The 5-Minute Freelancer Q&A #30 — M. Jay Smith

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. 


652de3808156bd184365c6088846d785M. Jay Smith is an Edmonton-based writer of non-fiction and poetry. Her writing has been published by such outlets as Reader’s Digest, Adbusters, the Los Angeles Times, and Canadian Running magazine.

In the fall, Jay is quitting freelance writing to go to law school. She took the time to speak with Story Board recently to share some of the wisdom she’s gathered during her decade as a freelance writer and to offer a few words of parting advice.

What kinds of stories inspire you as a writer?

I really enjoy writing about art and writing about books because I enjoy the idea of participating in public discourse about art and books. I don’t know if we do enough of that anymore.

The majority of my income has been freelance for the past 10 years. And when I started out, local newspapers had local people on staff to do movie reviews and book reviews and now they don’t. It seems like there’s a paucity of public discourse about the things we create in our society

In terms of my feature writing, I’ve always enjoyed stories about social issues and stories that really challenge people to look at things closely. And that aren’t necessarily an easy read. Stories that challenge how comfortable you are with yourself.

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

I think about professional development quite a bit and I think I’m not nearly good enough at it. I went to Toronto and did the publishing program and it inadvertently connected me to a lot of things that were going in on Toronto and that was good. But I think if I were to do it again, I would partake in more professional development opportunities.

I think because my background is in academia there’s the sense that you can figure things out yourself. That you can just read a book about whatever you’re doing and learn that way. But that’s not how the world works. You have to connect yourself to people and you have to learn things from people in order to succeed.

And so I think it’s important to take those opportunities. Like going to the AMPA conference every year. I went once, but I really should go all the time. And I know other people go all the time and they learn great things.

If I had any intention in continuing to belong to journalism, I’d do things differently.

You’re about to leave freelance writing, do you have any parting words of advice for writers starting out?

My experience is that you can be really ballsy. I don’t know if women do this as much as men do, but be ballsy. Go out and pitch to the ridiculously big name magazines that you don’t think you’re going to get into because you’re a little lowly freelancer.

Figure out what a good pitch is and make it compelling. Aim high. And then you start getting the gigs that you want.

I do not believe in writing for free or in writing for content mills. That is how you die. I mean, the pay is bad everywhere. So if you’re going to have bad pay anyway, you might as well have good clips.

The other thing, and I don’t know how many people do this… but test out pitches on people around you. Just see if it has the hook and test out stories. I run pitches by people in my life all the time. I think that it allows you to evolve a sense of what the story is going to be when you test it on a lot of different people.

How do you know what a good pitch is?

Testing it on other people is very helpful. And also you have to read a lot. And that’s the other thing that I don’t think people care enough about. When somebody is reading something and there’s a lag in the reading experience, that’s a fault in the writing, that’s not your fault as a reader. And I think that reading a lot gives you a sense of what good writing is.

What are the biggest challenges for freelancers at the moment?

The major challenge is the fact that there are no elders left. Now that I’m in my 30s, I’m working with people who are fresh out of journalism school. Which is fine, I don’t ever want to be one of those jaded old people who are like, “oh those awful young people.”

Everybody’s smart, everybody’s capable. But I worry about an industry where everyone’s in their 20s and nobody’s sticking around. I worry about the demographic trends.

Of the truly terrible editors I’ve worked with, they’ve all been really young and without the guidance of people who are teaching them how to be good editors.

Where are the good editors who are in their 50s? There’s hardly anybody left. Everybody’s been bought out.

The other thing is that the pay isn’t getting any better. Lately there’s the perception of the disposability of online writing. And I don’t think the monetization of writing on the internet has taken hold in terms of the continuation of good journalism.

I had this story accepted at the Atlantic online. And the health editor said, “we’ll take the story, $300 for 900 words.” Which is not bad for online writing. But she also said, “we can’t guarantee publication.” And of course there was no contract. No one these days insists on contracts. I know I should insist on contracts but I don’t.

So I worked really hard to write a really great story and sent in my first draft and she said, “no, this wasn’t what I was thinking of at all” and sent me off to make changes. And we got to about the fifth draft and it was just like a wild goose chase. It was really inexperienced editing. She was like, “we need you to dig up hyperlinks to this really obscure study that was published in 1976.”

And eventually the story got killed and I got nothing for it. And it had taken about 30 hours of work. And editors think that because you’re a freelancer and you’re going to get a good clip you’ll be happy with this kind of thing. But it’s not okay.

Any other last pieces of wisdom you’d like to pass on to other freelancers?

I was just thinking about how I can’t get a job, and that’s why I’m going to law school. Some people see freelancing on your resume and think you’re useless. So part of me is like “don’t do it.”

I think if you do it as a hobbyist it can work. A lot of people do that now. It’s fun to be able to write cool stories and go places and see things from a different perspective than you normally would. But I think as a career choice it’s a bad idea.

I think the only people who could recommend it are people like the ones on theTFEW [Toronto Freelance Writers and Editors] listserv who are doing tons of corporate writing work or ghostwriting. I don’t think that freelancing even exists like it used to.

Even the successful freelancers I know have something stable to keep them afloat, financially speaking. I think it’s good to have some structure in your life and with freelancing you don’t have any.

Do you have any last pieces of work coming out before you head off to law school in the fall?

I’ve been writing a lot for Canadian Running magazine. I have a wonderful relationship with Michael Doyle and Canadian Running magazine. It’s one of those gigs that’s fun. I always get great stories. If I could only write for them I’d be very happy.

I’d like to only write sports stories, if I could.

*This interview transcript has been edited for length.

You can read some of Jay Smith’s writing on her website. And you can find her on Twitter at @m_jay_smith.

Posted on June 22, 2016 at 9:00 am by editor · · Tagged with: , ,

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