Archive for February, 2011

So You Think You Can Freelance?

This article appeared in the February 2, 2011 online edition of SPJ’s Quill magazine:

So You Think You Can Freelance?

by Dana E. Neuts

Making it as a successful full-time freelancer — writer, editor, photojournalist, blogger, etc. — requires equal parts talent, persistence and business savvy. For the sake of this article, let’s assume you are skilled in your primary area of interest and that you are motivated, self-disciplined and persistent enough to acquire and produce a sufficient level of work to make a living. Read More…

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Exercise care, and plan well, before freelancing

If you haven’t browsed the market for freelance writers and editors lately, take a look around. Even a glance on Google shows the horizon to be virtually limitless, with the scope of jobs available out there capable of keeping a person busy through this lifetime and perhaps another.

But how many of us want to dive that deep? A pool of bottomless opportunity, while inviting, may be difficult for some independent journalists to navigate for its potential to consume one’s life. So, before taking the plunge, weigh a few facts.

Time management is essential — The first thing newcomers to this line of work want to know is how much money they’ll make, and the answer is rather simple: as much as they want. If they throw themselves into their jobs, chances are the wages will satisfy. But we all have lives away from our careers, and those lives also must come into account. Therefore, set firm working hours and stick to them — avoid distractions during these hours such as Netflix and that new book just downloaded from Amazon.

It should go without saying that a good diet and plenty of rest are essential work tools as well, though even the most-committed among us need reminders of this from time to time. This usually happens when …

Sickness happens — There will be a day or two, probably more, when a scratchy throat in the morning devolves to low-grade fever by mid-afternoon, or a family member becomes ill, and working becomes impossible. Better to admit defeat and come back stronger the next day.

This means making allowances for sick time. Many businesses allow for up to 10 days of paid sick time per calendar year; use that amount as a guideline when drafting a work calendar. And by all means be honest and forward with clients when illness arises and threatens a deadline, so they can adjust their schedules, too.

Clients accept that sickness happens. Freelancers should be honest with themselves and accept it, too.

Bad clients are everywhere — Of course, for every five or 10 understanding clients, there’s one who’s impossible to please, or who’s lax giving instructions, or who’s shameless about taking freelancers’ ideas as their own. Like illness, these people require freelancers to make contingencies, but the key is to avoid them before they pose problems.

Prior to taking on a project, conduct plenty of homework. Find out some background about clients: scrutinize their websites to see who receives credit for content and how, and mine the freelance marketplace for feedback from other writers and editors for indications of trouble.

Then, when the time comes to discuss potential projects, insist that clients provide specifics instead of generalities. And listen carefully not just to what clients say, but also how they say it: rudeness or curt behavior may allude to larger problems later.

Self-promotion bolsters success — Freelancers can write or edit stories all day and still feel as though their careers are stuck in neutral. Thus, a measure of innovation may be required to move things forward.

To start, it helps to master social media — Facebook, Twitter, Quora, etc. — the fastest form of communication growing. Story sources and editing clients may prefer one of these venues to share basic information, pass along content changes and, in general, stay in touch. (Having said this, I must stress that phone calls are still the most meaningful form of direct communication apart from face-to-face meetings.)

Social media also is essential for self-promotion, though it takes considerable time and care to develop it for that purpose. For example, in the publishing world, the informal time-management rule nowadays for book authors is “80/20” — spending 80 percent of their time promoting themselves and 20 percent actually writing their books. This large percentage devoted to promotion includes such things as teaching workshops, speaking at engagements, and working with other authors and editors to develop their craft.

Granted, an 80/20 split may not suit most freelancers, given that their success depends largely on volume. Nevertheless, a nod toward innovation can boost potential and expand one’s reach in the marketplace.

Freelancers are their own bosses — the greatest perk of the business. They’re also entirely responsible for their own failures. Extensive care and planning, and the willingness to innovate, will go a long way toward keeping those failures to a minimum.

David Sheets is a sports editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and, and president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at, on Twitter at @DKSheets, or on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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Put Your Brain to Work: Brainstorming Article Ideas You Can Sell

You know what muscle you don’t use enough? Well, it’s not the brain, because the brain isn’t actually a muscle. But that’s the focus of my column today – how to get your brain in shape to supply you with great ideas you can sell to editors and outlets.

As any writer knows – or at least the writers who have attended any social event where the other guests know your occupation – the second most-popular comment is “where do you get your ideas?” *The most popular comment is “I have a great idea for a book.”

So, let’s get right to it. Faced with deadlines, family and social distractions, and an empty laptop screen, how do you get the inspiration to fill the electronic paper? It’s as simple as getting your brain used to succeeding. Creativity and ideas can be (and often are) the result of the right preparation.

According to a 2009 Newsweek article, the brain can be trained Their piece was more focused on children, but it gives some insight into how the brain works. So I’m positing that with a careful and targeted approach, you can train yourself to regularly develop fun, interesting ideas that will appeal to readers.

Start off by telling yourself that brainstorming is fun. It’s not deadline-based and you can trash 90% of your ideas without losing significant time and energy investment. Seriously. All you’re doing is creating a list of topics from which you can flesh out salable pieces.

Locate your muse place

You’ve heard it before, so it might sound repetitive, but finding a comfortable place to write is the first step. Put yourself in a location where you’ve been successful in the past. If you write best at 2AM in a beanbag chair in the greenhouse, then go there to brainstorm.

My favorite spot is the couch. I can flick on the TV without sound and begin my brainstorm. Your spot can be anywhere that’s both mentally and physically comfortable. Many writers do their brainstorming with a notebook on public transportation or while sitting on a park bench. Whatever works for you is fine.

Establish a routine

Once you’ve picked a place, use it every time you are ready to brainstorm. Then pick some consistent actions to get the most from your musings. I find that using a laptop and word-processing program works for me. I have to fight against from drifting over to Twitter and other social media sites, but the upside is that I have the Internet at my fingertips if I need to research a topic or paste in pertinent links.

If you look at my Macbook desktop, you’ll see multiple documents named “xxxxxxNotes”. What I do, when exploring blog post, column and article ideas is open a new document and start banging on the keys. I put down the most simple statement I can for each idea – one that doesn’t get bogged down in specifics, but is detailed enough to spur my brain back to task if and when I decide to write that piece.

*I’m writing this column right now in front of the TV on a couch and for the next two minutes I’ll put down all the article ideas I can think of. And I’ll do it in the format I use when I’m actually brainstorming. Really.

Is household pottery and artwork dangerous to children?

How does the Food Network create new shows and develop the ones pitched to it.

How did we first figure out that we could eat coconuts?

What is the amount of money people spend annually on average on golf?

Wouldn’t it be cool if you could create technology that would mute your TV when the phone rings in the house?

Which spiders can kill you?

What’s Lance Armstrong going to do now that he’s finally retired?

Why are people so afraid of insects?

Are convertibles less safe than full-roof vehicles?

Is the airline industry going to loosen up their baggage and change-fee requirements to meet consumer demand?

What causes shin splints?

Does chocolate really cause a physiological response in humans? Is this response more prevalent in women than in men?

TWO minutes up. Now, if you go back over that list, you might see a couple ideas that could really result in rich, informative articles. I’ll scrap the rest and then try to identify venues that might be interested in them. It’s actually as simple as that.

To break it down, all I did was look around me and let everything I saw stimulate my imagination. If you’re not used to doing that, start practicing.

When you see a stranger in the supermarket, try to come up with a story about them. Better still, create an article idea like “cooking for the single vegan – how to eat healthy and remain on a budget.”

When you see someone walking their dog, you might come up with “how the Westminster Kennel Club influences pet names based on winning canines.”

Still stumped – resources around you

If you’re still not convinced that you can get your mind working in the right direction, then resort to other methods. There are online repositories of blog-post ideas . There is a magic thing called the Internet that can lead you in different directions based on what people are talking about.

Both Google and offer up trending topic information so you can stay on top of what people are discussing online. These can both serve to spur your imagination and give you ideas that might resonate with editors.

And when all else fails, look at the calendar. Magazines and other publications are famous for writing the same articles every year at the same time. Go to the library and scour the magazine archives going back a few years. See what your favorite magazines examine every April and see if you can come up with an idea that has a fresh spin. Do the same for each month and you’ll be well on your way to creating articles for these publications.

Finally, listen carefully to your inner voice when you’re living your life. The questions you ask and the conversations you have are probably similar to those an entire population of readers has regularly. Flesh out those ideas and solve a problem, and you’ll have valuable ideas that any editor would be proud to feature.

Brainstorming isn’t all that difficult – and it’s definitely easier than writing a complete article. So, find your happy place, train your brain to take in information from everywhere. Focus on the stuff that has sold in the past and the ideas editors yearn for every year.

You’ll soon have a repository of ideas that you can pull from whenever your muse deserts you. And if all else fails, write an article about how hard it is to brainstorm article ideas. All the people at cocktail parties and social events are a perfect audience for that piece.


For more information about Jeff Cutler, visit him online at

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29 Financial Articles Every Freelancer Must Read

Contributed by reader Kimberly Lee

29 Financial Articles Every Freelancer Must Read – Read online articles about taxes, tax deductions, organization and more!

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Comments are moderated

Thanks to our readers for giving us feedback on our wide variety of posts on the Independent Journalist blog. Please note that we get a fair amount of spam, so we do moderate comments. If you feel your post has been inadvertently deleted, please contact freelance chair Dana Neuts.  Thanks for your understanding.

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Freelancers, Remember to Love Yourselves This Valentine’s Day!

Contributed by freelancer Tara Puckey

It’s that time of year again—the flowers and the candy, romantic dinners and wordy cards, the Hallmark holiday of love—Valentine’s Day.  When planning your love-fest dinners, dates and surprises, don’t neglect the ever-so-important relationship with your career.  Just like a budding romance, freelance gigs need attention and care to survive.

And so in the spirit of the holiday, here are some tips to help keep that freelance passion alive.

It’s okay to wallow in rejection for a while—Most freelancers will acknowledge you can’t win ‘em all.  There are also some freelancers who maintain that in this business, you’ve got to be resilient.  Honestly, that’s true.  But it’s also perfectly fine to drown in weepy music over a rejection that really stings.  It’s like a relationship: afterward, the making up is the best part.

Turn some jobs down and opt for something you’re passionate about—Freelancing is about the money.  You’ve got to make enough to survive.  But don’t forget about the reason you started on this path.  Take a job that means more to you than just a paycheck and devote yourself completely to it.  Trust me, you’ll end up satisfied and refreshed.

Go outside the box and learn something new—As freelancers, we tend to get in a groove.  We realize our strengths and weaknesses and adjust accordingly, moving through the days with a rhythm of productivity (or at least that’s the goal).  Take a minute to move outside your comfort zone and get some new juices flowing.  Sign up for a class you know nothing about, embark on a project where you’ll be learning as you go.  Just learn something different.

Sleep in, watch a movie, take a walk—It’s happened to all of us, that block where it’s impossible to squeeze out any creative activity.  And this might be the oldest advice in the book, but it’s something many freelancers are guilty of not doing.  Everyone needs a break so find something that takes your mind off work and do it, deadlines or not.  You’ll find that when you sit back down to hammer away at the task, everything will come much easier.

Dress it up—I know how easy it is to wake up, stroll down the hall to the home office and work the day away in the comfort of pajama pants and a well-loved T-shirt.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but sometimes it’s nice to look like you didn’t just crawl out from a dark corner somewhere.  Looking great creates confidence, which will come out in your work.  You don’t need to break out the Prada everyday, maybe just once in a while.

Reward yourself, you deserve it—Deadline after deadline, projects and queries, more deadlines, more projects… The cycle goes on and on.  Break that up by rewarding yourself.  Set up a system (it’s okay to break out the kid’s sticker chart) so that when you complete so many projects, you get a massage or spend the day skydiving.  Whatever your pleasure, make sure you’re getting more out of your accomplishments than just the check.

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Kick Yourself in the Pants: Staying on Target as a Remote Freelance Journalist

The radiator is hissing, the cats continue to circle the room and periodically scratch the back of our new sofa, the mailman stomps up the steps and the HDTV dares me to bathe in its plasma glow.

While these stimuli offer any artist vibrant hooks on which to hang their work, these noises, actions and perceived invitations can also serve to derail your responsibilities. As a 21-year veteran of the freelancing world, I know this feeling all too well.

Without a truly developed sense of discipline and lacking a formal corporate environment within which to operate, it’s difficult to maintain focus and drive sometimes. The distractions around the home office don’t help, and our situation isn’t one that most professionals can empathize with when we share at cocktail parties.

So, when faced with trying to get work done in a remote location, and dealing with myriad distractions, how do you stay on task and complete your assigned work on time?

Three things work for me. Deadlines. Deal-making. Dilly-dallying.

The first, and best, solution is having an immovable deadline. That concept itself is redundant. A deadline should be a deadline should be a deadline. But who among us hasn’t nudged a deadline a bit due to circumstances beyond our control?

Unfortunately, the knowledge that a deadline isn’t absolute is dangerous. Soon, just like the teenager who sets her alarm clock ahead by 15 minutes to get an extra 15 minutes of sleep, you’re just fooling yourself and creating more stress.

So, obey the deadline and treat your assignments as if the product you have when the bell goes off is the final product. While you won’t immediately whip yourself into shape, you’ll find that you use your allotted time more efficiently.

I’m now at the stage – having had deadlines taunt me for two decades – where my internal clock and some recesses of my brain collaborate to spark me into motion when there’s just enough time left for me to write an article or craft a post.

The second solution is to bargain with yourself. Make yourself a deal that you can’t ignore so that you can manage your tasks. Either promise yourself a reward or deny yourself something expected until you reach a milestone with an assignment.

This sounds like game-playing behavior, but sometimes all you need is an initial push to get you working toward your finished goal. My favorite punishment and reward is food. Second is the aforementioned plasma HDTV. What makes the TV even more effective these days is the advent of the DVR, so I can’t convince myself that I’ll just watch my show and come back to the keyboard. That show will wait until I type the ### at the end of my piece.

The third way to keep yourself on track when you’re working remotely is to take yourself completely off the track. Seriously. If you can’t get your writing done because of a mental block, the situation at your remote office or other distractions, then get away.

Go for a go-kart ride, play the banjo, walk along the beach, hop in the hot-tub. Whatever you can do to kindle your creative fire, go do it. Don’t use this method as your first option as it might become a habit. Then you’ll find yourself likely living in a house with hundreds of cats in Key West drinking rum and…..oh, wait, that seemed to work pretty well for some semi-famous freelancer, I guess.

The freelance life – and especially the one that keeps you remote most of the time – is a challenge. But if you can find a few solutions for remaining motivated and creative, you’ll learn to treasure the pace, freedom and other benefits that go along with the solo journey.


Jeff Cutler
Content Creator and Social Media Strategist

READ CUTLER (732-328-8537)

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