The 5-Minute Freelancer Q&A #31 — David Hayes

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. 


Horizontal headshot logo of David Hayes. (TimFinlan/Toronto Star)

David Hayes (TimFinlan/Toronto Star)

David Hayes is an award-winning freelance journalist who has written four nonfiction books as well as features and articles for publications such as The Walrus, The New York Times Magazine and The Globe and Mail.

A career freelance writer, he shares his expertise through a course in feature writing at Ryerson University in Toronto as well as through the Toronto Freelance Editors and Writers listserv (TFEW) — an email listserv that he co-founded in the late ’90s.

David took the time to speak with Story Board recently about what makes a good feature pitch, the importance of freelance networks and the best opportunities for writers these days.

How did TFEW come to be?

Alex Gillis and I co-founded it. I was teaching at Ryerson full time and Alex was my student. He and another woman, a writer named Siobhan Roberts came up to me and said “it’s so lonely being a freelancer. You’re home alone all the time. You have no one to talk to. It would be really nice if a bunch of us freelancers could get together.”

And I said “That’s a great idea.” I’d been a career freelancer myself. And I said “I’ll host the first one at my apartment.” So about seven of them, I think, came over to my place for that first meeting. It was just at people’s places for a few months. So that’s how it started.

And I remember it was just an email list I had in Outlook or whatever program I was using as an email reader at that time. And then we hit 99 members and I discovered that you couldn’t go over 100 with the distribution list.

So it was around then that Jessica Ross, who was our friend and an editor, said “Why don’t we set up a Yahoo group?” So Jessica set up the Yahoo group.

Alex, I guess you could say, is the origin of it. Because he came to me and said “We’re lonely, can we have a bunch of freelancers get together?”

What impact has it had on your freelance writing career?

For me, like everybody, I find it really valuable to have this 900-member group of colleagues. It’s like a huge watercooler, in a way, of writers and editors. Not all of them are freelancers. Some of them have jobs. But often if they do they’ve either been freelance before or they know they may be freelance at some point in the future, or they just want to be in touch with freelancers because they work with them. So there’s a range of people on there.

And they do everything. They’re not just doing journalism. So it’s a community where you can tap into the collective intelligence of the group for everything from issues to do with journalism, to “What do I charge,” to “What app are you using to record interviews on your cell?” It’s every kind of question and discussion on there.

So it’s valuable to me, too. I benefit from it the same as everyone else.

What are the elements of a strong feature pitch? 

What I teach is how to sell fairly ambitious, longer form features. And the thing that surprises people is that queries for these types of features are usually two pages single-spaced with what people tell me is ten times more detail than they every dreamt they needed for a pitch.

But my argument is that a lot of people are not experienced. They haven’t done longform features, so they don’t have clips to show an editor. The editor doesn’t know who they are, and they’re trying to break into Reader’s Digest or The Walrus or Canadian Business or Toronto Life or whatever.

So in a sense, your calling card is that query letter. It has got to be so detailed and complete. And it’s got to be long enough that it’s got a beginning, middle and and end. So in a sense it’s going to be a miniature version of what the feature’s going to read like. And in fact I encourage them to do a preliminary interview or two an get an anecdote or some kind of scene for the opening paragraph, exactly like it must be in the magazine.

And you’re taking a bit of a gamble because a magazine may say no. You may have another publication you can tweak the pitch for, but ultimately you’re putting a lot of work into one pitch. But it’s a loss leader in a sense. You’re trying to break into that market.

Once you sell your first longer feature, you’re going to be able to sell more longer features and to the bigger markets.

In fact, I still write queries like that. My last Reader’s Digest piece which now was two years ago was a longform feature about an existentially haunted cold case cop in Halifax. And that query for that story is two pages, single spaced. It’s a really detailed, long query.

And I have a long reputation. You can go on my website and look at dozens of features I’ve written. I’ve worked with Reader’s Digest before, I knew the editors. And yet even I write a query like that. Because the business is so competitive now that that’s the way you’re going to increase the chances of selling your pitch.

What advice do you give your students on how to find stories that make good features?

I can boil it down to my short answer which is “Read, read, read.” Basically I tell them, at a guess, 85% of the features I’ve sold in my career have come from something I’ve read — in a magazine, online, in a newspaper. The vast majority.

And then maybe another 15% or so come from me talking to someone or them calling me up and saying “Hey I might have an idea for you” or something like that. But that, for me, is the bare minimum of them.

The most important thing is reading. It’s like Susan Orlean said about The Orchid Thief. In the opening she talks about how she got the idea. She was down in Florida visiting her parents and she loves reading small newspapers. And in the local newspaper, not even the front page but buried in the back of a local newspaper that most New Yorkers would never read, she found this short item that mentioned these people in Florida being arrested for stealing orchids out of the Everglades. And that became the New Yorker article, which became the book, which became the movie.

It’s a perfect example. I find things sometimes buried somewhere such as in a paragraph two-thirds of the way through an article in Scientific American Mind.

You’re in Toronto, but what’s your advice for freelancers in smaller markets?

The big thing, I think, is just to look at your own community. Many of the major publications that you might want to break into, that pay the most are in Toronto. But all of the magazines that are national are looking for good ideas from other parts of the country. A perfect example is the one I just mentioned to you, about the existentially haunted cold case cop from Halifax.

That story had been around. It had been written up by a writer I happen to know in The Coast two years earlier. That story had been sitting around. This guy had been written about twice in The Coast. And they were fairly long feature stories. And I spotted them and I thought “That’s a national story.” Because cold cases are pursued by the police in every centre in Canada. So it’s not particular to Halifax.

And I remember thinking “Why did it take a guy from Toronto to spot that Halifax story that’s been sitting there for at least two years?” It’s because writers in Halifax clearly weren’t looking at that and thinking “Why wouldn’t The Walrus or Reader’s Digest be interested in that story?”

So that’s a way of thinking about stories. And I developed it and so have many other writers because I live in Toronto and I know I’m going to have a better chance of selling a story if it’s not based in Toronto. I know that those national magazines are eager to have stories from outside Toronto or the GTA. So I kind of taught myself to watch for them.

Where are the best opportunities for freelance writers these days?

There are great opportunities online but it just doesn’t pay. Do a feature for one of the mid-level to high-level publications in the country and you’re hopefully going to get something at least close to a dollar a word, or sometimes more. So it still actually pays off more to do something in print.

If you bang off a whole lot of stuff quick and dirty, then maybe you could make a living writing for online publications. But if you have ambitions to try and write longer and more creative journalism, how can you do that? Frankly it’s pretty tough these days.

I often say to people “Just try and sell one or two longer features to bigger market magazines or publications a year. You’ve got to start to build that. You have to break in. And even if you do it over a few years, doing that longer form stuff, that’s the springboard that many people, including me, use to get into doing nonfiction books.

So I started doing nonfiction books and then because I’d done those I had a chance to ghostwrite a book back in the late ’90s. And that’s led to what I’m doing today. Over the last 12 years my freelance career has been more ghostwriting than it has been magazine work.

Another strategy is to do corporate work and journalism on the side. The opportunity, now that I think of it, really is custom content. Increasingly there are custom content companies that are hiring writers. What companies want now, is to have good quality feature writing that holds readers’ attention and makes them want to read the whole thing.

And they don’t want it to be only a feature story that happens to talk about their brand. They want it just to be a really good feature story that relates in some way, perhaps, to the industry that their company is in.

Do you think there are ethical considerations for people who want to do journalism to also be writing custom content?

Years ago I would have said yes. Today, frankly, the business is so hard that it’s hard to look at it that way.

As long as you’re not being asked to do something unethical — if a custom content company just comes to you and wants you to write a feature like one that you might read in a high profile magazine. So they want it to be good quality, in other words.

I suppose there is a difference. If I was assigned to do a story, let’s say, on an environmental NGO by Toronto Life or something, then I would be expected to look for whatever critical that might be there. Maybe there wouldn’t be much, or anything. You never know. But anytime you’re doing a profile or any kind of story for a journalistic publication you’re going to look for that. And it might be a relatively minor criticism. But it’s something to put in there which you might not put into custom content.

I did a custom content story last year. It was big U.S. company that a custom content company was producing a 1500-word feature for. There wasn’t really anything negative about it. I felt that I wasn’t expected to go digging something negative up. It was a fairly straightforward feature.

But they hired me because they wanted a really experienced, award-winning feature writer. They wanted the story to read like something might read if it was in The Atlantic or Harpers. And that’s not the kind of writing you can always get from a corporate writer or an ad copywriter. You want to hire a longform feature writer if that’s what you’re looking for.

So I did that and it paid roughly four times what I would have been paid to do that story in The Walrus or any other magazine. So that’s a way to still do high quality feature writing. And it’s just lucky that custom content has evolved in that way.

Any final words of encouragement for freelance writers?

Just that it’s quite possible to do it. Some of the feature writers of my generation, they sometimes say “Oh it’s impossible to do it today.” But I have students coming in all the time who are in their 20s or early 30s and I say “You know what? They’re all doing it.”

And the difference is there are things that they’re doing today that didn’t exist when we were starting in the business.  When I started in the business in the early 80s there were many more magazines in Canada.

There were the A-level major market magazines. And there were way more C-level and B-level magazines. You could fairly easily sell features and break in at the C-level, move up to the B-level, and then break into the A-level. When I started out I basically wrote a little bit for the Globe and otherwise everything I did was for magazines. Because there were so many magazines I could sell to. Today all those magazines don’t exist.

But there’s other stuff now that I never would have dreamt would exist. Who would know that you’d be writing for online digital sites and doing certain kinds of digital research? They just didn’t exist back then.

So there are opportunities for freelancers today. They’re just different opportunities than an earlier generation of freelance writers had. But certainly you can do it.


*This interview transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

You can read some of David Hayes’ writing on his website and you can find him on Twitter at @TimesRoman.

Posted on July 14, 2016 at 8:00 am by editor · · Tagged with: , , , ,

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