As portrayed in the media, the writer’s life is a great life: traveling all over the world interviewing celebrities or writing about exotic places, autographing your novel at the local Barnes & Noble, working in your robe and slippers, sleeping till noon, or writing on the beach in a foreign country or wherever you can travel with your laptop.
Sounds great, right? Except … my life is nothing like that.
To begin with, I virtually never travel. Not because I don’t have the opportunity; I was recently asked to give a writing seminar in Romania. But … I just don’t like to travel. So I don’t. (I’m not afraid to fly. But I find today’s airport procedures for boarding the plane intolerable.)
A benefit of the writer’s life that is highly touted is the ability to work from anywhere thanks to the portability of laptop computers and mobilephones. But I don’t have this portability … again, because I don’t want it.
Aspiring freelance writers are told they can live anywhere in the world, and maybe they can, but I can’t: I have too many ties to the community we live in now, and although I might enjoy living in another region more, I am here at least for the near term. My wife has her social network of friends here. My mother, who is nearly 80, lives nearby as does my sister, and we want to be close to both of them. My oldest son commutes to a college 15 minutes from our home. And as someone who is over 50 and was born in New Jersey and has lived in the state practically all his life, my roots run deep.
I have a laptop, but don’t particularly enjoy using it. I’m most comfortable writing at my familiar Dell desktop PC at my favorite desk in my comfortable home office, surrounded by my extensive files and my reference books, with my golden retriever Princess asleep on the sofa. I prefer familiar environments, not strange or new places. I am a homebody; sue me.
I have, on occasion, had opportunities to hobnob with the rich and semi-famous as a result of being a freelance copywriter and book author. I have politely turned down virtually all but a handful of these opportunities. Why? Because I’d rather be at home with my family than out drinking cocktails or having dinner with strangers; one reason is that I intensely dislike small talk. Similarly, I am not a networker. Other than AWAI, I don’t belong to writers’ groups. I am a solitary drudge who almost never sees other writers.
So why, if I eschew these benefits of the writer’s life, did I become a freelance writer in the first place? My main motivation wasn’t to get things I liked but didn’t have, but to avoid things and experiences that I dislike.
My major dislike in life is boredom. I hate to be bored. And I am easily bored. Most things bore me. The major exceptions are reading and writing. I am a voracious reader and a prolific copywriter and book author with 80 published books to date. I realized that to be an insurance agent (which my father was), an accountant, or to hold any job other than writing would quickly put me in a coma. So I vigorously pursued and obtained a career as a freelance writer – primarily to avoid boredom.
Has it worked? Yes. I am not never bored. But I am rarely bored. I find both the research and the writing to be intellectually stimulating and, most of the time, just plain fun. There might be another job I would enjoy just as much, but if there is, I don’t know what it is.
Another strong dislike of mine is wearing a suit and tie. I am extremely uncomfortable in formal business dress. The great thing about being a freelance writer for me is that I can wear whateverI want. Now, I am not literally a “barefoot writer”; I have unattractive feet and always wear sneakers and socks. I do not work in my pajamas, robe, and slippers, though I could easily do so; but I always wear casual clothes (I only own one suit, which I wear primarily for giving talks).
I worked in the corporate world for a few years before becoming a freelance writer, and one of the things I disliked most about my 9-to-5 job, other than wearing a suit, was meetings. So from the very beginning – I went freelance in February 1982 – I conducted my freelance business by mail, phone, FedEx, and fax (and today, by Inter- net) and virtually never met with clients. That was unusual in those days, but more common today. (I was probably one of the pioneers in “remote freelancing.”) Even today, I prefer to work by phone and email and rarely attend in-person meetings. You can, too.
Another aspect of working in the corporate world I could do without was commuting. I actually did commute between home and a rented office for more than two decades of my freelance career. But I rented an office close to the house, so it was a short commute. And it was all localroads, so I was never stuck in traffic jams. A few years ago, I moved my office into my home – we had an extra room added for that purpose – so the commute from my bedroom to my office is literally five steps.
Had I stayed in the corporate world, I would have eventually had to move into management to make a decent wage, and that would mean supervising employees. Having to do so would displease me since I don’t like to take or give orders. As a solo practitioner, I am required to do neither.
A few years ago, I was asked to speak before a group of college students about achieving success. I told them my definition of success is: doing what you want to do, where and when you want to do it, with whom you want to do it.
Freelance writing gives me that, more or less: I do what I want, which is to write. Do I always get to write whatever I want to write about? No. Right now, I am writing a piece about iron ore mining. Interesting? Yes. Would I choose it as a topic if I did not require money? Probably not. Yet it is writing and not some less desirable (to me) task like keeping books, interior design, or working as a chemical engineer (I have a B.S. in chemical engineering).
As a writer, I am, to a large degree, master of my own schedule. So I have the wonderful freedom of doing what I want to do when I want to do it. Yes, writing projects have deadlines. But as long as I meet the deadlines, I am pretty much free to spend any given day on whichever one of my projects I wish.
A pleasing aspect of the writer’s life is that no two days are exactly the same. When I worked at a manufacturing plant, every day for the people on the factory floor was exactly the same as every other day: they would assemble parts or wrap wire around a post all day and come back the very next day to do the exact same thing all over again – my worst nightmare.
A writer’s life has much more variety. At any time, an email or phone call can mean an exciting new opportunity or assignment. You never quite know what the day will bring.
If you like surprises, you’ll like being a writer. For instance, one December day, I got an email from a corporate client. It read: “I have to spend the rest of my budget by the end of the calendar year. What I would like to do is send you a check now and then have you apply it to work you do for me next year. Is that OK with you?”
I figured it would be for a few thousand dollars, and I said, “Yes, of course.” Five days later, I received a check made out to me for $66,000. It was one of the bigger shocks of my freelance career.
Another time, back when I lived in Manhattan, an ad agency executive I knew called me and implored me to meet him and his client for lunch at the Plaza Hotel – a ritzy place I would never think of going to on my own.
When I got there, he introduced his client, who was an Iranian multi-millionaire. The client wanted a writer who would move to Iran and live in his mansion for a year, working with him on a privately funded advertising campaign designed to promote world peace and harmony. With my aversion to travel and my attachment to New Jersey, this one was easy to turn down.
Then there was the phone call from a New York publishing firm who had a writer fail to deliver a manuscript and needed to get a book writtenquickly. It turned out to be a pop culture quiz book on the TV show Frasier. I had a lot of fun doing the book, and it was published with the title What’s Your “Frasier” I.Q.?
Do you like learning new things? The opportunity to research and read widely to complete writing assignments can be viewed as both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that you get paid to learn. The curse is that since you never know what you’ll be able to use in your writing, you feel obligated to read and gather information all the time. It tookme years to learn to read newspapers and magazines without scissors and a yellow highlighter in my hands.
I’ve written on many topics ranging from sex and Stephen King to science fiction and Star Trek. But because I am primarily a how-to author, let me close with a few tips on how to succeed as a freelance writer:
- Find a writing specialty or niche. The narrower the niche, the more in demand you’ll be as a writer and the more money you will earn. There are plenty of gardening writers but only a few that specialize in orchids.
- Build a platform through which you can reach the audience for your writings. Develop a list of online subscribers. Host a radio show. Create a content-rich website optimized for search engines. Become a columnist for your local newspaper.
- Write in multiple media: broadcast, Internet, books, e-books, magazine articles, blogs, special reports, spoken-word audio CDs. Doing so will increase sales, revenues, and readership.
- Develop a personal relationship with your readers. I answer all my emails personally and also answer my own phone at my desk. Calls and emails are not screened as so many authors do.
- Grab publicity wherever you can get it – from a book review in your town’s weekly newspaper to being a guest on a local cable TV show.
- Become a public speaker. Talk to book clubs and at local libraries. Speak to associations and professional societies. Lecture to high school and college students.
- Recycle your content and sell it in many different forms. For instance, I record my speaking engagements and sell them as audio CDs or DVDs at www.ctcpublishing.net.
- Read as much as you can. You never know when you’ll uncover more grist for the mill. Create an organized filing system so you can clip, save, and retrieve these information nuggets when you need them.
- Network. Get to know people in your niche, potential clients, people who can refer you to potential clients, editors, and publishers. People connections can accelerate your career.
- Give every job, even the low-or no-paying ones, your best effort. “We never write as well as we want to,” said advertising copywriter Lou Redmond. “We only write as well as we can.”