable corporate layoffs). I eventually wrote pieces for several magazines and smaller regional papers and publications too, and built up quite an impressive clip portfolio over the years. Those clips eventually translated into staff writer positions that had real salaries and benefits.
Eventually I got into work as a medical writer/policy analyst in organized medicine (organizations like the American Medical Association and its sister orgs), where I got to do a lot of medical writing, hobnob with top physicians and researchers, and also come into contact with top health policy bureaucrats and legislators in Washington, DC. It was a grueling job with long hours and lots of travel (and the pay didn’t match, since I was working for a nonprofit) but as far as getting the necessary experience to be a top healthcare journalist, it was gold. I left that job after my son was born, then sort of wandered around aimlessly for a while, writing my fiction and not making much money at all. Then about a year ago I landed a steady freelance gig that had me writing medical journalism about 10 hours a week for a pittance. That gig began to grow slowly, with some interesting circumstances (like a two-month drought with no work at all, which was subsequently followed by a huge increase in work, along with a huge raise in pay).

From there, I ended up picking up some more work from some more clients who liked the work I was doing for the first client. And now, I’m getting unsolicited requests to write more healthcare and technology journalism for more clients, to the point I’m now doing this full-time, 8-5, five days a week (plus some evenings), making enough money to put my son in expensive daycare/preschool and still have plenty of money left over. It’s a great feeling, really.

I’m finding myself so busy, in fact, I’ve been worried about whether I can really deliver all the articles I’ve been hired to write this month. Which I suppose is a good problem to have, especially in this economy. Another cool thing that’s happened is the fact that some of the media relations/PR staffers at the various government and nonprofit agencies I’ve been contacting seeking interview sources have straight-out asked me how I manage to make my living as a freelance journalist. Today I got asked that question by a PR staffer at a Washington DC-based lobbying group who also happened to have a graduate degree in journalism from a VERY prestigious journalism school. I could almost detect the jealousy in his voice when I described how I make my living and how I get my gigs. He even mentioned how he was unsure why he’d even pursued journalism school in the first place, given how expensive it was and how poor the job prospects can be these days. (I’ll be interviewing a couple of deans at top journalism schools this month on that very topic for one of my article assignments, in fact).

It’s very ironic that a graduate of a top journalism school would even ask me that question, since I have no formal journalistic training and basically learned on the job. My original career goal was to become a professor of literature and/or drama at a university, and that’s the education I pursued. It didn’t work out, of course, for a whole bunch or reasons I’d rather not go into. But as the person I spoke with said to me on the phone today, I could very easily walk into a job teaching journalism and creative writing at a university today based solely on my own professional accomplishments. (I’ve been offered those jobs already, in fact—though so far they don’t offer enough pay to be worth pursuing). Which sort of brings things full circle, doesn’t it?

Gotta go. Have dinner to cook, then more interview calls to make and work to do this evening. Feast or famine, so it seems.



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