The 5-Minute Freelancer Q&A #27 — Steve Burgess
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.
Steve Burgess is a Vancouver humourist and freelance writer who covers a wide variety of subjects. Currently, his writing appears most often in Vancouver’s 24 Hours, The Tyee, Montecristo and BC Business. He’s won two Canadian National Magazine Awards. His book Who Killed Mom? was published in 2011 and made the ‘Best of’ lists of both the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail.
He took the time to speak with Story Board this week about being your own boss, keeping an open mind, and the importance of discount cheese in the life of a freelancer.
Can you tell me about your strategy for making a living as a freelance writer?
I’m continuing with my freelance writing work but lately I’ve been doing a lot of work for a local film production company called Network Entertainment. They hired me first as a writer so it was a writing thing, I was writing treatments for documentaries. And now they’ve bumped me up the food chain so that I’m co-directing a couple of these things. So these days I’m making a living not just as a freelance writer but also in the documentary film business.
This just kind of landed in my lap. And this may seem strange to say because it’s been a fascinating job and it’s the kind of job that people would kill for. I’ve gotten to travel around and and interview some pretty remarkable people and yet I still feel like, given my druthers, the best possible way to live is if you can just make a living as a freelance writer.
I have done that for many years but it’s a tenuous living. It involves getting discounts on cheese every chance you get. If you can find some moldy cheese and get ’em to knock a couple bucks off, that’s always a bonus. But up until I started working for Network I was getting by.
How did you manage it?
It’s very up and down, but the thing you really want is to have some columns. That way you can have a floor underneath you so that you know if you can’t sell anything else at least you’ve got some money coming in.
Scrambling every month when you’re starting from almost zero is a stressful thing. There’s no doubt about it. And the pool of publications is shrinking. But I don’t think we’ve reached the point where you can’t make a living as a freelancer. If I didn’t have this film work, things would be tougher for me but I think I’d still be scraping by.
One of the things that you learn the hard way about the freelancing business is that what you know is secondary to who you know. I shake my head frequently at the fact that I do so much writing for BC Business, because it’s just not my area. I know very little about economics and business is not something that I grew up immersed in.
But you develop relationships with editors. And then you follow those relationships. You follow those editors when they go elsewhere and the result is you end up writing for magazines you perhaps would not have predicted would be your main source of income.
You said you think that the best thing for writers to make a living as a freelancer. Why is that?
That to me is the highest goal. I think it’s the best way to live. You don’t have a boss. You have a lot of bosses, but you could tell any one of them to fuck off if you want to. You don’t want to tell too many of them to fuck off, but as a freelancer you have a certain amount of flexibility.
I like not having a boss. I like not being in an office. I like calling my own shots. A lot of the time you’re scrambling for work and that’s the problem. But on the other hand you can, to some extent, control your workflow. You don’t have to take too much work. Although honestly as a freelancer your instincts are to say yes to everything, especially in Vancouver.
You’re running your own show and you’re doing the kind of work you want to do. You’re not necessarily always writing the kind of articles that you choose, but you’re writing for a living. And that’s a real privilege, I think.
What would you what would be your advice for young writers just starting out?
One of the problems with answering that question is that old people like myself entered in a different era. When you look back, it’s mind boggling. I was just looking through some old clips and I dug up a clip from 2000. I had already been a writer for a number of years at that point, but it was from The Mix section that David Beers created for the Vancouver Sun. Well I mean good lord, what a Garden of Eden that was compared to to the way things are now in newspapers.
I mean there was David Beers putting together a fascinating, entertaining entertainment pop culture think-piece section in a local newspaper in which he drew on a pool of freelance writers. It doesn’t exist anymore.
The only advice I can give to young freelancers is to get your ducks in a row so that when you go to magazines — and as far as I can see, magazines are your best bet now, and maybe some occasional online publications that pay — just make sure you have your ducks in a row in terms of your technical abilities.
One thing that I found throughout my freelance career is that editors are pathetically grateful that I know how to write.
I’ve repeated this story so many times, I’ll be nailed for telling the same story over and over again. But it’s still it’s my favourite editor quote. It was from David Beers back when he was working on The Mix and he was talking about a particular freelancer that he was forced to use sometimes. And he said of this freelancer: “whenever I run a story by ‘X’ I know it’s going to be good, because I wrote it myself.”
You don’t want to be ‘X’. You don’t want to be that person. You want to be someone that is low maintenance. That means knowing your grammar and sentence structure and spelling, even. So the basic advice I would give is make sure you can write. That way you ingratiate yourself with editors who will come back to you.
You seem to be a generalist rather than a specialist. Why is that?
I’ve always been a generalist. I started out as a humourist and I’ve branched out. Humour is usually there in the stuff I write. But I’m absolutely a generalist. That is good advice, I think: keep your eyes and ears open. Don’t scorn any field of popular culture or media or business. Read every section of the newspaper. Keep yourself abreast of every subject.
Because you never know what you’re going to have to write about. If you keep your eyes and ears open you can write about almost anything. Don’t limit yourself.
You might think “I can’t write about that.” But one of the one of the things about freelance writing and journalism is that it’s about asking questions. And if you’re asking questions you don’t necessarily need to know the answers. You’re going to find out what what this person says. You have to know what questions to ask and that takes some work.
But for the most part, embrace the fact that it’s a business of inquiry and embrace your ignorance.
What about advice for surviving the financial ups and downs of freelancing? You mentioned discount cheese earlier…
Discount cheese! One of the great blows to me as a freelance writer was when Safeway stopped discounting moldy cheese. That was a real turning point for me. You used to be able to go to Safeway, find a package of cheese that had gone moldy and then get them to knock a couple bucks off or even give it you. They changed the policy and they don’t do that anymore.
But you have to learn frugality. I mean honestly this is kind of strange but true: I basically stopped eating in restaurants. Now that I’ve got this film work, I’ve got more money but I can’t make myself eat in restaurants. I’m cooking for myself anyway because I’m just so hooked on frugality.
As a freelancer I made a micro-managing my budget a skill. The problem is you can’t let go of it sometimes. Your fingers are atrophied around your wallet. Clutching it tightly. You can’t let go even when you have more money.
Any other advice for new freelancers?
Run, is the most tempting advice to give. Run while you can. But, in fact, I feel the opposite. Because I really do think it’s a noble pursuit and I really do admire people who want to be writers.
You can read Steve Burgess’s regular columns in The Tyee and 24 Hours. An adapted version of the second chapter of the book he’s currently working on was published recently in Calgary’s Swerve magazine under the title Cupid, put down your bow: The case against modern romance. You can follow him on Twitter at @steveburgess1.
*This interview has been edited for clarity and length.