Why Idiots Make Good Freelance Writers

Carol Tice

A clueless freelance writer leaps before they lookIt’s hard being a freelance writer.

I mean, there’s so much to worry about. Do I come off arrogant on Twitter? What does it mean that I got no response to this query letter? What if people laugh at me when my story comes out?

So much anxiety.

Unless, of course, you’re clueless.

Maybe you don’t know enough to know you should be worrying about these things. If you’re a bit of a moron, you just plunge ahead, blundering around until you figure out how to make the whole freelance-writing game work for you.

And that, folks, is me.

Don’t believe me? Let’s review the hilarious blunders I blithely committed while switching from songwriting to being a freelance nonfiction prose writer, and how those errors failed to discourage me.

Diary of a simpleton

The first prose piece I ever published was an essay about my songwriting life. It won a contest put on by the L.A. Weekly.

Right after it came out, I asked my editor if I could report a story about an upcoming protest that was going on in downtown L.A.

Hello? Writing an essay in no way qualifies you to be a reporter. But I was utterly ignorant of the world of journalism, so I didn’t know that.

I just knew I dug being published and wanted to put out more articles. And they said, sure, give us 500 words on it. So I did.

After it came out, they gave me a bigger assignment, which I completely screwed up. So it got killed.

But I didn’t know that this failure should make me crawl off in shame and never report a story again. I was more like a crack addict who’d had their first hit. I had tunnel vision.

I just needed to figure out how to get more of that byline high.

So I pitched the Weekly‘s competitor, the L.A. Reader. Then I ended up writing for the second paper for years, eventually including cover features.

Lather, rinse, repeat

I repeated this whole process with the real estate section of the Los Angeles Times. Entered a contest, won, essay published, and then the editor wanted me to write articles for them.

I thought he was nuts, but that sounded like a fun challenge. Like a happy idiot, I just smiled and went with it.

I’m sure if I’d sat down and thought, “This is the third-largest newspaper in the entire United States, and I’m writing articles that appear on the cover of a section, when I’ve been writing prose for a big nine months,” I would have been too intimidated to continue.

Also, did I mention I was s l o w ? It would take me about two or three months to write a single feature! I have no idea why my editor put up with that, but fortunately, I was unaware I should find my production rate embarrassing. So I just plugged along until gradually, I got up to speed.

Editor without a clue

Next thing I knew, I stumbled onto a gig editing a small alternative paper in San Pedro, Calif. The locals included masses of scowling, Republican, chain-smoking, dock-worker Croatians.

As I’d walk down the street to grab lunch, they’d stop me and make rude comments about stuff they didn’t like in the paper. One time, the publisher got clocked on the street by one irate reader who didn’t like his progressive editorials.

My favorite week was the one where I misspelled “Requiem” in a headline about 70 pts high, after a prominent local citizen died. And boy, did I hear about it.

“Oh, look who it is,” the Croatians sniggered, flicking cigarette ash my way. “The girl who can’t spell requiem!”

Probably that sort of incident should have indicated to me that I wasn’t cut out for an editor’s detail-oriented role. But once again, bullets bounced right off.

Merrilly, we roll along…

Apparently, the part of my brain that should register the feeling of being unqualified to do something is permanently broken.

Next up, I got a staff writing job that required a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a Park Avenue, New York City-based trade magazine chain — even though I’m a college dropout who studied music the two years I was in school.

Later, I got a second full-time gig. Same deal. Needed a degree I didn’t have.

When I got back to freelancing in 2005, I started writing for businesses. I didn’t know what I was doing, so I asked a lot of questions of my clients — which turned out to be exactly the right thing to do to succeed at their assignments.

More recently, I started a blog, despite not knowing a thing about blogging and being completely non-technical. And you all know how that worked out.

There’s magic in tuning out the outside feedback. Don’t think about how you don’t really know what you’re doing.

Be a happy freelance idiot. Just write something, pitch something, learn something, try something. And see what happens.

How do you disconnect from freelance worries? Leave a comment and tell us your story.

Freelance Writers Den

91 Comments

  1. Sherri

    Love this post! You know, it reminds me of the movie “Forrest Gump”. Forrest decided he was going to be, of all things, a fishing boat captain. He didn’t think about it, he decided he was going to do it, and he just did it. Proves that a little naivete and being a bit clueless can definitely pay off. 🙂

  2. Tanya

    Thanks for this piece, Carol. I tend to over-think everything, and talk myself out of trying for certain writing assignments rationalizing that I don’t have the experience. When I was younger and started out writing I just took every assignment. I’d pitch big magazines. Someone would say, “can you write a radio script” and I’d say,”sure” not having ever written one and then do it and it would be fine. Somewhere along the way (I really think it was my time away from writing in a non-writing job where I was absolutely miserable), I lost my confidence. I’ve been saying to myself lately that I will be that happy idiot again and just go for it. Thank you, thank you.

  3. Jesse LaJeunesse

    This is probably the most inspiring thing I’ve ever read. I know I massively overthink absolutely everything. I wish I didn’t. But wishes or not, letting it stop me from achieving is something that is under my control, whether I believe that or not. You make the excellent point that knowledge of how the world is supposed to work is, quite frequently, wrong. You cannot know if you don’t try, right?

    Thank you!

    • Carol Tice

      Wow, glad I could help with that! I was blown away by how much people got out of my tales of stupidity. 😉

  4. Holly Bowne

    Carol, this is one of the most encouraging posts I’ve ever read. Thank you!

    When faced with a new type of writing project, I often experience moments of intense hyperventilation. First, I attempt to calm my breathing. Then I start some intense studying, and break down the new project into baby steps to reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed.

    Take one step. Breathe. Then the next. Breathe. And so on.

    The only worry I’m not super successful at disconnecting from is the voice whispering in the background, “You’re taking too long. Nobody else takes this long!”

    But thanks to what you shared in this post, I believe I’ll be able to ignore that whisper now as well. Again, thank you!

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Holly —

      All I can say to the “you’re taking too long” thing is — Ha!

      Good thing I was never thinking about that, since I am the world’s latest bloomer. I never wrote a word of prose until I was around 30, wasn’t on the school newspaper, nothing like that. If I’d sat down and thought about what a head start trained journalists had on me and how much faster they could probably write and report a story, I never would have written for anyone.

      I thought it was funny how many people thought a post about being an idiot was encouraging. But once you apply the “be an idiot” standard, you see you’re doing OK no matter how many mistakes you’ve made or how long it takes you to turn in an assignment. 😉

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