The 5-Minute Freelancer Q&A #11 – Erin Millar

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.


 headshot_openfile1. What’s the most important thing you’ve done over the years to develop your skills as a writer? 

I don’t have any particular moment… but just writing a lot. I’m working with a student right now, an intern, and he’s in this phase where he’s just writing a lot for the first time, and I think you just learn so fast. Most about economy — how to be really concise and how to pick your best words. I was studying something completely different when I switched into writing and so I wrote just for fun. I took creative writing classes but I could give myself as much space as I wanted. So one of the things I really needed to learn was how to write compellingly and with some kind of style but in these really short places. And I think the two places I probably did that most was first was at my student newspaper, the Capilano Courier, and working with Canadian University Press, both of those experiences I just wrote all the time every day, constantly, so I learned so much about honing my craft, I don’t think you can do it any other way than just doing it a lot. And then secondly when I worked for Maclean’s, I was working online so it was just a constant content black hole, you just have to write all the time and have something online all the time. And also Maclean’s is just a great place to learn in terms of giving your writing some voice. They’re playful and they take risks. Their writers are wonderful to work with as a young journalist, for sure.


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

I’m very fortunate in that I’m kind of at the place now where I don’t feel like I suffer the dry spells that badly. I just feel like I have more work than I can handle most of the time. And that’s great. But I still have problems with cashflow management. And I don’t think I’ve figured it out entirely. I make sure I put a lot aside. I try to have a pretty good buffer of money in my savings account to be able to deal with it when three articles are going to come in at the end of next month and nothing’s going to come in this month. But I always get hit at the same time of the year, and it’s always about June, and it’s because I’ve paid my taxes and generally I don’t have that buffer sitting in my bank account anymore. And I still haven’t quite solved that one!w In terms of what I’ve done when I’ve had dry spells with assignments… what you ought to be doing at that point is pitching, and pitching, and pitching. And I think the only way to do that is to do interesting things and read great books and read tons of magazine articles. And so I try to get out of the office as well and do things and try to find out what’s happening in the world and bounce ideas off of people at parties. I try to get some perspective from the outside world if something’s not working in my pitching.


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 used to always say “no, absolutely not, never,” and I’ve kind of changed my view a little bit on that. I think there is a place for that, but it’s an extremely brief and rare time when it makes sense. I think it only makes sense when you’re making transitions in your career or you’re just starting. But it needs to be extremely brief. For example, I’m at a point now where I’m trying to break more into the American market. And I just need more of a profile to be able to do that in the States. And there’s only one way to do that. But I would never write anything for free that I didn’t really want to write, that’s for sure. It has to be something I’m super excited about. And when I say brief I mean I’m going to do a couple of pieces, if I need to, and I’m not going to do it for longer than about four months. And I do think that it’s very abused, particularly at the beginning of people’s careers. People do a lot more for free than they should, and they’re asked to do a lot more for free than they should be. One of the biggest problems with all of this is that we just don’t communicate enough about what we get paid. It does sure help to be part of a network of people so that you can see where you land on that career arc and what you should be expecting and what other people get paid. Then you’re not powerless by having no information. So I would urge people to try to find out where they’re going to and how much money they can expect to make. Whenever I speak at a conference with students I always ask for questions, and no one ever asks me how much money I make and then I always make fun of them for that and then somebody asks! But I think it’s a totally reasonable question. I want people to know so that they’re not undervaluing themselves and my profession.

If you can see a concrete, direct outcome of working for free one time, and you can see exactly what you’re going to get out of it, then perhaps it might make sense. But you have to know exactly why you’re doing it, rather than randomly writing for free and hoping that eventually your portfolio’s good enough that someone will call. It has to be part of a strategy.


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 have an office that I share with some other freelancers, and I try to keep my work in that office, which works most of the time. I cycle a lot and I find that that is where I work out a lot of my problems or come up with new ideas. Because I need to be physically engaged to calm my mind sometimes. I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better at that in the last few years. I can turn it off.

When I worked as online editor at Maclean’s I felt like I could never turn it off. The web is just such a crazy monster, too — there’s analytics and people are constantly emailing you and you can just never turn it off. And my husband wanted to go on vacation. And I was like, “I cannot imagine.” And he just forced me to not check my email for 10 days. And I came back and there were all these things that came up, but everything just resolved and it was totally fine. And it just kind of put my ego in check. I was like, “Oh yeah, I guess I’m not essential to Maclean’s, the big Rogers Publishing machine.” Which was really useful. And I just remember that now when I get super wound up like that. “Oh right, you’re not that important, chill out.” We should all try to take time off and turn off the internet.


Erin Millar writes about creativity, innovation and education for leading Canadian and international publications. She is writing a book tentatively titled “The Flexible Brain: The power of learning a little about a lot in a world ruled by experts.” She lives in Vancouver. You can follow her on Twitter at @erinmillar.


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 August 8, 2013 at 9:05 am by editor · · Tagged with: , , ,

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