The 5-Minute Freelancer Q&A #12 – Jay Somerset
In this regular feature, Story Board asks Canadian writers to share a few details about their work habits and their strategies for navigating the ups and downs of freelance life.
1. Where are you when most of your story ideas come to you? Where do you go to brainstorm pitch ideas?
A lot of it happens in my office. I rent a space, it’s downtown Toronto, right in the Chinatown area. And I share it with three other people and we all do different things. One guy works for the Toronto Film Festival and the other two do other creative work. And just being around them but not being in the same line of business spurs a lot of ideas. Because they come in in the morning talking about what they’re working on and I get a lot of ideas that way. Another way is through just walking around the city and also through reading newspapers and magazines and watching movies and things like that.
I ride my bike a lot, too, and I’ll sort of work through ideas during bike rides. But it’s not like I consciously decide to do that. I find whenever I specifically set time out to come up with ideas then I’m the worst. But if I just sort of let my brain wander, sometimes I’ll come up with something.
2. What’s the most important thing you’ve done over the years for professional development?
I would say getting an outside office. Because I found when I was working at home I felt like too much of an amateur. I was home alone a lot and I wasn’t interacting with people and I still wasn’t pushing hard enough. I was doing small stories. And once I dedicated myself to actually paying for and having somewhere outside, it became more real. Suddenly I had a place with a phone and a coffee maker and other people around me. And I started shooting higher. So I started getting better stories as a result. It’s almost like I paid a little bit and then I reaped more as a result of that little investment.
3. What are your thoughts on the issue of writing for free? Is there ever a situation when it makes sense for a writer to do it, and if so, when?
Sure, I do a lot of free writing. Definitely if it’s for a non-profit or some sort of publication that doesn’t make any money. For example, one of the stories that I did was for a small literary magazine called Taddle Creek. And they don’t pay. But I was interested enough in the project that it was worth my while. I think as a freelancer what you have to do is instead of looking at it project by project and saying “oh this doesn’t pay, I’m never going to do that,” a better way to look at it is: what are you doing in the next two months? And how much money are you going to make? And if you look at it that way, then it doesn’t matter what each individual project pays or doesn’t pay because you’re looking at your net income over those two months, where some of that work, say, is corporate and it’s going to pay a lot. And some of it is really boring but pays a lot. And that sort of covers the cost of free work.
Where I wouldn’t do free work is if a place can afford it and just is being stingy. Like, a lot of the print publications that do online as well they say “oh that’s for the website, we don’t pay for that, blah, blah, blah.” So I never do that sort of free work. But if it’s an arts journal – or whatever you’re into that would be like that – then I think it’s okay.
Sometimes you have to do free work to get paid work. It’s like you’re investing in your own business a little bit. Lots of businesses are like that. You’re almost prospecting. So say you want to become known as an arts writer. The only way you’re going to do that is to do some free work. Because otherwise nobody’s going to choose you as the writer on the story because there are already well-established arts writers. Or science writers, or whatever area you want to specialize in. So a good way to do that is to do free work that improves your clips. But again, in the right spots. Not for publications that should be paying, because then you’re just belittling yourself.
4. How do you find a balance between the work you want to do and the work you need to do because it pays well or is valuable to you in some other way?
That’s sort of a hard question because it depends… I mean there are certain periods of the year where I don’t have time to do the creative work. But I find if you’re still freelance you can always figure out where there’s going to be a bit of downtime and you can definitely make it work.
Before I did any sort of corporate work, I found I was doing zero creative work because all my time was spent in journalism. And because I was making all my money there, I was doing mainly service journalism because those have the quickest turnaround. I couldn’t afford to spend a long time working on a big feature. Once I started bringing in corporate work, I was able to cut out some of the journalism that I didn’t particularly love doing. And because I was replacing it with work that paid more but took less time I finally was able to pitch and work on and finish large, feature-type stories. So it was because of the corporate work I was able to do things like the Walrus profile on Ann Southam, for example. That took a long time to do. I would never be able to do that if I was only doing journalism because it just would be a loss. I wouldn’t make enough. What it paid isn’t equal to how much time it took. But because I didn’t care about the time it took because I was making my money elsewhere, it just didn’t really matter.
I wish I had done that earlier [in my career]. I spent too long just doing service stories. And I still like doing service stories, but it was stopping me from doing larger things.
• Toronto writer Jay Somerset has been freelancing for more than ten years. His profile of music promoter and former journalist Dan Burke won Best Feature 2012, as awarded by the Professional Writer’s Association of Canada. You can follow him on Twitter at @jay_somerset.
How do you find a balance between the work you want to do and the work you need to do? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.