Working at Borders was the best. The pay was terrible and the customers were occasionally strange or messy or angry. My co-workers were the difference. They made every day fun. The only common ground besides a place of employment was our love of books, music, and pop culture ephemera that the store possessed. It was summer camp for 30-year-old wise-asses who read deeply.
Freelancing possesses the same communal energy. The pay can be terrible, and our editors occasionally can be strange or messy or angry. Freelancers cover different topics and employ different styles to make points, but writing is the common ground, forming a tribe that is as supportive as it is eclectic.
That shared passion only takes you so far. Actively being kind can make a huge difference, and it’s easy to do. Here’s how I have tried to spread writerly karma during my career.
Talk without an agenda.
Your friends and loved ones outside the business listen but don’t understand. Talking with (and listening to) another freelance writer about the job – whether it’s about how to get work or contract issues or dictatorial editors – soothes the soul. Two years ago, I attended the American Society of Journalists and Authors’ conference in New York. One of the highlights was the simplest: ducking into the break rooms and talking to fellow writers. More importantly, I felt like a person who belonged to a community.
Share someone’s work – and give them credit.
Nearly six years ago, I wrote a story for the New York Times that was shared on Twitter by three high-profile media personalities. Not one of them bothered to mention who wrote the story.
I’m touched whenever anyone shares anything I’ve written, but I love when someone mentions my name. Some perks are obvious: It might motivate someone to read more that I’ve written. If the right person sees the story, that could lead to a connection or an assignment. But the biggest thing is just being recognized. There’s persistent shock that why, yes, a person wrote an article, not a content-generating bot created by MIT grads to keep Mark Zuckerberg in hoodies made from unicorn hair. We must remember that the magazine or website or newspaper you’re reading was assembled by people who made phone calls and labored over word choices and spent countless hours coaxing thoughts out of their head and onto the page. Often alone. Frequently wondering if they should have applied to law school or learned plumbing.
Please, put stories on Twitter or LinkedIn or Facebook. But be sure to credit the author. It costs you nothing and gives the writer so much more, including a reminder that they are appreciated in the world outside their laptop.
Recommend an outlet and serve as a reference.
A generic “editor@” email address is useless. It’d be a better use of my time to print my pitch, ball it up, and throw it into a stiff breeze. The most valuable currency for a freelancer is individual editors’ email addresses, people you can contact directly who will get your story up and get you paid. Or, at the very least, someone who will respond to your query before the season changes.
But the email address skyrockets in value if it comes with a recommendation from a mutual connection. It’s quick-hit vetting: “Tony Ravioli passed along your email address and urged me to write to you.” If you have a good relationship with an editor, let that fellow freelancer use your name. Editors want to work with talented writers they know. A member of that writer’s professional circle gets them a step closer.
Buy or pre-order their book.
If a freelancer you know or whose work you admire writes a book, do this. (An Amazon review also works, because that apparently affects ranking and buying desirability and all the metrics that comprise the endless riddle that is modern commerce.) If you somehow get an advance copy – the author is a friend, let’s say – buy the book as a gift. Think of it this way: You get so much writing from these people for free or for the cost of a subscription. Perhaps they’ve helped you in the past. Buying a book is an effective, inexpensive thank-you. Plus, IT’S A BOOK. You can never have enough of those.
Send job leads. Now.
Frequently we encounter enticing jobs that aren’t the right fit for us but are perfect for someone we know. But let’s get to that later. We gotta review the rest of these jobs and answer some emails. Then we have that story to proof. Afterward is lunch followed by two phone interviews. Then it’s off to the bank and the grocery store before hitting the gym and picking the kids up from school. Oh right, dinner! Let’s get that started. Play with the kids, put them to bed. Finally, it’s Netflix with the spouse as our eyelids drop like tiny, flesh-colored anchors.
You will never send that job listing. Too much takes place during the day. If a to-do item isn’t essential, what happened at 10 a.m. might as well have happened in the Bronze Age by 10 p.m. Don’t bookmark the listing or say you’ll get to it later, because you will not. Also, don’t assume your colleague knows about the gig. Maybe they were immersed in a deadline or on vacation. Maybe they don’t scour job boards daily. As soon as you see something, send something.
Unless you’re working on the exact same story – and, honestly, the chances of that are as slim as a supermodel’s wrist – giving a source’s phone number or email address to another writer won’t lead to your ruin. Plus, it might improve a colleague’s story.
Much of a writer’s success stems from the ability to take initiative. The same urge that drives you every day to reach a word count or make that extra phone call can be channeled into any one of these tasks. It doesn’t take long or cost much to be kind – and the impact on the freelance community is priceless.
Veteran freelance writer Pete Croatto (Twitter: @PeteCroatto) is working on his first book for Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.