Living In The Not Knowing: How To Survive Being a Freelance Writer

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Who are you? 

Hi. My name is Javy Gwaltney. I work for Game Informer as an associate editor. Until recently I was a fulltime freelance writer. I wrote for Playboy, Paste Magazine, Vice, Killscreen, and a few other places about video games (or videogames, depending on which editor I was writing for).

I want to speak with a fair amount of candor about being a freelance writer and maybe offer some tips that might help other freelancers or aspiring freelancers.

What are you trying to sell me?

Nothing. This isn’t a Syd Field type situation. I don’t have a book I want you to buy or anything. There’s a surprising amount of silence on the subject and I think it should be easier to find knowledge and impressions related to being a freelancer. If you like some of my words and want to support what I do, you can check out the stuff I write for Game Informer or talk to me over at my Twitter account (@HurdyIV) but there’s no price attached to any of this outside of the time it takes to read it.

Why should I listen to you?

I don’t really have any flat out, awesome reason for why you should read this stuff. I was a fulltime freelancer for nearly a year. I did well enough to survive and eventually get a cool job. That’s about it. There are undoubtedly people doing this that are better at it than I am but they’re not here writing this, it’s me, so I’m who you’re stuck with.

Okay, well how did you become a full-time freelancer?

I was a teacher for a bit. I had been writing for Paste Magazine for a few months and earning enough to help pay utility bills. I quit my community college gig after a single semester because being a teacher felt more like a pointless struggle against an immutable, awful system governed by apathetic people than a job I could love. I was burned out by the expectation of teachers to survive off some endless inner fountain of pride and enthusiasm instead of a livable wage. Four months into my teaching gig, I started writing for Playboy. In the Spring of 2015, I was making more writing a handful of articles about video games every month than I did breaking my spirit teaching.

In May I took the plunge. I had spent too many late night grading sessions that turned into morning grading sessions without compensation, too many instances where I was expected to drive an hour and a half to attend a meeting about issues that I, as an adjunct, had no power to change anyway. I became a full-time freelancer. I treated it like a real job. I pitched publications everyday. I worked my accepted pitches in a frenzy, trying to turn each one in as quickly as possible so I could get to the next to one. I guzzled my weight in coffee as I powered through 70 hour games in four days and then spent another four hours writing the reviews for them; I churned out lists, I took simple thoughts and expanded them into full-length essays. I pestered PR people and developers for interviews.

I was good at it. Not the best, but I was good enough to survive.

Tales From The Borderlands

Tales From The Borderlands: A game I’ve written about before.

You sure do like to talk about yourself, huh?

Okay, fair, but look, lesson one: you’re never just selling your writing, ok? You’re selling your persona, so you have to be able to talk about yourself. Sites that accept freelance pitches often get countless pitches every single day. The act of selling your writing is just as important as actually being able to write competently.

I built an audience over a couple of years by using social media not just as a link depository but by actually engaging with folks who took time out of their day to read my stuff. People recognize my byline. Not a million of them or anything, but enough so that a piece will always get a good number of clicks if my name is attached to it. Editors know that. Certain names get more views, more interactions from the audience, and so they might be more inclined to accept pitches from those writers.

Is that the way things should be? Shouldn’t great writing by itself be enough to be published? Sure. I want to believe that. But that’s not the world we live in. You could be the next James Joyce or Zadie Smith, but if you can’t sell both you and your work, you’ve already lost as a freelancer. That’s just how it is.

(Also, I’m sorry if I sound like I’m bragging at any point in here. I don’t like sounding boastful, but I’d rather be plain and straightforward about what I’ve done instead of wasting time and words apologizing for unintended humblebrags every other sentence.)

Okay, well how do you get your pitches accepted?

Luck, repetition, and stubbornness. Not necessarily in that order. The most important tool in a freelance writer’s arsenal right now is Twitter. That’ll probably change in a few years but for right now, if you’re starting out, you need to get on Twitter and you need to follow the section editors for your favorite sites that you know take pitches. If you’re curious: a lot of publications explicitly state somewhere near the About page whether or not they take pitches. The ones that don’t, you can email an editor at the site and, in my experience, you’ll find out pretty quickly if they accept pitches.

Follow those editors. Pay attention to what they’re tweeting. Sometimes they put out calls for specific pitches. A buddy of mine got a gig over at a quality gaming website because he saw a reviews editor tweet that he needed someone familiar with wrestling experience to review a wrestling game. He got back to that editor. He became a contributor just like that. I started working for Playboy’s gaming section because the editor over at that section put out a call for pitches and I happened to see it. That job would go on to help pay my rent for nearly a year.

Wolfenstein

Wolfenstein: The New Order. Another game I’ve written about.

Editors also often tweet about what sort of writing annoys them or what pieces on their site they really dig when they’re promoting them. All of that is valuable information that can help you learn what to do and what not to do when you’re pitching these people. Sound a little creepy, quasi-stalkerish? Trust me, the majority of those editors know that’s the game anyway and probably don’t mind that you’re doing it if it leads to pitches and articles they can actually use to bring in traffic to their site.

Which is actually another good point.

?

Pitch useful shit when you’re starting out. Hey, that gargantuan post-modernist essay you have on Battletoads is probably good and fine and worth reading but precious few editors are going to see that sort of thing in their inbox from a stranger and want to publish it right out. Editors need lists. They need reviews. They need people who can write them pieces that are insightful, often concise, and not overbearingly obnoxious (slightly obnoxious is fine though! It’s stylish!). Save the experimental or heavier stuff for later, when you have a relationship with the editors of those publications and readers are familiar with your name.

One of the best things I’ve ever written, a piece on disability representation in games, was something I’d kicked around for over a year, to every outlet under the sun and no publication wanted it until Paste took it. I had been working with them for half a year when they accepted and published it.

That’s sounds like a lot of rejection.

Rejection is part of a freelancer’s diet. Anyone who can’t stomach that won’t make it. I was rejected at least 40 times from various outlets before I got my first yes from The Escapist back in 2013. My rejection rate went down after that but it’s always been pretty high because I fired off a lot of pitches, probably 30 or 40 a week.

In the beginning, rejection is rough. But you get used to it. You see it hit your inbox, a “sorry, I can’t use this” or a “gotta pass on this” or maybe you never even get a reply. Just deafening silence, which is fine. No one owes you anything. Bitter pill, that, but it’s best to swallow it as soon as possible and just keep on pitching.

Never. Stop. Pitching. Your livelihood depends on it.

Zork

ZORKKKKKKKKKKK

Yikes! Are there any tips that might help not get rejected so much?

Sure. Pitching is more of an art than a science, but there are general tips that’ll probably improve your chances. The best thing you can do is read Alan Williamson’s guide to pitching, “The Art of Pitching”, learn it by heart, ands put Williamson’s tips into practice.

It’s just as essential to surviving freelancing as the ever-motivating awareness of how screwed you are if you don’t get your ducks in a row.

Pardon?

Being a full-time freelance writer is not a job I can in good conscience recommend to anyone. The only reason I was one was because it was the only decent paying job I could do in the town I was living in. It’s a ridiculously stressful gig, one where I lived 30 days at a time wondering if I would write enough pieces to be able to make rent and if I did whether or not the publications I was writing for would be able to get those checks to me in enough time. Thankfully they always did, but I’ve heard horror stories about other publications that flat out didn’t pay freelancers and didn’t bother trying to fix the situation even after they were notified the writer hadn’t received payment.

Like I said: stressful.

So are there…are there any perks to being a freelancer?

Sure. There’s a thrill to pitching a piece to a publication and then getting paid to write for them. One of the coolest moments of my life was watching the column on text adventures I pitched go up on Playboy. It was surreal but also something I was super proud of. I’m really happy I got to contribute to Paste Magazine’s brilliant gaming section.

I also got a cool full-time writing job thanks to my freelance work eventually, so that’s nice.

So what else can you tell me?

Yeah, might be best to scattershot the rest of this. Let’s see:

1.   Other freelancers are your friends

While it might be tempting to view other freelance writers in your niche as competition, I’ve found the network of freelancers I’ve worked with to actually be incredibly helpful. We bounce ideas off one another, share what sites are accepting pitches and for what prices, talk about what publications might be good for what pieces. So reach out to freelancers when you’re getting started out even if you’re shy. It benefits you in the long run.

2. If you’re writing about games, don’t write for just gaming sites.

Lots of games writing freelancers do this thing where they pitch only gaming sites (IGN, Gamespot, whatever). Spread out. There are non-gaming publications dipping their toes into the pool of gaming content everyday just to see if it affects their traffic substantially. The places I wrote were for most of the time were actually general interest sites with established gaming sections: Playboy, Paste, Vice.

3. Write outside your comfort zone.

Related to the last point: it’s also a good idea to try and write about more than games (or whatever you write about primarily). What are you interested in? Movies? Music? Furniture? Cheese? Write about that stuff too. Be flexible. If you can do it well, there’s likely some money in it.

4. Don’t write for free (unless you really really really really really want to)

Okay, this is more of a “do as I say not as I do” statement, as it is for the majority of people who give you this advice. I’ve written for free. I’ve regretted it. The caveat here is that you should definitely write for free if it’s on your own blog or if you really, really want to write for a site that’s not being grossly exploitative.However, there are countless sites out there that thrive on promising exposure and review codes as compensation for your writing, sites that  generate plentiful ad revenue off your work. Don’t write for them. HOWEVER: that’s not to say there aren’t sites out there with mentors who can help you become better writers in the beginning. I got my start writing community posts at Bitmob (now GamesBeat) and the editors there were instrumental in helping shape my writing. Just use your best judgement.

KRZ

Kentucky Route Zero. My favorite piece I’ve ever written was about this game.

5. Know when to say no.

Eventually after you’ve been writing for publications for a bit you’ll likely build a relationship with editors and they might start sending you assignments or asking if you’re interested in doing a feature or a review. While it might be tempting to take on every single task thrown your way, it’s better to know your limits and what’s worth your time. For example: near the end of my time as a freelancer I was asked to review a role-playing game. The pay was less than $50 to play through and write words about a game that would take 50 hours minimum to beat. That’s less than a dollar an hour once you’ve finished writing the review as well as 50 hours out of your month that you could use on a plethora of other assignments just gone. Don’t be afraid to tell editors no either. They get it. If they like your work enough, they’ll swing back around to you with another assignment in time.

6. Avoid creating drama.

Let’s say an editor or site makes you mad. You want to tweet about it. Write a Facebook thing. Whatever. Often the best thing you can do is swallow your pride and move past it. It’s a shitty thing but going on a rant on Twitter about a site’s editor can affect your freelancing opportunities. To me, that’s sort of infuriating since I think people should be able to speak plainly in public about what bothers them, but again, that’s not the world we live in. So if you’re ever mad, like truly mad, just consider if it’s worth damaging your career to say whatever you want to say.

7. Getting a full-time writing gig.

I sent out a call for questions while I was writing this post and the question I got the most was “How to get a full-time writing position at a publication?” And I know you’re gonna hate hearing this but the truth is that I don’t know. I saw the Game Informer position. I applied for it. I sent in samples. I interviewed. I got the job. That’s about it.

There are a lot of variables with these sorts of things and I can’t really offer you a detailed plan that leads to a full-time position. Just keep writing and applying for jobs is the best bit of advice I can give you for this. Don’t think about the rejection emails you get for applications or pitches, just keep on keeping on. Maybe it’ll lead somewhere.

8. Listen to other points of view.

This is important. sometimes you’re gonna write stuff that people don’t like. And they’re gonna let you know they don’t like it. And you should listen to those people. You don’t have to agree with them but you should hear them out, especially if your knee-jerk reaction is that whatever they’re saying is wrong. Learning from other perspectives can help improve your writing, so don’t be dismissive.

Apotheon

Apotheon

9. Always be reading.

This goes for more than just whatever writerly niche you occupy. You a games writer? Read more than games writing. Read novels, read criticism about movies, sports, music, everything. See how it transforms your own writing. You’ll be surprised, trust me.

10. Listen to your editors.

Editors are great. Usually they’re the ones accepting your pitches and helping turn drafts into articles they can use on their sites. They’re also often the person who decides if you get more work with that outlet. Now this doesn’t mean you should bow down and keep quiet about every change you disagree with, but make sure the battles you’re fighting with them are worth the time and aren’t bullshit about flowery words you want to keep in that don’t fit with the site’s ethos. Be respectful with your disagreements. Understand that they’re often trying to get the best out of your piece while also making it fit the publication’s tone. Chances are they know how to make that happen better than you do.

Update: Game critic Stephen Beirne (you can check out his work here and here) had a great counterpoint about this bit I felt was worth sharing:

“The point that you as a writer should avoid causing fuss with an editor over seemingly mild choice of words is a little troublesome. From the perspective of a freelancer giving it looking for advice on how to enjoy a smooth experience with editors, it’s correct. However, because so much of games press is stacked in representation to NA audiences, what it ends up meaning is this: There is a particular set of dialects that are viewed as acceptable for the readerships of the majority of mags and this benefits North American writers most of all while hindering dialects from other parts of the world. Editors want your language to veer towards this standard acceptable form & fight to eradicate what they see as linguistic oddities.  The more a writer sounds like an American the more likely they are to be published.

This is in sharp contrast to the principle that writers have to find their voice & let their writing convey their personality. So anyway what ends up happening is 1) outside dialects are marked as unintelligent 2) writers w/ those dialects are demeaned during editing the standard perpetuates because you don’t want to have to convince your editors that you’re not an idiot & xyz is for linguistic reasons. What this all come down to is it would be nice to not be put in a position where linguistics cause waves in the editing process but more editors need to be conscious of the political nature of language, & should make an effort to accommodate foreign dialects. If things are this bad for hiberno english just think of how much worse it is for non-english primary language speakers.”

11. Read and follow the works of others.

Read an article you like? Be sure to follow the author on Twitter. Talk with them about the piece. Share it with your followers. Read and support good writing. It benefits you, the author, and avid readers following you.

12. Always have a backup plan for bills.

Pets get sick. You get a parking ticket. Bills happen. You need to have some source of money to help you out with that stuff whether it’s cash saved or part time job or help from relatives. Just be prepared for the inevitable unexpected expense. It happens.

That’s about it, really. Well actually, no, it’s not. There are tons more but I’ve already put nearly 3,000 words down and a lot of this is just stuff you have to learn as you go, picking yourself up after each and every stumble. It’s a scary thing, for sure, being in free fall with no career ground beneath to prop you up when you screw up. Luckily you’re not alone. There are other experienced freelancers out and about, hustling everyday, filling the inboxes of poor editors with pitch after pitch after pitch. They’ll help you along because they’ve been there before. They know what it means to have that helping hand when you’re starting out.

If you ever have a question, you can just reach out to me and I’ll try my best to answer it. Best of luck and may you never run out of ideas.

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The Author

Editor at Game Informer. Loves cinema, books, and writing stories.

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