The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Buying a Little Time

by Anna McDougall

The little writing I do get done is squeezed into twenty minute time segments when relative quiet descends upon my house. My four children, aged two to eight keep my senses over-stimulated from six AM until nine or ten o’clock at night. That I keep writing in spite of these precious distractions is an indication that I love it, or need it, or both. But now I’m done. I’m finished plopping my youngest in front of Rolie Polie Olie to bang out a first draft before it escapes my brain; I’m through bribing my older kids with KD and freezies in the back yard and calling it dinner so I can steal a few PC minutes. It’s time I give myself some substantial writing blocks to allow my prose and poetry efforts room to improve. Besides overcoming the hurdle of guilty feelings inevitable for any confirmed stay-at-home parent, I also need a source of cash to buy me some free time. In my world, that means childcare. I've decided to investigate freelance writing.A year ago I would never have considered it as I reserved every peaceful moment for reading and writing fiction, but now I believe I could create some decent non-fiction pieces within a reasonable amount of time without exhausting all my creative energies.

I contacted freelancer Brenda Hubbard for some straight answers. This Nova Scotia writer is already beginning to draw an income from article writing although she started out just eighteen months ago. As a single mother of three young children, she had to make it work for her, and I wanted to find out how I could too.

“Freelance writing gives me the freedom to make my own schedules and work around my family,” Brenda told me, “I knew I could do most of my work from home, via the internet and telephone. It's completely different than a nine to five job because you are your own boss, what you (earn) solely depends on you.”

While her children attend school, she types away from 8:00 AM to 2:30 PM breaking only for lunch and a visit to her favorite online writers’ site Zoetrope Virtual Studios. “Dinners have to be made, lunches and clothes ready for the next school day, so time management is really important. I spend an hour researching markets, marking them down, and noting what I could possibly write about for them. Queries don't usually take me more than an hour for the first draft.” Then she leaves them to breathe before going back for the final polish.

Without constraints of an office job, editor deadlines provide Brenda with a work structure. “I love deadlines, there's like this adrenaline rush happening when you haven't quite finished your article and it has to be turned in. That's when the blood pumps and the ideas seem to flow the best for me. Although I try to follow a schedule there have been times where I've had to finish up articles at two AM, to meet my deadline the following day.“

Brenda began Writing for Publication, a course at Nova Scotia Community College in the fall of 2004 and during those studies, she prepared her first query letter for a local business publication, Commerce Magazine. It was accepted and she received her first assignment: a 600 word profile of a local business owner.

In skimming calls online, I noticed a requirement for freelancers to develop an area of specialty and write for that niche. Brenda agreed that by determining your subject of interest or expertise, opportunities will open up; she’s been working on some single parenting articles. Also, I realised that there are two ways to approach the hunt for freelance dollars: target a publication and write around their themes or develop an idea and then find it a home. Brenda said she’ll “normally get an idea and then try to find a market to suit it. Finding markets aren't usually a big problem; it's writing the dynamic query letter that will catch the editor's eye that can be a chore at times.”

Brenda’s advice for controlling income flow is to meet every assignment deadline, use the word count to your advantage (since many publishers pay per word), and keep mailing those queries. “Pick an idea, write a query and get it out. If you don't do those things you'll never make it as a writer. Also, try to make sure you aren't spending more time on an article than what you're worth. I try to pace myself so I'm averaging $50 an hour when I write an article…it's good to set a goal and realise what you're worth. Never forget the five W's as this is important for a complete article. And the most important thing is to remember a writer has a code of ethics to follow and that is essential in this business.” Brenda sends five queries out a week of which many are declined, but having regular assignments with two local magazines help her earn at least $400 a month and don’t require travel. The editor of Altitude Publishing's Amazing Stories responded well to Brenda’s query so now she’s preparing a proposal for a book and her attitude is positive, “…I'm up against tough competition but hope to do well. If I don't get this assignment at least I'll have gained the experience…”

Money isn’t the only way to determine success in this field. Brenda is motivated “not only (by the number of) projects I get finished, but by the amount of queries I manage to get out and at least get a response from.” Her most rewarding assignment was for CBC Radio Outfront. “This meant so much to me, because it involved my son, his paternal grandfather, and … an epiphany I had about family even through separation, and how I could set my feelings aside to make sure my children experienced both sides of the family. It was a very emotional time for me when I did this, but I'm so happy I did and learned a lot about myself at the same time. I felt extremely successful because I taped and worked on By the River’s Edge by myself.”

Brenda’s biggest challenge is breaking into the national and regional magazine markets. “Networking,” she reminded me, “is vital in the freelance business. Most writers who are too busy to accept new assignments will suggest (someone) they know who will meet the need. Also, once editors know you, they'll start contacting you and asking if you want assignments.”

I asked Brenda whether freelance writing was her ultimate career goal or a stepping stone towards a further writing dream. She plans to write a novel one day based on her journey through a difficult marriage and eventual separation. “Life has a way of handing us things that need to be shared with other people.”


Brenda’s CBC Commentary piece can be read and listened to here searching the archives.

Professional Writers Association of Canada


Blogger Antonios Maltezos said...

Boy, bribing them with freezies is a bad one, isn't it? My wife and I decided, just the other day, that there would be no more of that. As soon as the box of 150 freezies is done, we're going to get them hooked on carrot sticks. Seriously, Anna, you have a flare for CNF, and I don't doubt you could get the jobs to start rolling in. As your post implies, the key is having a steady stream of queries out there.

Tue Jun 27, 10:23:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

Brenda Hubbard is a lovely person, realistic, practical and fun. I'm glad to hear she's doing well ($50 an hour! At writing!). I rarely think about writing articles or non-fiction pieces. It seems to demand skills I can barely imagine. This post has helped me brave it.

Tue Jun 27, 10:50:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger tamara said...

This is great, Anna. A great help. Lots of good stuff to think about here. Thanks!

Tue Jun 27, 01:50:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger J.A. McDougall said...

Thanks for the encouragement everyone! We'll see what becomes of my plan...

Tue Jun 27, 02:27:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

I'm impressed with your research into this, Anna. Smart of you to get the lowdown from Brenda. You can do it, too, I know it!

Tue Jun 27, 03:47:00 pm GMT-4  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know Brenda Hubbard and I don't doubt she can earn $50 an hour when she sets her mind to it.

I think dabbling in freelance writing is a great way to earn extra money or to support yourself. And I think if it interests you, you should go for it. There are tons of markets, all eager for good writing.

this is a stellar piece, Anna.

Sun Jul 02, 07:44:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Ridwan said...

If you really did find a working formula that made you, say $1,000 a week online on average and it kept producing income no matter what, would you want to sell that idea to a bunch of noobs for $47 a pop and expect to retire on the proceeds? No way, man! It does not compute. It does not add up. And it does not make any sense to do that. I certainly don’t go shouting from the rooftops how I make my money online. Hell, I don’t want the competition taking a slice of my pie and neither would anyone who really does make good cash online.

Mon Jan 18, 08:17:00 am GMT-5  

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