The 5-Minute Freelancer Q&A #10 – Amy Jo Ehman

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.

AJ-Ehman1. What’s the most important thing you’ve done over the years to develop your skills as a writer?

I worked as a journalist before I became a freelancer, so I developed my writing skills in a newsroom with an editor hounding me. Then I went into broadcasting, and when you’re writing for radio or TV you have to be very succinct and choice with your words and paint a picture with your words, as well – especially in radio. So I think I honed my writing skills pretty tightly before I became a freelancer.

Part of being a good writer is being a good self-editor. I’m a relentless editor and I edit myself well, I believe. You have to recognize when something isn’t working. Your sentences aren’t little treasures that you have to hang onto. You have to be willing to whack it out if it’s not working. I often read my stuff out loud, because if it’s hard to read out loud then the sentences are not smooth for the person who’s just reading it on the paper. And I want my writing to be very approachable and very easy to just run through without having to stop and think, or wonder what I’m trying to say.

Another thing that I have done that’s really honed and flexed my writing skills is writing a book. Because it’s a different style of writing from writing journalism, which is sort of fact-based. When you write something longer form like that – and my book is sort of a personal narrative, so it’s non-fiction but it’s very creative at the same time – I had to flex other writing skills. I could write in other directions.


2. What’s your strategy for getting through freelancing “dry spells”?

I tend to relish the breathing spaces and not panic through them and just have faith that other things will come along in due time. I’m not a person who frets. Let me just say I have no monthly debts to pay off, I don’t have a student loan, I don’t have a car payment, I don’t have a mortgage, so I don’t have those worries over my head that so many people would. And I think being a freelancer and having those worries would be really tough, it would really add to the stress level. But I guess I’m in a position in my life where I dealt with those things already while I was a working journalist.

And as I mentioned earlier, I wrote a book and that got written in the summer when I wasn’t burdened with deadlines. I used that downtime… and it wasn’t downtime, it was the time that I dedicated to my own projects. And I’m doing the same now, I’m working on a second book. I love it when I don’t have a deadline or something I have to work on, because then it means I have time to work on my own things.


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?

I have written for free. But not very often. And I like to do it on my own terms, not because someone doesn’t want to pay me. If someone doesn’t want to pay me, I don’t write for them. I have to make a living at this, so I don’t write for free. Having said that, there are occasions when I’ve written for not a lot. Or nothing! For instance, I do a fair amount of corporate work, writing corporate documents and newsletters and annual reports, and — in the development world — fundraising documents and stuff like that. And I actually have worked for free for a charity that I felt strongly for. But I did it because I wanted to. They were perfectly willing to pay me, but then I said “you know, I’m not going to charge you for this because I believe in the work that you’re doing, this is the way I’m going to contribute to your charity.”

There’s another newsletter I write for for this little grocery store in Saskatoon and they give me a credit at the store. So I’m not really writing for free, but they said right up front “we don’t have cash to pay you.” Well I’ve gotta eat, so that’s fine with me!

And I also decide when I’m going to work for what I think is a pittance of pay. It’s usually when I’m pursuing my own agenda, topics that I want to get out there for my own personal reasons, so I’m willing to take a little bit less because there are other benefits to me. Every job I approach, I guess, is a little bit different. As freelancers we are businesspeople, and every job we get is a contract between us and someone who wants our services. The bottom line is I don’t work for free except in those circumstances when I decide that it serves my interests.

When you’re starting out… well you should always try to get paid something, but I can see if you need to develop a portfolio. If you’re starting out and just need to get your name in print and get some practice writing for an editor, I would not say don’t do it. But you’ve got to know when you’ve reached that point in your freelance career when it’s time to start charging for your work. When it’s no longer serving your interests.


4. Work can take over your life when you’re a freelancer. What techniques do you use to try and maintain a healthy work-life balance?

I am not a Type A personality who’s always working. I’m very good at downtime. I’m very good at sitting down with a coffee and a book and taking a break. And then I actually have to motivate myself to get back to work because I’ve got deadlines or something! So for me the hard part isn’t pulling myself away from the computer so much as pulling myself towards it when I have to. I’m motivated by deadlines and I don’t miss deadlines. When I don’t have deadlines I’m not pursued by panic to be at my desk. But if I have deadlines, that’s where I am.

The thing that I do miss about working in a newsroom is the collegiality of it, which I don’t really have at home. So in terms of social balance in my life, I lack some of that compared to someone who is in a working environment. But there’s good and bad to that, as well: I don’t have to deal with other personalities if I’m in a grumpy mood and just want to work in my pajamas for the day. I do make time and try to get together with people and do social things. And I try not to work on weekends unless I have a pressing deadline.


• Amy Jo Ehman is a food and restaurant columnist in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix and author of the book Prairie Feast: A Writer’s Journey Home for DinnerYou can read her blog, Home For Dinner, here, or follow her on Twitter at @prairiefeast.


Do you think there are situations when it makes sense for a writer to work for free? Why or why not? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.


Posted on July 5, 2013 at 9:05 am by editor · · Tagged with: , , ,

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