Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

Mucking stalls. Freelance writing. How do they differ? I discuss.

You Say You Want an Evolution …

Depending on who you talk to, insanity — or stupidity — is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

The writing, if you will, has been on the wall for some time, career-wise.  It has become virtually impossible to make a living writing, as a  freelancer, for what we affectionately call the “nag mags”.  I’m far too fried tonight to look up the stats and provide a happy little link for you, gentle reader, but trust me when I tell you that the studies have been done and that freelance pay rates have not improved to any appreciable extent since the 1970s.  Meanwhile I’m pretty sure I’m paying more for groceries and rent.  And while freelance advice blogs are still lambasting we under-achievers who accept anything less than $1 a word (which has been the Magic Number since I started this foolishness 20-odd years ago) … the reality is most niche-market publications have never paid anything close to that, and in the current economic climate are less likely than ever to do so.

Have you noticed that your favourite magazine is a little less substantial than it used to be?  As ad sales have plummeted, so have page counts.  And fewer pages mean that magazines are buying less freelance content, and when they do buy some, they are nickel-and-diming their writers to death in the hopes of meeting impossible bottom lines sent down from (gasp) Management.

We writers can’t help but get our noses out of joint about being the first ones to take the financial hit … we’re all pretty sure that printing the magazine hasn’t become negotiable, or that the post office isn’t doing deals to keep the doors open.  And let’s face it, it’s our content that makes each magazine something worth having.  People don’t buy magazines for the ads; they buy them hoping to read something that’s profound, entertaining, educational, thought-provoking, or at least relevant and useful to them.  Yet content is the first thing to get chopped.

Once upon a time I made an okay living writing for horse magazines.  Combined with the modest royalties from my books, I was able to pay the bills and keep my horses fed, which is really all I ever wanted.  But these days, I feel like the harder I tread water, the faster I sink.

(Factoid:  Beating your head against a wall burns 150 calories an hour.  I found it on the Interwebz, so it must be true.)

So my New Year’s resolution for 2011 was to re-invent myself, to network like an insane woman, and get myself out of the hole somehow.

I have GOT to get some brownie points for even REMEMBERING what my New Year’s resolution was, 11 months later, right?

First plan of attack: ditch the nag mags who were treating me the most wretchedly.  When pay is not only poor, but requires repeated invoices and phone calls and grovelling … and THEN someone in accounting quibbles over the previously-agreed-upon amount (!!!) … well, stick a fork in little me, because I’m done.  Even if I do have a 20-year history with that publication group and supply excellent content for all six of its publications.  I’ve got a couple of shreds of pride left.

Second:  explore other subjects that somehow got lost along the way.  I never really intended to zero in on horse magazines, at least not exclusively. My plan, coming out of school was to focus on science journalism, if only to ensure that my B.Sc. in microbiology didn’t turn out to be a complete waste of four years of my life.  In the midst of a grad school program in communications studies, a horse magazine editorship beckoned rather more strongly than did my thesis, and the rest, as they say, is history.  At some point I became a known entity to the editors of a number of horse magazines, the assignments kept being generated, and before I knew it, that was where all my work was coming from.  Which as I say, was fine once upon a time, but it’s just not practical anymore.

Plus if I have to write another article about fly spray in my lifetime, there’s a distinct possibility of my going postal, and we certainly don’t want to go there.

So the logical direction is back to science and agricultural journalism.  Joined the Canadian Science Writers Association and have done a little networking there; after knocking on a bunch of doors, I have also managed to get a toehold with an Ontario farming magazine and  website, which is allowing me to build up some recent agricultural clips and get back into the groove on that beat.  It’s fun because the research is fresh to me and the personalities are new, too, but very down-to-earth to interview.  So far, I’m liking.  And the pay is a smidge better than the nag mags … more importantly, it’s prompt, which is a godsend when you’re used to waiting three to 12 (more !) months for your money.  (Don’t get me started on the whole ‘pay on publication’ thing.)

Third:  get social-media savvy.  More and more of my freelance friends are finding there’s more moola to be made in blogging (or ghost-blogging) and tweeting on behalf of others, than there is in the traditional feature-article form.  So I’ve been getting up to speed on using social media in a more business-like fashion, which peculiarly enough sometimes involves being less business-like when it comes to my actual writing style.  I’m having to abandon a lot of the conventions of traditional journalism to produce posts in a much more conversational, bloggish style.  Which is okay, as long as I don’t have to abandon grammar and punctuation altogether … gawd knows there’s more than enough unreadable drivel out there already.

I’m going to be trying out the bloggish thing in the coming week as I embark on a new way (for me) to cover the Royal Winter Fair, for an on-line outlet called PhelpsSports.  Phelps would like daily news and snippets from around the fair — primarily the horse show, but with some of the other features of the RWF tossed in; lambs in spandex jackets, butter sculptures, vaguely creepy sides of beef hanging in cases, the mink and manure fashion parade at the evening shows, and so forth.  We will, I believe, be eschewing the press release-style reports of international showjumping results for somewhat more cheeky commentary.  Ohhh, Phelps, be careful what you wish for …

Not really sure if this experiment is going to lead anywhere, but given that my other RWF assignments have evaporated this year and it’s a show I do know well (even if there’s a big chunk of my brain which would like me to stay home for a change!), I might as well take it on.  If only in the name of re-invention.

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2 thoughts on “You Say You Want an Evolution …

  1. Karen, wonderful blog! I can so relate to being a struggling freelancer. I often say that the prices for writing and editing haven’t changed since the 80s–it’s a crime! My science-writer grandfather made a great living that way–he’d roil in his grave if he knew his well-educated granddaughter can’t afford to feed her 15-year-old son, who, by the way, eats almost as much as one of your horses. Maybe more. 🙂

    Like

  2. Um – reading your comments struck a chord with me as well. A few years ago I joined PWAC (no – not some whacked out group of aliens ) – the Professional Writers Assoc. of Canada – and discussions over there were identical to this. Everyone in every genre struggling to eke out an existence as a writer with declining pay rates that make the 80s look really good.

    Yes, alternatives are needed. perhaps if readers petitioned magazines for more and better content it might happen, but I’m not holding my breath.

    Like

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