By Dana Blozis
When I attended the national SPJ conference in Atlanta last month, I was overwhelmed by the depressing state of the journalism industry. The consistent message was that the industry is in turmoil, newsrooms are laying off, and we need to do more with less. While that may be true, there remains a need for good journalists and a successful career is still possible, if you have the patience and persistence to stick with it. One career possibility is that of the freelance writer, the coveted-but-elusive path of someone who is compelled to write.
Imagine waking up to the sounds of the birds singing rather than your alarm clock, casually strolling to your office in sweatpants and a My Chemical Romance t-shirt, being in control of your own daily schedule, and reviewing story ideas while sipping homemade, fresh-brewed coffee on your deck. It may seem too good to be true, but it is, indeed, possible. I’m living proof.
My path to the wacky world of freelance writing began about six years ago. After a 15-year career in the corporate world, I felt something lacking. I had a burning desire to write and nothing I did could quiet it. Through a connection at work, I was introduced to the editor of the Lafayette Leader, a local weekly community paper in Indiana. I showed her samples of my work gleaned from my work portfolio, and she hired me on the spot. I wrote light-hearted human interest stories for the Leader for six months while retaining my day job.
Through another work pal, I landed a second freelance gig in town before moving to Washington State for a new job. I had to give up the first freelance client because that work was locally based, but I was able to retain the second because that publication, Inside Classified, was an international trade journal for the newspaper advertising industry. It was a great gig to gain some interviewing and reporting experience, acquire some clips and make a few bucks on the side. I still write for them every month.
Fast forward nine months and I was without a job. I had been laid off by my new employer and, despite my experience and business degree, I wasn’t able to find another job that was a good fit for me. Panicked, I applied for unemployment and combed the want ads for jobs. I couldn’t find another full-time job in my field, but I did find several local publications looking for freelancers. For the next six months, I cobbled together an income by doing freelance assignments for The Bellingham Herald, Whatcom Independent and Northwest Business Monthly; working a flexible part-time job that paid my rent; and collecting unemployment for a few months. Within a year and a half, I was able to quit my part-time job to become a full-time freelancer.
That was more than three years ago. Since those first frightening months of unemployment, I’ve written for half a dozen newspapers and more than a dozen magazines. My work has appeared in The Seattle Times, Seattle Metropolitan, South Sound magazine, HS Today, GSN: Government Security News and more. I now make a comfortable full-time living from the comfort of my home office, and I couldn’t be happier to be in control of my own career.
My point in sharing this story with you is not to bore you with how I made it work, but rather to encourage you to think beyond the traditional journalism route (college-job-better job). You don’t necessarily have to go from one full-time reporting job to another. You can try different things while retaining your full-time job, until you find a good fit. Test the waters by writing for a non-competing publication in your area. Ask if you could cover a story for it, submit a column, or pitch a specific idea. Tell the editor you’d like to learn more about the publication and its audience, and see if you can try it on a part-time or fill-in basis. Another option is to pitch a unique story idea to a local magazine. Offer them the idea and explain why you’re the writer to do the story.
This try-on-the-fly method allows you to sample the freelance world without losing the security of your full-time job and benefits. It also provides you with some additional income, clips, experience and references that you can take with you wherever you go. Whether you ride the industry’s wave of uncertainty or carve out your own niche, there is a place for you if you want to freelance. Check it out – you just might find that the freelance life is what you’ve been looking for all along!
Dana Blozis is a full-time freelance writer in the Seattle area. In addition to writing for publication, she writes and edits for individuals, small businesses and nonprofits. For more information about Blozis or to sign-up for her free monthly writing & editing newsletter, visit www.virtuallyyourz.com.