October 5

Sweet Sixteen: An NYWF Retrospective

This is the transcript of a speech I gave at ‘Alumni Ultimatum – Ne Oblivarus’ (30 September 2017), a National Young Writers’ Festival reading that celebrated the festival’s 20th year. It also marked my 16th year of attending.

I pass you on the street and I want to say ‘hello’, but you don’t actually know me. You see, you’re sort of famous. You were on that panel, the one with the funny guy who ran late. You spell well. You wrote a zine I thought was the best thing I read in 2004. You have a byline in a magazine that people have actually heard of. You’ve been published in Voiceworks.

I wrote this on my blog after the 2012 festival, which is only a short time ago in the long history of my attendance. To give context to my story, I want to take you back to 2001, which is the first year I started coming.

The global fallout from the September 11 terrorist attacks was yet to come. John Howard was Australia’s Prime Minister. And the Newcastle Knights were in the NRL Grand Final. (Time travel spoiler alert: they win 30-24 against the Parramatta Eels and the city becomes a carpet of red and blue streamers for days following.)

I was in my final year of an arts degree at Macquarie University and I’d heard about the festival from a friend, Lee Tran Lam, who was on a couple of panels. It was too late to book accommodation so I commuted every day from Sydney on the shitkansen (hat tip Marcus Westbury for that term). Don’t knock it, it’s a great way to catch up on reading.

The National Young Writers’ Festival was part of a cohort of festivals that would later become This is Not Art. At the time it included events focused on student media, sustainability and music, held in the formal rooms of the Newcastle City Hall.

I came away from my very first festival with three impressions:

  • Wow, these people know so much about writing and the media and speak so well about issues.
  • Newcastle is a phoenix that needs to die to rise again.
  • Linda Jaivin has a cool zipper necklace and I want one.

Since then I’ve attended every National Young Writers’ Festival bar 2005, when I was travelling overseas. I made my own zipper necklace. I saw the city’s renaissance through Renew Newcastle (once again, hat tip Marcus Westbury). And I have watched as festival artists established rewarding careers.

While Anna Krien never bested Phillip Gwynne at Shantaram shotput (apologies Gregory David Roberts), she has become a fine essayist and author.

And although Lisa Dempster did not have the cooking talent of Benjamin Law and Rosie Pham to win Wriron Chef—yes, a writers’ version of Iron Chef—she became the director of the Emerging Writers’ Festival, and then the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, a stint she recently completed on a high. I still have her Scrabble zine and a first edition of her travel memoir Neon Pilgrim.

Benjamin Law, you probably know, went from Frankie magazine columnist to Quarterly Essay-ist in that time, with ‘side gigs’ as a journalist, scriptwriter and The Australian‘s minority target du jour, ousting Yassmin Abdel-Magied for at least two weeks.

And me? I worked my way up from being an editorial assistant at a publishing house to being headhunted as a content writer, which is where I was when I wrote that blog post in 2012.

That year’s festival made me realise that although I was at home with my relative anonymity, I lacked pride in my writerly achievements, solid though they were.

That did a lot to dent my confidence in the festival space. I was not being the best writertype I could be, which is one way in which the National Young Writers’ Festival checks you. In short, I had done a lot, but I hadn’t shared any of it.

In subsequent festivals, I sought to remedy that. I gave paid work to freelancers I met at freelancing-themed events. I applied to be, and was accepted as, an artist to talk about freelancing, getting paid as a writer and being prank-called by Senator Bill Heffernan, though I should note that being prank-called by an MP is not a pre-requisite to becoming a ‘real journalist’. I also volunteered for the first Younger Young Writers’ Program, for writers aged 13 to 17, (hat tip Geoff Orton), which I directed last year and last week.

I am now a full-time freelance writer who earns enough money to pay her mortgage on a Sydney property and support a dependent. Admittedly the dependent is a mouse called Gustav, but he will never clean his room, so it’s like mothering a tiny teenager for the entire span of his little life.

I’m telling you this because I want you to know that the National Young Writers’ Festival has always been a community of sharing: highs and lows, ideas and experiences.

So… Hello, my name is Adeline Teoh and I used to suffer from the most imposter-y of imposter syndromes: the imposter syndrome you suffer in a festival replete with people suffering from imposter syndrome.

But fast forward to the present and here I am at the Newcastle City Hall again. This time, instead of staring goggle-eyed at the person at the microphone, I’m the one with the platform and I’m wondering whether you’re having a good time. Imposter syndrome. The struggle is real, people. But what the National Young Writers’ Festival has taught me is that we can transcend it because we have seen our peers rise. Like Newcastle. Like a phoenix.

Thank you.

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October 29

The swings and roundabouts of freelance client management

Freelance client management is like a box of chocolates: all clients look good but it’s not until you’ve bitten into one that you realise the relationship is a cockroach cluster*. Or a cluster something else, anyway.

One of the benefits of working as a freelancer is that you can choose who to work with. Do not squander this benefit by choosing money over your sanity, at least not for the long term. If your client is a douchebag, don’t be afraid to (politely) ‘fire’ him/her/them. It’s worth it. There’s an opportunity cost if you work for douchebags, because you could be working with someone less painful. However, if there’s nothing in the bank, consider ‘pain pricing’, which is upping your rate for people you know are going to be trouble so you can at least ease the pain with cash.

swings roundabout
The playground. More like freelancing than you can imagine.

How to find clients

Many freelance writers start freelancing after they’ve secured some contacts who can give them a decent amount of work. If you don’t have a Rolodex** of clients (or binders full of women) because you’re starting from scratch, or those contacts aren’t giving you enough work to keep you in cheese and wine, you’ll have to find some.

Approach clients you want to work for, whether that’s an editor at a publication or an organisation you like that you think could do with your services. As with any job hunt, do your research as to whether/how much they pay and the kind of work that’s likely to be on offer. Just say there’s an organisation you really like but it doesn’t accept paid content submissions to its lovely website, but will pay freelancers to write its press releases. Do you still want to work for it?

Network with other freelancers. Overflow work is always on offer. Find someone in a similar field to you and take them for coffee. Offer to help them with their workload. Once they trust your work they will feel more comfortable ‘subcontracting’ work to you or referring clients they cannot service to you.

Join freelance websites that post jobs. I do not recommend Freelancer as the kind of work and the rates are rather base, but services like Rachel’s List are worthwhile. It has an annual admin fee of $24.95, but I’ve scored several jobs there that I hadn’t heard about through other means, which easily made it value for money. Pedestrian and The Loop are also popular and worth a look, though I’ve never applied to posts at either of those.

Talk to people at events and have your business card ready, as you never know who might need you. I’ve been to parties where friends of friends ask me what I do and they’ve contacted me for my services. Industry events, for example conferences, are filled with potential clients.

Client expectations

A great percentage of client management is understanding what they expect of you and delivering at or above those expectations. There are two main types of clients I’ll discuss in this section: publications and organisations, under which I include businesses, government and not-for-profits.

Publications

Publications tend to have an established structure for managing freelancers. If you haven’t had a job in the publishing industry this process can be a little opaque, so I’ll take you through it.

Generally, the freelancer pitches a story idea to an editor. If the editor likes the idea, s/he will commission it. This involves a brief, a deadline, a word count and a word rate. You deliver on time, to brief and get paid.

Things to note:

  • Does the publication accept pitches? (Does it pay?)
  • Are there publication or pitching guidelines? Read them, heed them
  • Who’s the best person to pitch to? Find them, contact them
  • Research the publication: topic coverage, demographics, stories it has run recently and don’t suggest something that’s out of scope or already published

When I receive a commission, I like to confirm a few things before I start work. This is the minimum you need to ensure that you have a leg to stand on should the editor change his/her mind about running the piece (you may be able to extract a kill fee, for example) or should there be a dispute about what you’ve written matching what the editor wanted.

  • Brief of story including expectations re: interviewees, images etc
  • Word count
  • Rate (word rate or fee for whole article)
  • Deadline
  • Format (if applicable)
  • Contract (if applicable). A contract may state payment terms, copyright terms etc. READ THIS. Do not sign or accept the conditions by default if you are not comfortable with it.

ALWAYS SUBMIT YOUR WORK ON TIME AND TO BRIEF. I used to be an editor and it is actually amazing how many writers do not do either of these very basic things. Work that is 80% there but submitted on time is better than 100% there and submitted late. At least the editor know s/he has something to run, even if it may need work!

Follow-up is also important. If there’s no response (even busy editors usually ping back a ‘thanks’), call/email a day later to check if the editor has received your submission. I’ve been saved by this before when my email was playing up. If the editor says the piece needs more work, be available to do the rework promptly.

Once the editor is satisfied, invoice promptly. I like to make sure the editor is okay with the piece before sending my invoice, but for regular clients I now submit it in the same email. Just check what the editor’s preference is if you are unsure. S/he may have an assistant who handles invoices, or you may need to liaise with the accounting department.

If it is not made clear earlier, find out when your piece will be published (whether online or in print) so you can brag about it and add a clipping to your portfolio. It may also be a good time to sound out when the editor will be commissioning more stories and what s/he is looking for—you can then pitch again.

Other clients

Non-publication clients may engage freelancers differently and it’s certainly my experience that they usually come up with a brief themselves (rather than you pitching to them) and also pay by the hour or by the project rather than the word. My approach is simply to be there to make their job easier. If it’s my job to come up with ideas, I come up with ideas; if it’s my job to fulfil someone else’s brief, I fulfil it.

Just like with a commission, I like to make sure there are certain arrangements in place before I start work. I suggest you:

Ask for or propose a brief. If the client does not have a thorough brief or you are not confident quoting to the supplied brief, don’t be afraid to ask for further details. This is the professional thing to do and will help you scope the work.

Ask for or propose a deadline. If it’s a fairly long project, break up the pieces of work into milestones.

Quote thoroughly. This includes your rate, what is included in that rate, how many hours you think the job may take, and payment terms. Also include provisions for further work/costs should the job take longer than expected.

Some clients, if you give an inch, will take a mile, so be firm about the fiddly ‘extras’ that clients like to include but don’t want to pay for. For example, I include two rounds of revisions in my editing work but if the client comes back and says ‘just one more tiny change’ after those two rounds, I charge. It may be a nominal amount, like $5, but I like to show that there’s a cost to me (and them) to drop everything to accommodate something beyond the agreed brief. It also teaches them to be more thorough with their revisions next time.

As with publications, submit on time and to brief. I admit that I’m absolutely terrible with soft deadlines and will almost always bend self-determined deadlines so I ask my clients to set a deadline for me and I deliver to it. Once the client is satisfied, invoice promptly.

busy

Juggling clients

A lot of freelancers like freelancing because of the variety of work and, in addition to keeping you fresh, a diversity of clientele is also good to stabilise your cashflow. My clients are mainly small businesses, publishers, member organisations and occasionally advertisers for a website I run. They pay different rates, in different cycles and the work is different for each.

On the other hand you may wish to specialise because you love a particular industry or type of work (for example you may only want to write feature articles). My only warning is not to put all your eggs in one basket because people move around and what you thought was a reliable commission can suddenly peter out.

How many is too many? Consider the ir/regularity of jobs, how organised you are, and how demanding they are. I have about 20 clients but only 5-6 of them are active at one time. I have one client on a monthly retainer and fairly reliable commissions from two bi-monthly publications; the rest is made up of ad hoc and semi-regular work.

Don’t forget it’s not just about the hours, it’s the headspace you need to service them all well: seven one-hour jobs for different clients will not take you just seven hours.

I’m not always good at this, but I have since learnt to prioritise and hone my time management skills as well as communicate with my clients to adjust their expectations when things are hectic. This is better than having them chase you when you haven’t delivered on time, which will earn you a reputation as being unreliable, which is almost the worst thing you can be***.

My next post will be on the craft of freelance writing.

This is the third of a series of posts based on a freelancing workshop I gave at the National Young Writers’ Festival on 2 October 2015. The first was Notes for the first-time freelancer and the second The Freelance Writing Spectrum.

* Yes that’s a Monty Python joke.

** An olde fashiony piece of office equipment that holds business cards on a wheel.

*** The worst thing you can be is Scott Morrison.

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October 13

The freelance writing spectrum

writing spectrum

There’s a myth about freelancing that comes largely from Hollywood glamorisation with just a touch of one’s own self-delusion. Being a freelance writer is not like being Hunter S in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or that neophyte whose name I forget in Almost Famous.

Nor is it usually a life of researching and crafting hard-hitting long-form investigative pieces that you file twice a year for a massive payload that sustains you until the next one.

The truth is writers undertake different kinds of freelancing to sustain themselves. Even the most successful freelancers I know don’t exclusively write in one area, and many do things other than write. This includes, but is not limited to, the following activities.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Freelancing is not like being Hunter S in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Universal Pictures)

Different kinds of freelance writing

  • Journalism
  • Content development
  • Ghostwriting
  • Blogging
  • Copywriting
  • Other media (film/TV/radio etc)

Freelancing related to writing

  • Editing/sub-editing/proofreading
  • Teaching/tutoring
  • Speaking/facilitation
  • Publishing
  • Consulting

Most of my income comes from magazine commissions, content development such as blogs and newsletters for business clients, and ghostwriting (bylines under my clients’ names). Occasionally I get some money when organisations advertise on my project management website, but I don’t invest time in the sales process so it’s usually pocket money if I do. Once in a while I get an editing gig.

I know of bloggers who sell some advertising on their blog but then earn a great deal of their income through other means, for example speaking and consulting, and I know of plenty of freelancers who love being a journalist but find they have more opportunities (and make more money) editing tenders and annual reports.

If you thought being a freelancer was 100% writing about unicorns (ie your pet topic), I’m sorry to say very few people get to do this. But don’t despair, because the above examples actually show how versatile the field can be.

If you know how to put good words in the right order, there will always be a job for you somewhere. You may not want to do everything you can do, and that’s fine—on a personal note, I no longer want to write someone else’s LinkedIn profile—but being too precious eventually leads to starvation.

That being said, remember why you’re freelancing. If it’s for the freedom to write what you want to write, then maybe the money is secondary. Perhaps you’re better off doing something else for income so you can write for pleasure (which doesn’t mean writing for free, but don’t rely on this income). That’s okay too, but if you’re serious about freelancing as an occupation, you’re going to have to consider the whole spectrum of earning activities you can undertake as a writer.

My next post will be on finding and managing different kinds of clients.

This is the second of a series of posts based on a freelancing workshop I gave at the National Young Writers’ Festival on 2 October 2015. Did you miss the first? It was Notes for the first-time freelancer.

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