It's that time of the year again: A time for looking back, taking stock, and at least pretending our hard-earned wisdom might just benefit someone else. I did this once before and I'm doing it again: Here's a list of things I learned this year that made me a better freelance writer.
1. Pitching is work too
Some of us enjoy pitching, some of us hate it, and some of us use it as a procrastination technique. But pitching is work too, and should be treated as such. If you’ve spent time and effort on crafting a pitch, you have a right to feel like you’ve been productive today. What’s more, pitching isn’t the dead-end writers make it out to be: instead of thinking of it as work with no guarantee of reward, think of it as great practice. Pitching forces you to hone your writing skills, getting at the very heart of what makes an idea interesting, intriguing, and perhaps most importantly, sellable. The more you do it the better you get at it, and that means putting out more pitches, which means, just by sheer numbers, getting more positive responses.
2. It’s better to write something bad than write nothing at all
I used to spend ages sitting in front of a blank page, waiting for inspiration to come. Until I found that perfect opening sentence, I told myself, that page would stay blank because I couldn’t afford to take a wrong turn: someone might read it! The truth is, no one would read it, and that’s because when you’re plunking away at a rough draft, and that draft is saved on your computer’s desktop, the only one who ever needs to see it is you. What liberation! What bliss! Writing something bad means you’ll at least navigate your way through the tunnels of mediocrity and perhaps emerge in the light of brilliance at the end. But the only way forward is through. You can’t write something bad if you write nothing, but you also can’t write something great. Write first, edit later, but don’t sit staring at that blank page.
3. Any idea can become an article; you just have to find the right outlet
I used to get all worked up when I’d come across an article that seemed so obvious, I couldn’t believe an editor had accepted it. Likewise, I’d come across an article so obscure, I couldn’t believe an editor had accepted it, and that sometimes made me even madder. The worst was when I came across an article that was my own idea in written form: something I’d long pondered, perhaps agonized over, but eventually decided not to pitch due to the utter conviction that no one would ever be interested in it. Thing is, someone is always interested in something. That means you’ve always got a shot; you just have to pair your wild and wacky idea with the wild and wacky editor who will see something great in it.
4. If you’re at a loss, simply reading a publication can help
Used to be, I’d think of something I wanted to write, and drive myself to the point of exhaustion trying to find a place that would take it. I still do that quite often, but even more often, I’ll be presented with an outlet looking for a certain topic, and I’ll come up with a story idea that fits that topic. The downside of this? I may end up pitching a story idea and getting a no, then having to retire it because it was so niche. The upside, however, is that I know I’m pitching to a willing audience. Think of it as growing the business side of yourself: You’re looking at a market and coming up with a product that will fit, instead of being your own quirky creative self and (at least sometimes feeling like you’re) screaming into the void. The results have not been extraordinary for me yet, but they have been promising.
5. Read the kind of writing you want to imitate
This one should be easy, but for far too many of us, it isn’t. Read the kinds of writers you want to write like; whether it’s to dissect an article paragraph by paragraph, construct an outline to follow for your next piece, or simply take in the talent, let it slosh around in your squishy brain, and then see what comes out the next time you sit down to write. A while ago I decided I wanted to write the kinds of essays I marvel at most when I read them; the kinds of essays that leave me in awe of the writer’s ability to take what appears to be the most mundane subject and elevate it to the level of high art or great literature. Once I knew this was my goal, I began reading these essays more and more. I also delved into the “Best Food Writing” of 2016 and 2017, and figured out that I want to veer away from irritating listicles and flimsy trend pieces and do what these people do: Food is life, food is culture and memory, and a lot of these essays were about those things even more than they were about food.
6. Publishing something you’re proud of is more important than publishing something in a big-name outlet
Suddenly I realized I had publications I was proud of and articles I was proud of, but very often the two didn’t overlap. I had written for some great magazines and websites, places that make people’s eyes light up when you mention them, but the pieces of writing I read over and over again to remind myself I had talent? They weren’t the pieces that appeared in those places, but rather the pieces for much smaller journals or online magazines; pieces I’d been paid little to nothing to write, that would never catapult me to the upper echelons of New York literary society. But they had one thing going for them: if I was trying to prove to a literary mentor, a prize judge or a fellowship that I had a skill worth nurturing, these pieces would be at the top of the pile.
7. Ask about people’s experiences pitching/writing and they’ll usually tell you
I used to think the act of writing an article was, to quote Winston Churchill, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Then I started talking to the people who actually write the pieces I admire. Spoiler alert! They were perfectly happy to talk to me about their pitching technique, their writing process, or what their greatest hurdles were when they were just starting out, because face it: we all love to talk about ourselves. I started listening to podcasts like “Longform” and “Kill Fee” that either interview one immensely talented writer about one piece of writing per episode, or more generally talk about the foibles of the industry. Both in person or on the radio, writers are remarkably self-effacing, laid-back, humorous and honest. What’s more, you can learn from them while you’re on your morning run: what could be better than that?
8. Make time to do the things you love that have nothing to do with writing
Writing guides and self-help books abound with advice like: “you’ll only write if you do the work” or “sit your butt in that chair and write”, but in all truthfulness, the time you spend away from the computer may be just as important as the time you spend in front of it. Sure, it’s better to write something than nothing at all (see item #2 on this list), but if you really just can’t bring yourself to get a single word down on paper, sometimes it’s best to get up from your desk and focus on something else. That doesn’t mean moping around the house wondering aloud why you’re so terrible at this, and that doesn’t mean binge watching Netflix. It means setting yourself to another task, preferably one that has nothing to do with being online, and throwing yourself into it fully. I was stuck on a recent piece that I needed to put together very fast, and my breakthrough came not during my gym class, but in fact on the way back from the gym, when I was sweaty and bundled up against the cold fall air, careening over rainbow-colored leaves on my bike ride home. I get a lot of great ideas in the shower too. And although I can’t think of one great idea I’ve had while cooking, I’m pretty sure that having a warm, tasty meal to eat at the end of a two-hour break is more than its own reward.
9. Ignore the mansplainers
I wrote an article recently that got me the most feedback I’ve ever gotten on anything. Some of it was negative, some of it was positive, but the vast majority wasn’t anything at all. That’s because most of the people who emailed me about this article weren’t interested in praising me or disagreeing with me. They merely wanted to explain my article back to me, in their own words. Unsurprisingly, all of these pointless, time-wasting emailers were men. As a woman in this field you have to deal with a lot, including, at the very worst end of the spectrum, harassment, stalking, and doxxing. Then there are the mildly toxic specimens of masculinity – those who take up your time and who, you can only imagine, are wasting their own time as well. The great thing about these people? You can, in large part, ignore them, and you should. Sometimes their brazen arrogance will get to you, and you’ll slam out a delightfully vicious rebuke, your mouse hovering over the send button. Resist the urge. Take to Twitter and say it in 140 (or now, 280) characters. Forward the email to a friend so you can both laugh at this sad little man. But the greatest gift you can give yourself in these cases is peace of mind, and that will only come with learning to ignore. After all, you’re already worlds ahead of these people; you had an article published on the subject they apparently know far, far better than you.