The best freelance session at Excellence in Journalism 2013, the journalism convention hosted by the Society of Professional Journalists and two other organizations in August, was actually the best freelance-oriented seminar I’ve attended in years.
The session brought together Mark Robinson, features editor for Wired magazine, and Amy Wallace, a Los Angeles-based freelancer who writes not only for Wired but also for Vanity Fair, GQ, and other national publications. In preparing for the session, SPJ Freelance Committee Chair Michael Fitzgerald asked the panelists to address the dynamics of the two sides of the freelance working relationship. Robinson and Wallace framed their discussion around a story she wrote for Wired about a scientist who killed and wounded co-workers at the University of Alabama in 2010.
Their presentation was interesting because it exposed the human sides of the two panelists – an accomplished freelancer who was scared to take on the project and an editor who put a lot on the line with his publication to get the story done. Wallace said initially she refused the assignment because she was concerned that she would put a lot of time and effort into the story that might not amount to anything. The shooting had already received a lot of attention, and “I was scared,” she told journalists attending the EIJ convention. “I didn’t want to do it.”
For Robinson, the work of getting the story published began before he approached the writer about the project. “I had to convince my publication first,” he said. “Then, I had to convince Amy there was more to tell.”
Wallace recounted that the original news and feature stories on the shooting spree “were about how academia drives people insane.” What the Wired story came down to, she said, is that the scientist had killed her brother more than 20 years earlier. Taking this approach “allowed us to get into how academia is really bad at spotting insanity,” she said. This offered a fresh angle to the story for Wired, a monthly magazine that focuses on science and technology.
The writer-editor team talked about the process of research, writing, and editing that led to the story, which was published in February 2011. “You need to have an editor to make you better,” Wallace said. “With the right relationship everything gets better.”
Robinson said much of his job on the Alabama shooting story was encouraging Wallace to see the assignment through to its conclusion. “Writers are neurotic,” he said, adding, “Editors are probably neurotic, too.”
The fun began, he said, once the first draft had been filed. The story went through several iterations, with input from other editors at Wired and a major overhaul near deadline helping shape the final product. But to get there, it’s important for writers not to take the editing process personally, he said. “You have to have a willingness to put your ego aside and focus on the story ... because it’s all about the story.”
Wallace agreed, saying, “What's important is that you are both really committed to the story.”
Advice for freelancers
The panel offered tips to freelancers in the audience. Among their suggestions:
The rewards can be great, the panelists said. Wallace’s rates range from $1 to $5 per word; Robinson said Wired pays $1.50 to $3.50 a word. And, writers should always ask for more, the Wired editor said. “Never do anything for free.”