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Archive for August 10th, 2007

So far as I can determine, complaints about the rates for freelance writers first began in the 18th Century, when Daniel DeFoe invented the profession. Today, the complaints have some justification, considering that, in many markets, payments haven’t changed for a couple of decade. And when Writer’s Digest publishes a list, as it did a few years ago, about the best places to be published online and the rates for the top two sites are below $30 per article, you know that the list is aimed at hobbyists rather than professionals. All the same, as a freelancer who does make a respectable living from writing, I can’t help thinking that the complainers are approaching the problem the wrong way. To me, they always sound as though they expect to make a living because of their writing skills when what they really need is subject matter expertise.

The complainers remind me of the technical writers who insist that what they offer is writing expertise, not technical knowledge.These technical writers produce mediocre documentation, and, after a year or so, have trouble finding employment. Then these same purists complain that their profession never gets respect – even though the minority of technical writers who do learn their subjects have no trouble finding employment and command ever-increasing salaries.

In freelance writing, the purists are usually those with a literary bend, but the attitude is much the same. They feel that their language skills make them an elite, and they condescend to those who are experts and can make a living from their writing. To them, the experts are hacks, literary prostitutes who have sullied the purity of the written word.

Haven’t the purists heard the old dictum that you should write what you know? And, if they have, why should they imagine it doesn’t apply to them? Or to non-fiction as much as fiction?

As a former university English instructor who taught more than his share of composition classes, I am satisfied that most people can be taught to write a publishable piece of writing. Not a classic, you understand, but something comprehensible that an editor would consider publishing. Beyond a very basic level of literacy, what a freelancer offers an editor is an interesting topic, one that’s either entirely new or – more often – one that offers a different slant on an old topic. Editors appreciate fine writing, but they consider it a welcome extra, rather than a requirement, the way that originality is.

And to provide that basic requirement, you have to know what you’re writing about. Otherwise, the ideas won’t come. You’ll have no idea that what seems fresh to you is a cliche (For instance, hardly a week goes by when Linux.com doesn’t receive a query from someone wanting to write about how they converted from Windows to GNU/Linux). You won’t know what to focus on to develop a new idea, or the powers of observation to know what you might develop into a new idea. Just as importantly, you won’t have the contacts to develop enough new ideas to make your living by writing.

Nor will you learn the biggest secrets of all: Not only that editors will pay money for expertise in a way that they won’t for fine writing by itself, but specializing makes it much easier to be productive.

Take my example. Partly by idealism and partly by accident, I have become a computer journalist specializing in GNU/Linux and free and open source software. When I first starting selling articles as a sideline, I considered myself lucky to manage three articles a month. The writing itself only took a few hours, but gathering the information and finding sources to quote was time-consuming. I couldn’t imagine doing 12 articles a month, as Robin Miller, the senior editor at Linux.com, suggested.

Now, two years later, I average 16 articles a month for Linux.com and other online sites. What’s more, I get enough information that I could easily write three times as many, if only I had the time. Not only do I know my subject and where to find more information quickly, but people I’ve consulted before often let me know when they have a newsworthy item. Some even give me the scoop.

By contrast, consider the freelancer whom Russell Smith mentioned yesterday in his column in The Globe and Mail. It was hardly worth her time, she said, to do an article for $3000. She would have to do about twenty interviews, she said, and research would require intermittent effort over a couple of months.

No story is going to quote twenty people – that would be too confusing for the readers, and any competent editor would send such a story back for a rewrite. Five or six is more that most stories can handle. I can only assume that the freelancer was talking about writing an article on a subject for which she had expertise.

And a couple of months? Allowing for difficulties in contacting people, a couple of weeks is about the maximum a story should take – and, even then, you’d be normally doing several other stories at the same time. Moreover, between email and IRC, you shouldn’t normally need more than a few days if you’re actively assembling a story.

Yet if you’re relying on your writing skills rather than your expertise, the sort of effort and time-line described by this freelancer is probably unavoidable. You start from behind, so everything is harder and takes longer.

Some people might say that, by becoming a specialist, you narrow your subject range. Yet even that isn’t necessarily true. For instance, I started by writing articles on OpenOffice.org, the free office suite. For a while, I was worried enough about being type-cast that I went through a period during which I avoided the subject, but I soon found myself branching off into other related topics, such as other desktop programs. Before long, I had enough articles on a variety of topics that I had the credibility to write about almost anything.

Free software, recycling, the music industry – it doesn’t matter what your area of expertise is. But if you’re going to be a freelance writer, you need to find one. And if the literati call you a hack, just ask yourself which you’d prefer: Striking a pose and lamenting how you are misunderstood and underpaid? Or having the power to earn a living and be your own boss while doing something that interests you?

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