Freelance Success: An ode to the glue gigs

The bylines in high-profile pubs are nice, but savvy freelance writers owe their careers to sturdy, dependable work that may escape the masses.

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Mike McDermott:  I took a risk. You, you see all the angles, you never have the fucking stones to play one.

Joey Knish:  Stones? You little punk. I’m not playing for the thrill of fucking victory here. I owe rent, alimony, child support. I play for money. My kids eat. I got stones enough not to chase cards, actions of fucking pipe dreams, of winning the World Series [of Poker] on ESPN.

—From Rounders (1998)

It’s unwise to visit Twitter during happy times, so it’s questionable at best to visit the social media platform as the coronavirus pandemic extends its stay. Every week, as another round of layoffs is announced at a media behemoth, someone bemoans the future of writing as a profession. Freelancing gets a postmortem, too. There is usually a thread of tweets, a blog post, an article from someone who freelanced for a spell, hated getting ghosted by editors, and now has something meaningful to say about this backward occupation.

I tend to ignore these shouts, which probably began around the time the first dial-up modem screeched. I know this is a crazy business. Plus, my days are packed. I don’t want to spend them cultivating another existential crisis when I have my own blooming beauties I tend to daily. Also, there’s always a gig to grab. It may not be a piece that finds its way into the cultural conversation or even the end of our resume, but it will keep us from applying to law school.

Oh sure, Pete, you can afford to say this rah-rah garbage. You write a regular column for a national publication. And don’t you have a book coming out?

Yes, I’ve been lucky to land in a fair share of high-profile publications and websites. My first book comes out in November; it’s from a major publisher, and there’s a sizable first printing. I have reason to be optimistic.

But…

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The freelance writers who make a great living inside the smooth, well-laid-out pages of GQ and Vogue can fit on a matchbook. Bestselling book writers is a shorter list, one populated by the same people who have seemingly dominated airport bookstore tabletops since the Wright brothers’ first launch. Looking at my recent list of invoices submitted, there are some nice gets: Good Housekeeping, Next Avenue, a regional AAA magazine, two pieces at Fatherly. All were pleased with my work. All paid well, but they weren’t the best rates I got that quarter. I make about $1,500 month as a part-time copy editor for a magazine’s website: I work three hours a day, five days a week, and I use the downtime to tackle other projects. I made $225 speed-writing an advertorial for a longtime client and another $135 proofreading a research paper in the late-night hours of a quiet house. I made $500 tweaking the final draft of a self-published author’s diet book. I don’t promote these jobs because that’s hard to do on Twitter or LinkedIn: I totally crushed that dangling modifier! ICYMI: Here’s a heavily edited “profile” of a periodontist I interviewed for 20 minutes between her patients.

These jobs’ importance to my career (and livelihood) cannot be overstated. These are unglamorous jobs – my freelancer friend Stacey Freed calls them “guppies” – but not the shoulder-slumping ones found on late-night runs through Craigslist or Indeed. You know, the vague ads that offer $50 to write term papers or “pizza money” and an ARC as compensation for book reviews. The jobs I’m extolling pay well, cause little stress, and make you feel useful. They can be one-time, periodic, or steady. The last category can be amazing. Before the plum copyediting gig, I spent nearly five years editing and contributing to a trade magazine’s supplements blog. It paid $1,500 a month, required 10 hours a week of my time (at most), and allowed me to work with wonderful people on a topic that interested me. 

Those “wonderful people” have remained at the magazine. They still give me assignments.

I adore these jobs because they offer a low-risk, well-compensated way to improve. Maybe I do something different with this lede. Perhaps I can abandon that crutch word that I would usually put right here. How few words can I use to express this point? Let me set a timer and see how fast (and clean) I can get this piece done. These assignments are like Mike Trout taking cuts in a batting cage.

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The practice never ends. Perfection is an epithet; the restless, curious disposition that led us to this profession has a low tolerance for complacency. You don’t age out of writing. Neither do you fail the artist in you by taking a job for the sake of a job. The artist needs to practice so their skills don’t entropy. The artist needs to master the discipline to meet deadlines. The artist needs to buy groceries and get their car serviced. The material world still calls the shots, and it is relentless. These gigs get me paid – and provide the financial security to take on the passion projects that don’t pay as well or are harder to get an editor’s blessing.

These glue gigs also slay boredom, the toughest opponent I’ve encountered as a writer. It is overwhelming and all-encompassing, with the only remedy being a couch, a television, and time frittered away. Productivity breeds productivity. Writing leads to more writing. Action turns into habit.

I’m not naïve. It is a tough time for freelance writers. Aside from legislation affecting our careers, budgets keep getting slashed or, at best, staying the same. Some fields – such as film writing – are so stacked with competition and ingrained mores that entering the fray is inadvisable save for the talented, tenacious few. The glue gigs will always be around, funding the opportunity for you to play the angles, to wrangle a pipe dream into reality while paying the rent.

—Ithaca-based Pete Croatto is a veteran freelance writer who has written for The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Publishers Weekly, Columbia Journalism Review, and many other publications. He is also working on his first book. Twitter: @PeteCroatto Originally Published

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