Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Freelance Failure - What I Learned

[Sidenote: Today I was drawing a blank on what to post, minus the rant. Tim Beyers (@milehighfool) blogger of The Social Writer sent me post suggestions. Special thanks to him for this idea.]

My first freelance attempt after college was a pitch to the New York Times real estate section. Sounds lofty, I know, but when I moved to New York I landed a job in the editorial department there and was encouraged to pitch the different sections in my free time. I sent ideas to the education, entertainment and real estate sections.

The real estate one was picked up and I got to write a feature on a new mutli-family residential building going up in TriBeCa, designed by Enrique Norten. The whole thing was simultaneously nerve-wrecking and exhilarating. From the experience I learned two invaluable lessons.

One - Always carry a map and contact information. I’m pretty good with directions, getting around new places and I’m a very punctual person. But this time I took the subway to a stop I’d never been to and by the time I hit street level I was so turned around I nearly gave up. Luckily I was early. I wandered around for nearly an hour - late by that point - and still couldn’t find the building under construction.

To make matters worse I had forgotten the cell phone number and work numbers of the people I was meeting to discuss the project. I asked the postman for directions, he’d never heard of the place. I asked a local drunk, a homeless man and a street vendor - nothing. (It was a new building after all so the address wasn’t exactly common knowledge yet.) I called 411, but they could not locate the site or the construction company. I called a friend and had her google it - nada. Defeated I went back down the subway steps stopped at the map for one last look and realized I was one block away from where I needed to be.

From then on I never went anywhere without all the contact information written down - almost to an OCD level.

Two - “Once you know the rules, know how to break them.” When I got the interview, transcribed the notes and wrote the story I had lofty ideas of writing in a style that was worthy of the Gray Lady. I followed all the journalism rules - all but one; the one about breaking the rules.

When I turned the story in to the editor she sent it back within 30 minutes saying it was boring and lifeless. ‘But it’s news,’ I thought. She suggested I liven it up. Add some flare to the piece, not make it so cut and dry. I inserted more descriptive words and sent it back to her proud of the progress. She sent it back.

The piece sounded better, but where was my personality? Where was my voice? She wasn’t telling me to add my personal editorializing, but what she did want me to do has been helpful ever since. A news piece, an article, a research paper doesn’t have to be boring and lifeless. You’ve got to make the reader want to get to the second paragraph.

When the piece follows all the journalism rules, lays out all the facts but has no soul it’s not going anywhere.


  1. I learned the contact info lesson the same way -- the hard way!! Also, after my microcassette recorder was stolen by the cleaning people at my first job and I lost an interview w/ a VIP, I never again relied solely on a tape player. To this day I ALWAYS write or type notes in addition to recording it, and I usually transcribe the interview immediately afterward. I'm so afraid of losing it & having to redo the interview!

  2. So true. I think we've all lost info in one way or another... reminds me I need to save an interview I just did that is sitting on an unnamed word document...
    Thanks for adding your lesson learned.