At the newspaper where I work, we recently had a spirited discussion about freelancing for other local publications. (In the newspaper world, “spirited” means a discussion that stops just short of throwing chairs at each other. Merely cursing and impugning your colleagues’ parentage is considered a “friendly” debate.)
Are writers as extinct as this typewriter???
The newspaper has no problem with its employees writing for national publications (such as this one) and other periodicals that clearly don’t compete with the newspaper for readers. But defining “local competition” can be tricky. At spirited issue was whether journalists on our staff should be permitted to freelance for the local weekly alternative newspapers and such magazines as our two city magazines and a couple of monthly business journals. Everyone seemed to agree that writing for the other daily newspaper in the market (congenially referred to as “that rag”) should be off limits. Beyond that obvious aid and comfort to the enemy, however, consensus was hard to come by.
Our staff debate was perhaps more pointed than most questions over moonlighting as a writer–here we have people employed full-time as journalists, in a competitive market–but every writer with a regular paycheck must figure out where to draw the lines between freelancing and obligations to an employer. Such issues crop up regardless of whether your regular job involves writing in some fashion.
Is it all right, for example, to run up long-distance charges at the office where you work as an accountant, doing interviews for a freelance writing assignment? Obviously not–at least that’s what most ethicists and your employer would say. But what about using your employer’s phone and your own telephone charge card during your lunch hour?
Welcome to the realm of “spirited” debate.
Questions about moonlighting, both ethical and practical, are more pressing for nonfiction writers than for those authors who just make up stuff. We have to worry about research and interviews, about filling our notebooks with facts. (I know, fiction writers often must do research, too. But theirs is more flexible and less at the heart of what they do.) While we may be able to choose when we actually sit down and write, we have less control over everything that comes before sitting down at the keyboard.
Short of spending all your vacation days and calling in sick whenever you get an assignment, how is a nonfiction freelancer with a steady job supposed to arrange interviews, work the phone or hunt down sources? And how much can you take advantage of the access and expertise afforded by your regular job without putting that weekly paycheck at risk?
Some of the tactics a nonfiction freelancer must adopt to write while working 40 hours a week are so creative they inspire awe and envy in our fiction-writing peers.
Working Hard or Hardly Working?
Successful and less-stressful moonlighting starts with being smart about what assignments you tackle. I’ve juggled a freelancing career and a 9-to-5 career (well, sometimes it’s more like 8- to-7) for nearly 20 years now, and I’ve kept my sanity by knowing my limits.
The ideal moonlighting assignment, of course, requires hardly any research at all. Drawing on your own life experiences and expertise for articles makes it easy to combine writing with regular work. This monthly column, for example, springs largely from my well of experiences (and those of writing friends and colleagues), as well as from the reading and keeping up with the field that I’d do anyway. Moreover, since I generate my own topics, it’s easy to coordinate any research with the rest of my life. (Please don’t tell any of this to my editors at WD–let’s keep it our little secret.)
Maybe you have a field of deep expertise that you can tap, whether for a regular column or for a flurry of feature articles. What subject do you know so well you can write about it off the top of your head? (A side benefit to this approach is that your in-depth knowledge makes it easier to spot hot stories before the popular press picks up on them, which likewise makes you more attractive to an editor.) If you know dolls better than any normal person ought to, consider queries on topics in the doll-collecting world. If your passion is video games, well, the newsstands are overflowing with glossy magazines for gamers.
Here, too, is where your regular job can come in handy. Think of those hours you spend at the office as research. Whatever you do, whether it’s insurance adjusting or pharmaceutical sales, there’s surely a trade magazine devoted to it. Depending on your job, you may also be on the cutting edge of a subject with more popular appeal. A computer technician by day could spend nights and weekends querying MacUser, Byte and PC Magazine. A psychology teacher might popularize her knowledge in self-help articles for Self and Parents.
But be careful when mining your job for articles. Don’t reveal company secrets. Don’t write anything you wouldn’t want your colleagues–or, worse, your boss–to read (they have lives outside the office, too, remember, and might see your article). Don’t take advantage of your dual role as employee and author to rack up perks that nonwriting employees wouldn’t get. If your regular job also involves writing, for heaven’s sake don’t write for the competition–whatever management, after “spirited” debate, decides the competition is.
Other types of assignments also seem suited for the evening and weekend freelancer. Either these stories let you pick the time for research, or they naturally allow you to research at the hours when you don’t have to be at your desk.
Reviews of all kinds fit well into a freelancer’s inflexible schedule. Consider product reviews in some field where you have special know-how–not only book reviews, but evaluations of quilting equipment, computer software, kitchen gear or whatever else you might know what you’re talking about.
For example, I write regularly for a publication called Link-Up, which covers online and other databases. I’ve been going online since the days of 300-baud modems, and I know something about research needs from my writing and reporting work. So I can craft a meaningful review of almost any database, however esoteric the subject. The round-the-clock availability of such online offerings means I can explore them when my schedule permits. As with most reviews, not much interviewing is required; what questions I do need to ask I can usually handle by e-mail. (E-mail, by the way, is a terrific, timewarping tool for eliciting basic answers to questions without having to pick up the phone during office hours.)
If your interests lie more on, say, the stage than in cyberspace, maybe you can write theater reviews for a local paper or magazine. Almost anything related to arts and leisure–music, dance, night life, even sports–makes a good target because, by its very nature, it’s likely to happen when you (and most other 9-to-5ers) can take part.
Similarly, any subject spinning off shopping–whether it’s haute couture or the annual “best of” stories that are the bread and butter of city magazines–can usually be researched during nonworking hours. If the stores are open, you can fill your notebook.
Restaurant reviews can be another wonderful writing opportunity–and you get to dine out on somebody else’s dime, too. Among my first freelance assignments were several regional restaurant roundups for Travel & Leisure, all researched in the evening with the pleasant company of my new bride. The only downside: Those assignments almost spoiled me for anything else!
(If you want to pursue restaurant reviewing, try to develop some proof of your proficiency and the quality of your palate. Take some courses at a local cooking school. Or maybe you worked your way through college at a restaurant–not, please, the cafeteria. Whatever you do, though, don’t say in your query, “I don’t know much about restaurants, but I have the most important qualification–I love to eat.” Innumerable applicants for a restaurant-reviewer position I recently filled used that line; all went into the reject pile. And notice how well my full-time job experiences just informed my freelance writing!)
Travel is another field well suited, almost by definition, to the moonlighting writer. Whether your trips require a vacation from your day job or you can plan weekend getaways, use them as opportunities to gather research for travel articles. (For more on this subject, see my columns in the December 1995 and January 1996 Writer’s Digest–articles I researched, of course, while taking a vacation.)
The Most Bang for Your Buck
As you spread your writing wings, however, inevitably you’ll want to tackle some assignments that require in-depth interviews, phone research and in-person investigation.
Sometimes these stories can still be done during your off-hours. If your subject is busy and finds it hard to squeeze in an interview during the day, volunteer to go to his or her home. A bonus of this approach is that you get to see your subject in less-guarded surroundings, and the subject’s home offers details that can illuminate his or her character.
You may be tempted to arrange lunch or dinner interviews. Don’t. Successful interviewing can be challenging enough without the added burden of handling a knife and fork.
Other assignments will require you to spend a precious vacation day. You shouldn’t be too quick to take on an article that costs you hard-earned vacation time, but the math may make sense: If you can make $1,000 for writing an article that absolutely requires you to use one vacation day, unless you make more than about $250,000 a year ($1,000 per workday x five days a week x 52 weeks a year), it may be a worthwhile trade-off. (Of course, you’ll need to devote more than a single day to all your writing and research, but there you’re spending your unpaid time, evenings and weekends, not your paid vacation.) A plum assignment may even be worth taking a day or two off from your job without pay, as long as that action doesn’t sound alarm bells with your employer.
When you do devote vacation time to an assignment, make the most of it. Do all your secondary research beforehand, on your own time, so that you get everything else you need in just one in person experience. If you must travel to an interview, shoot for a Friday or Monday appointment so you can make half the journey on the weekend. Or get up early and take the red-eye home, so you can do it all in one (very busy, but very productive) day.
When I interviewed a number of business tycoons for a magazine series on American success stories, for example, I had to take off from my regular job to fulfill the assignment. But each profile cost me just a single vacation day: I did all my homework in advance, planned all my questions, jetted in and out on the same day, and, throughout, kept uppermost in my mind the exact angle and theme of each assignment. All the advance research and the subsequent organizing and writing was done on evenings and weekends. Since the magazine paid pretty well, the interview days seemed like a good investment of my vacation time.
But such assignments can be intermittent and undependable, and freelance work doesn’t earn-you any paid vacation days. So I offer one more piece of advice for the moonlighting author: