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. Leanne Regalla

    Hi Carol,

    What great and funny stories! I love it, and can relate to so much of it.

    I got an MBA and worked for corporate America. But I always had an entreprenurial drive. I tried a few things, and then landed on music.

    I started teaching guitar before I could really play well myself (I know several friends who did the same thing and we are still teachers 10 or more years later.)

    I bought a retail music store without a clue of what I “should” be doing and with no idea about the true functionings of half of the instruments and gear I was selling.

    I started writing songs just as cluelessly – I even wrote one (on my first CD) called, “I Don’t Know What I’m Doing, I’m Just Doin’ It.”

    Now I’m launching a blog and pitching all these high-profiles sites (just had a great post on Copyblogger) – and you’re so right.

    Being a happy idiot is really a huge advantage. Thanks so much for this! 🙂

    • Leanne Regalla

      PS – I stash notes for song lyrics everywhere! 😉

    • Carol Tice

      I started out in songwriting myself…love your story! Truly, anyone pursuing ANY creative art would do well to never sit down and think about their odds of hitting it big, the competition, etc. Just not productive.

  2. Katherine Swarts

    Another good quote (unfortunately I couldn’t locate the original source through Google; I do remember I read it in Dan Miller’s 48 DAYS TO THE WORK YOU LOVE): “Every mistake I ever made, I made when I thought twice.” While I have experienced the down side of automatically saying yes to EVERYTHING, I also know that the mere commitment to deliver something by a certain date–regardless of whether it would seem the sort of project I’d find “easy”–is generally enough to guarantee a good job. Whereas, you can let an awful lot of opportunities pass you by while sitting around trying to figure out the absolute best, no-miss next step.

    • Carol Tice

      Love that quote!

  3. mspinrad

    What a clever, funny, inspired post. I once landed a reporting job because a friend’s editor I met at a dinner was desperate for someone, anyone apparently (my journalism background being limited to reading sports sections and the Onion), to write a feature on a high school marksmen team championship. Hey, what the hell. I stepped up, had fun with it, and ended up in journalism for two years. You never know what’ll lead to opportunities. Just say yes and the rest will take care of itself.

  4. Erica

    This is one of your best posts. And a necessary one. We over-think things way too often when really, it does us no favors.

    I’m proud to say I’ve screwed up a lot. A. Lot. Seriously. Each time I repeat a key phrase that I heard on a Progressive insurance commercial: “And we’re walking.”

    Just keep going. “And we’re walking.”

    • Carol Tice

      Yep.

      You know, one of my son’s best friends buried his father this past week at age 45. Life is short.

      Do you want to write? Do it. At the end of your life are you going to say, “Wow, I loved writing and all the wonderful places it took me” or are you going to say, “I’m glad I stayed scared and didn’t try to live my dreams.”

      Seriously. Think about it. And stop worrying!

  5. Irwin

    One of the stuff I struggle with every day is going ahead of myself. If I see an opportunity to write something, I think about the reasons why I shouldn’t even attempt to do it. So I end up not trying out of fear of negative feedback, etc. What you just shared is just what I needed to just do it anyway and keep on trying.
    Thanks! As always, great stuff.

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