In this regular feature, Story Board asks Canadian writers to share a few details about their work habits and their strategies for navigating the ups and downs of freelance life.
She has won a dozen awards for her writing, which has been published by Reader’s Digest, the Globe and Mail and British Columbia Magazine among others. Her communications and media relations company Santé Communications Group serves clients such as the Doctors of BC and the government of British Columbia.
She took the time to speak with Story Board recently about how she keeps multiple projects moving, how to avoid business “dry spells,” and how to become the kind of freelancer editors like to work with.
Q: You mentioned to me that you recently went through a dry period with your freelance business. What happened?
A: I think it was probably two things. I was on a big project that I had been involved with for four years that was coming to an end. And you’re working so hard that you actually don’t have time to put out pitches. If you’ve not been active with some of your other clients — this really was a full-time, all-consuming project — things go dry. They’re not thinking about you because you haven’t been out there.
So then when I finished, I started putting out pitches and I put out tons of them. And then in June everything started coming back and so now I’m incredibly busy again. But it just took that long for stuff to happen.
I also think it’s an increasingly challenging environment for freelancers.
In the last ten years, at last count, ten magazines that I had worked for have either folded or changed hands or for some reason are no longer accepting freelance pitches. Or their rates have gone so low that it’s not worth my while to write for them.
And also, many journalists have either taken buy-outs or had layoffs. Many of the colleagues that I worked with in newspapers are out trying to freelance so there’s more people out chasing fewer opportunities. The freelance life has always been a difficult road. You have no security, so you really have to kill what you eat. But I think that it’s even harder now.
Q: How have you managed to navigate these changes and adapt your business?
A: The big change that happened to me is that I spent some time on the opposite side as an editor of a magazine. Up until 2008 I had always been a solo freelancer. And then when I was editor of Boulevard magazine, I saw all these pitches coming in and I began to understand.
The pitcher is always fraught — like, “is this editor going to like it? How do I get to them?” And then I saw that it’s pretty simple. You need to know the magazine, you need to be able to prove that you’re reliable, you need to be able to show that you understand their market. It’s really not about you, it’s about what the editor’s needs are.
I remember sending off pitches prior to 2008 where the editor wouldn’t respond and I would then never follow up. I would just think “oh, they’re not interested.” And then I realized when I was sitting in the editor’s chair that when a pitch came in from somebody whose name I didn’t know, it didn’t have “pitch” in the email subject line, if it came in on a day where we had deadlines for editing, it might get buried under 200 or 300 emails.
And then I can’t even search for that email because I’d received so many press releases. I don’t know the name of the person. If I search “pitch” it doesn’t come up. And I didn’t get a chance to read it, so I don’t know what it was about.
So if three weeks later, the writer had said “I’m not sure whether you got a chance to see it, but I sent you this” I would go “Oh, thank God!” I saw it come in but I’d basically had five days where we were so slammed I didn’t get to go through all the email. So it made me think of all those times I hadn’t followed up.
And follow up nicely. There were times when people would follow up with something like “You didn’t have the decency to return my…” and I’d think “I don’t need that hassle. They don’t understand what I’m going through at all.”
But if they’d said very nicely “I wondered if you saw this.” And then even if a month later they followed up again with “Here’s new information about this pitch that may make it even more interesting for your audience.” Then I’d say “Oh, that’s great. They’re persistent, they followed up, it is a good story.” And even if it’s not a story that’s right for me, if they’re pleasantly persistent I’m going to think “I’ve got this story I don’t have a writer for, I’ll give this person a chance.”
Because diligence is a good thing in a journalist, and being open to what my needs are.
Q: What’s your strategy for keeping multiple projects moving at one time?
A: I’m a huge list-maker and I will think about the flow. As everybody knows, you’re always putting out ideas and pitches. And then once the idea has been accepted, you’re sending out emails to interview people and booking appointments.
So I would tend to structure a week by thinking: what do I need to pitch, what do I need to line up for the fall, who do I need to contact now on an existing story to set up the interviews. In the morning it’s all plan ahead, and then you need to leave a space for the actual writing.
Sometimes if it’s a really big writing piece I might clear a whole day off because you don’t want to be disturbed. But usually it’s email first. Put pitches and requests out — it’s almost like fishing. And then in the afternoon, have five clear hours for writing.
Q: Do you recommend being a specialist over being a generalist?
A: Yes, as far as working a marketplace, and also for the ability to know where there’s a story. I definitely think generalists are fantastic because they can go into many different things. But I know immediately in healthcare and medicine when something’s new.
And it gives me a jump on other people. I can do interesting stories in healthcare because I can say “Ah, that’s different. That’s new. That has a different angle.”
And you can build an expertise, you don’t have to have a degree in it. What really interests you? What do you read for pleasure? What do you sort of spend your time looking at and doing? And that gives you the hint of where you should likely be writing.
Q: Any final words of advice for freelancers?
A: I would also say from being in the editor’s chair that you should accept edits. Be easy to work with. And if you accept most edits, when there are times where you really can’t, where the editor is wrong, then they’ll believe you. So don’t fight over every single word.
As a former editor I know — sometimes people fight every single change and these people are not pleasant to deal with. Don’t die on every hill. It’s not worth it, and it makes you hard to work with.
You can see some samples of Anne Mullens’ work on her website. Or check out these recent stories on polycystic ovarian syndrome and reversing pre-diabetes. You can also find her on Twitter at @annemullens.
*This interview has been edited for clarity and length