After talking to Jen A. Miller for a while about freelancing, I wanted to quit my job and become a full time freelancer. That’s because Jen is a) really good at freelancing and b) loves supporting other people who are dipping their toes into the freelance world. If she ever wanted to quit freelancing, she could probably make a living being a life coach or cheerleader for other freelancers.
That’s because Jen writes things like this on her blog, Notes from a Hired Pen: “Freelancing doesn’t suck. It’s the original entrepreneurial journalism, and if you can treat it like the business that it is, and have the right personality for what can be a screwball of a way to make a living, it’s far more rewarding – intellectually and financially – than a spot in a newsroom cubicle could ever provide.”
That intrigued me. I wanted to talk to Jen because she has clearly made this “screwball way to make a living” work. And she has successfully navigated both social and financial challenges to build a really successful solo career.Part of that is because she has used social media really successfully. Every time I see her Twitter feed, it looks like she’s juggling seven or eight freelance gigs, writing a book, chitchatting about her favorite hobby — running — or promoting other freelancers’ work. She’s a runner, who writes a lot about running — and consistently finds new or different story ideas that others don’t because she’s a member of the running community.
Jen lives in South Jersey and contributes on a regular basis to several publications, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, The New York Times and Runner’s World. We talked about Twitter, creating a network if you don’t work in a newsroom and how to get started if you’re interested in freelancing full time.
MK: You always seem to have multiple pieces in various stages of development. What programs or apps are you using to keep track of them?
JM: I use Excel. I feel like I should have a much more sophisticated system. I’ll have a story idea and I’ll pitch it and I’ll write down who gets it. I go through my list every two days and follow up on pitches that have sat with editors for two weeks. And as soon as two days pass, I go to someone else.
I write a lot about running. When I get an idea about running, I have to think who’s the best person for this story. In some cases, the process from pitch to a print magazine can take over a year. And then you go through multiple revisions. Whereas if I have something from Philly, I put it in my Inquirer column and it’s published a few days later.
If it doesn’t fall into any of the categories where I have a sure fit, then I have to think creatively. I don’t pitch as much as I used to now because I get approached more for stories. I ask myself, ‘Does it fit in my schedule, now that I’m writing a book? Is it a good client? It is it a conflict of interest? What’s the time? Pay? Contract?’
MK: So what does the Excel file look like?
JM: I have one Excel doc with many pages. There’s a page called Pitches, which contains the story idea, the outlet, the date I pitched it, the editor, and the responses, which can be yes or no. And then I list a follow-up date.
I have another page called Assignments. Whenever someone says yes, I bump it over to assignments, where I also list the story idea, name of publication, the date of the pitch, the date the story is going to run and the editor. I use colors to keep track of things. When the story is due, it’s highlighted in yellow. If I haven’t invoiced for it, it’s red.
Then there’s another page called invoice codes. Every client gets a number. I started at 1 and I’m now at 109, which means I’ve had 109 different clients. This has worked for me forever. And then I have a page called Invoices. That contains the invoice number, who the publication is, when the invoice is filed, and what the total is ‑ and that easily lets me see who owes me money.
Right now, I have four assignments that I’m actively working on, plus my Inquirer column, plus my book. And everything’s also in a Google Calendar.
MK: How long do you wait before you move an assignment on to another publication?
JM: I have a rule called two days and two weeks. I pitch a story. I go back two weeks later and then if I don’t hear back within two days, I move on to another publication. I’ve never had anyone get mad if I move on and then they discover it. Most editors I’ve dealt with are extremely overwhelmed with their inbox.
MK: If money and tech were no object, what’s the one tool that would make your life substantially easier?
JM: My ex-boyfriend was trying to create a workflow management software tool for freelancers. And the problem we ran into is that every freelancer is really different and our work is really different. We’re all coming in from different entry points. There was no way to do a workflow product that works for everybody.
But there are things that I don’t have on my Excel sheet that I could use. I don’t have a sheet for stories I could resell or ideas I have. People write a story for a big magazine and then when the rights expire they rewrite it for little publications. I feel like the time that I would put in to create something like that is too much.
There are a lot of companies trying to create this kind of tool for freelancers but they’re expensive. Or they want to be a middleman between you and an editor and a lot of the opportunities are very low paying.
People have said, “How are you going to compete with people who get 50$ a feature?” I say, “I’m not competing with them.” My goal is to be the Mercedes Benz of freelancing, I’m not competing with a Yugo. I’m not going to sell my essay to a website for 50 bucks that will take all of the rights and put it in a book.
MK: Is digital always included in your magazine contracts?
JM: I started freelancing 10 years ago and I’ve been full time since 2005. When magazines started having websites, there was this whole debate: Do we get paid extra if a story also runs online? It was a big debate for a while.
Now it’s just assumed. What I do is make sure it’s not a work-for-hire gig, which means they own everything — all copyright for all eternity. I negotiate for first North American serial rights or first magazine rights which means if they reprint it, I get a reprint fee.
MK: Aside from writing, you are very active on Twitter. How do you organize your Twitter feeds to keep track of everything?
JM: I wish I could say I was more organized. I don’t have any coworkers and I get bored. I don’t even have push notifications on my phone. But Twitter has replaced the water cooler for me.
I do have Tweetdeck with the basic columns set up. I have lists. I actually once tried to separate my personal Twitter from my professional twitter and it was a disaster. The best way to use Twitter is to be yourself. It’s gotten me readers and clients.
For example, I write a tech column for CIO.com and I got it because the editor at the time is a big runner and started following me on Twitter and started reading my stuff and said, ‘You know how to put a story together. You should write for me.’ And we put together one story, on the city of Camden and what they’re doing to reduce crime. And that turned into a twice a month column, which is great.
MK: I watch Buzzfeed’s writers constantly tout each other’s work on social, which I think is really smart. It’s tougher for freelancers to do that, I would think. How have you constructed support for your work online? Do you collaborate with other freelancers?
JM: Hashtags. All of my running stories are hashtagged with #runchat, which is a large community build up around running. I’ve been part of The American Society for Journalists and Authors and Freelance Success, which is a community for non-fiction freelancers, for so long. We all follow each other on Twitter and we all support each other’s work.
If there’s something I write that I want to make a big splash with, I reach out to a bunch of my colleagues. I don’t do that very often. But sometimes it just happens organically. I think sometimes the topic makes things go viral no matter what.
MK: If someone’s thinking about switching to freelancing, what would you recommend they do, in terms of prep work and getting started? I imagine it could seem overwhelming to handle every part of the business by yourself.
JM: There’s a book called The Money Book for Freelancers, Part-Timers and the Self-Employed, which is a great guide on how to handle the uneven money part of freelancing. That tripped me up in the beginning. I have $7,000 in late checks right now and I’m good. I got it covered. The money part trips up so many people and that’s understandable. This isn’t even about accepting low-paying work, but it’s uneven work.
And you need to join a group like Freelance Success or The American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA). Joining a group of professionals who do this for a living, have done this for a long time, and pull in a good living — you want to be part of a group, even if you’re just starting. There are so many stories about how freelancing is terrible — you don’t want to be listening to that kind of noise. You want to be with people who are doing this, in the trenches. You want to learn how to do invoicing from them. You want to learn how to read contracts from them. I don’t feel like I’m competing with them. There are so many opportunities out there.
MK: Who’s doing it right in the freelance world? What are the 3-5 accounts you consistently follow to learn new things?
JM: @gwenmoran – She’s a very successful business writer and she ghostwrites. She has a very interesting stable of work but also does stuff that gets the mortgage paid. I’m really impressed.
@michellerafter – She’s a longtime newspaper reporter who became a freelancer by choice. She writes a blog called Wordcount which is the best blog about freelancing that I’ve ever read. She really supports freelancing as a business model.
@petecroatto – He’s relatively new. He lives in NJ, and he’s doing some really great sports writing. He writes for the New York Times, Grantland and also does stuff for Playbill. He seems to be in that stage of freelancing where you’re trying everything to see what works.
MK: Because you write for so many different publications, I also wanted to ask you about comment sections. Do you think about comments? Do you ever wade in or do you prefer to converse elsewhere?
JM: Writing for anything that publishes to philly.com will teach you not to do that. Sometimes my mom reads the comments. I check them out when I think I’m going to be amused because they’re so awful and terrible and mean-spirited. I don’t see the value in caring about what people say anonymously or won’t say to your face. I’ve never had a publication say you need to respond or need to read the comments. If an editor says, “You want to read the comments,” it’s generally because they’re really good.