Talking shop

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:

  • If it’s a big story or one with a complicated story line, work from an outline. This will help you see all the pieces and organize information so that it flows smoothly.
  • Study the magazine to see what kind of articles it runs. Editors want “more stories that have already run in their magazines – just bigger and newer ones.” They want writers to bring them topics and characters, and to be able to say the story line. Make sure there’s a story idea in the pitch, not just a topic.
  • To break into a new magazine, pitch stories for the “front of the book” – departments and standing features – as a way to get in the door. “Every month they have to fill those 30 pages,” Robinson noted.
  • Pitch early and often – but only suggest really good ideas. Keep your hand in – keep yourself in the conversation.
  • Have good work habits: Give clean copy. Be accurate. Be on time. Answer your phone. Be easy to work with.
  • If you get a story back, “pitch the hell out of it.” It may not have suited the intended publication (for whatever reason), but someone else might pay you for it.
  • Some editors respond well to one-line emails asking whether they want a pitch on an intriguing subject. Tell just enough to peak their interest.
  • Don't feel bad if what you write gets “really worked over” in the editing process. This is particularly true when writing for the front of the book; they have their voice, and everything has to fit in.

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.”