The 5-Minute Freelancer Q&A #13 – Moira Farr

IMG_0064In 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?

MF: It’s very much related to things I’m reading. It seems like there’ll be a combination of reading something that’s intriguing to me and then maybe right away it sparks a story idea. Or maybe it broods for a little bit and then maybe I go to my computer and Google a little bit and see what I can find. Or it could be in the car when I’m driving. It could be first thing in the morning when I wake up. It’s not one specific place, I would say.


2. What’s the most important thing you’ve done over the years for professional development?

MF: Two things. One would be the time I spent at the Banff Centre in the literary journalism program. I was faculty editor there for nine years and then I was a writer in the program. I would say just being in that environment where you’re meeting all manner of writers. And sitting around a table and workshopping all these stories by incredible writers and seeing the range of material that people are working with. And then just talking with all these different people about the life of a writer and freelancing. It’s just incredible to me how everybody puts it together in a different way somehow. Some people teach, some people have a part time job of some other kind. Some people try to make a go of it full time. I don’t know too many people that do that, usually there’s something else.

But also just reading all those stories and talking about how they are constructed and how they can be improved. And especially with nonfiction writing, just the issue of how do you combine all those elements of storytelling that make it readable with all the informational or historical elements. That always seems to be something that gets discussed in those workshops. So that certainly helped me a lot.

And then the other thing is, in fact, teaching. I’m teaching one course at Carleton in the journalism department in freelance writing for magazines. And then at Algonquin I’m in the professional writing program. So it keeps me on my toes because I have to keep up with reading and really help them think about what makes a good story and I think that has really improved my own storytelling.


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?

MF: I relate this to the students I teach, because they more often find themselves in these positions where they’re being asked to provide writing for free. And I always tell them to try to avoid that if at all possible. I mean everybody has to pay their dues and maybe do one internship. But then, I say to them, you’ve done it. You took a program and did an internship and you really shouldn’t have to do any more free work.

However, the exceptions I would make would be, for example, the Facts and Arguments section of the Globe and Mail. They used to pay, they don’t anymore. But that is such a platform. It will be read and seen by a lot of people. And it’s pretty nice to say as a young writer that you’ve been published by the Globe and Mail. It bothers me that they don’t pay, but I do have an assignment that I give the students that is a short personal essay and I do encourage them to send it there or to the New York Times.

And some of my students have actually been published in Facts and Arguments, so that’s always nice. But in general I think it’s a terrible trend and terribly unfair to young people. And something to be avoided. But I think we still have not really figured out how to deal with this incredible technology.

I just had an experience of writing something that I thought I might just post on my blog but I ended up sending it to Maisonneuve, it was a little rant on the whole David Gilmour thing. I didn’t expect payment, it was just a very quick thing that they put on their website. But it ended up getting shared all over Facebook, tweeted all over the place. And in a way I had mixed feelings about it because I think that debate really degenerated and went from literary sparring to just rather piling on. So I didn’t like being associated with that, but I was thinking, okay, so in the past if you wrote a column it would be weeks, certainly days before you would hear from an editor and it would all progress at a very stately pace. And now it’s just, boom, there it is. The dreaded word: “exposure.”

But what does that really mean if you’re not being paid and if there are fewer places where you can be paid? What does it lead to? And I think it’s more of an issue for younger writers than maybe for me because people my age who’ve been in the business for a long time, we do have a set of established contacts and editors we work with regularly and we know the ins and outs of the business and can pick and choose what we want to do a little more.

But for younger people… I’m just appalled at some of the ads I see. I don’t understand who these people are who are being asked to do 10 articles a day, 500 words each, for $50. And I don’t know what value this content has to the people they write it for.

Helping my students with this e-zine that they do, I find we’re talking about social media and driving traffic and all of that and I try to say, okay that’s great but we really want the content to be what makes people want to come and read and stay. So that, I hope, does not change. And I think there is still a hardcore group of readers who still appreciate the old style longform article. I have the Longform app on my iPad and encourage my students to subscribe to that. But I also tell them that to do that sort of writing… I figure if I can do one of those a year, a labour of love, and it gets published somewhere, then that’s okay. Because they take so much work and thought and effort and time. And they are worth it, but there’s no way you could sustain yourself by writing those.


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?

MF: I don’t know if I have! Basically now I teach between September and April and I get very little writing done between those dates, because I’m just busy marking and so on. Although it is stimulating in a good way and it keeps me reading good material and trying to understand what’s going on so I can help students get perspective. I have felt that it’s interesting to be instructing young students at this time, for the last five or six years, because things have literally flipped upside down in that period of time in terms of the media practice. Anyway, September to April mostly teaching, and then from April to September I really try to block off writing time and I’m also trying to complete some fiction. So that I do in the summer months. But it’s frustrating. I think perhaps I would prefer to have more time to do those things. But welcome to the club! And there’s just not as many places to do that. But on the other hand, we do have some pretty great publications here. And so I try to be realistic about what can be accomplished in the time that I have.

SB: A lot of writers I’ve spoken to have other part time work. Just writing full time is a very difficult way to make a living.

MF: It is. There are some grant programs around and that’s great if you get one, but you can’t know that you will. So it’s difficult to plan around something that might happen, financially. I do think having some kind of part time job is essential. Just for a base of stable income. Either that or marry rich! I really blew that. No, I don’t mind being independent. I prefer it.


• Moira Farr is an Ottawa-based writer who teaches at the Carleton School of Journalism and in Algonquin College’s professional writing program. She received an honourable mention at the 2012 National Magazine Awards for her article in University Affairs Magazine called Confronting Asperger’s in the Classroom. You can follow her on Twitter at @moirafarr.


Do you have part time work to supplement your writing income? What kind of part time work do you think is a good complement for the writing life?


Posted on October 11, 2013 at 9:05 am by editor · · Tagged with: , , ,

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