The 5-Minute Freelancer Q&A #25 — Frances Bula

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.


mz_HZCr7Frances Bula knows Vancouver. She covers the city’s wide-ranging urban issues — from drug addiction and prostitution to property development and transportation — for publishers such as the Globe and Mail and Vancouver Magazine. She went freelance eight years ago after spending 20 years on staff at the Vancouver Sun. Bula is also the chair of the Langara College journalism department and an instructor at UBC’s Graduate School of Journalism.

She took the time to speak with Story Board this week about the purpose of journalism, tricking yourself into writing, and developing an instinct for finding good stories.


When you’re just starting out as a writer, is it better to specialize or be a generalist?

I think it’s good for people who are freelancing to work, if they can, at just a general assignment job for a few years. And just perfect their skills and figure out what they like covering. And then move into freelancing. Yes, I’m a person who likes specialization. Even when I wasn’t a freelancer, that’s what I liked. I do think it does give you a certain edge because when you specialize you’re offering the editor an expertise they can’t really get from just any reporter.

And with specializing, you might think “well isn’t the problem that you really narrow what you can write about?” But it doesn’t. Good beat reporters and good niche freelancers know that you can sort of take a basic area and cover the world from Vancouver city hall or a science lab or whatever.

When you’re a full time general assignment reporter, there’s certain areas you like covering better. So you start to develop your specialty but you’re still learning a lot. You’re learning what makes news. You’re learning what editors like. You see what kinds of stories fly through all sorts of media and which ones don’t. You figure out what areas you like the best. And that’s all a lot easier to do when someone’s paying you a full time salary as opposed to you trying to figure it all out by yourself from your living room.

You’ve got a lot going on. How do you structure your day so that you get everything done that you need to get done?

I work to deadline. So I just try to make sure that I don’t have two deadlines at exactly the same time. But the way my life goes is there’s one deadline after another. And the priority is what’s due first.

Are you a fast writer?

I am a fast writer. I’ve been known to do a 600-word news story in 20 minutes. I once researched and wrote a 70-inch feature on a heroin treatment facility in Vancouver in a single day. Generally, the shorter it is, the easier and faster I can write.

But magazine stories, in spite of me having written 10 or 12 magazine stories a year for the last eight years, I have to say that I just feel paralysis coming over me every time I start one.

I wish I could get over it. I keep waiting to have happen to me what happened in news writing, where, at the beginning, it seemed so complicated and confusing and I’d think “how will I ever learn to write in less than two hours?” And I’ve gradually gotten to the point where I can do a 600-word news story, an 800-word small feature, a 1300-word mid-sized feature for a newspaper really easily.

But if I have to write something for a magazine, it’s unbelievable torture.

So how do you break through that and just start?

This is my advice I give to younger writers who I see in complete agony: often what I do is put away my notebooks and just write. Write the story as it was formulating itself in my head as I was going along researching. Write the things that were the most vivid and that stuck with me. And where I started to go “oh, you know the interesting thing about this guy is…”

Because if you’re really listening to people in your interviews you’re starting to formulate your story. You’re pondering it. You’re thinking about them all the time, in those bigger pieces.

I know some people say “well you shouldn’t write until you know your beginning because if you have a bad beginning then you’ll end up struggling along.” But I find if I do that then I basically will never, ever get anything written. I close my notebooks and I just write.

And I try and play tricks on myself. I’ll say “okay, if I just write 300 words then I can get up and have a break.” Or “I’m just going to do 500 words tonight and those 500 words can be shit and maybe I’ll erase them tomorrow morning but I’m just going to do 500 words tonight.”

I used to do this thing where I’d say “okay I’m going to spend the entire weekend writing. I’m just going to get through this 3000-word piece in 24 hours of writing. Twelve on Saturday, 12 on Sunday.” And I realized that I would just be so depressed by the thought of spending the entire day at the computer that I would just waste my time on Twitter. Or I’d start looking up obscure facts that were probably going to end up on the chopping block anyway.

So I started thinking “just do this much. That’s all you have to do.” And then a reward and take the afternoon off. And then come back in the evening and just do this next part more. And that makes it somewhat less painful.

And I heard this advice from a guy who gave a talk years ago at the Sun, his name is Steve Buttry. He said “okay, here’s my advice: just write. Just sit down and write. Just start stringing words together. Don’t keep typing ‘the’ and then erasing it. Just write.”

When you’re first coming up with story ideas, how do you know you’ve got one that’s worth pursuing?

I work a really different way. I don’t work like a lot of freelancers and people are always asking me “tell me your secrets of pitching” and I say “I don’t have any, I’m like the world’s second-worst pitcher.” Because I tend to find people that I really like working with, editors that I like working with who know the kind of work that I can do and then — I remember I did this years ago for a longer piece I did for BC Business — I said “you know I’ve always wanted to look at drug addiction treatment. Because as far as I know no one tests whether it’s effective. The government spends billions on it. I just want to take a look at it.” And my editor trusted me. And said “sure, you can have 4000 words and can you get it in in two months.”

So I start out with a general theme but then I go out and I find interesting characters to carry it. And I find out what is going on with that particular issue. I don’t know if it’s just good luck or if you sort of have an instinct for when things are happening. But I almost always, as I’m researching, discover that something’s happening that’s just on the verge of turning as I’m working on the story. So then that gets incorporated as well.

But it’s a very different way from what you read about in books on freelancing. You know, where they say “you have to have your pitch all researched and then you send this half-written story to the editor and you’ve got it very refined.” I don’t really work that way, and I don’t think my way would work very well for a young freelancer who hasn’t built up a reputation yet.

But the idea of taking a subject and digging into it and looking for characters is key to developing an idea, right?

I do what we always tell students not to do: I have a general idea of a topic that will be interesting. Like bank robberies. Or sometimes when I’m doing a news story it makes me think “oh, I should do more on this.”

And that’s why I think doing general assignments for a while is really good because you cover a whole range of stories and you see how some really are just one-day stories. Like, there’s nothing more to see here, somebody said something stupid and someone else responded with something stupider and then it’s kind of gone.

But then other stories you think “there’s a lot more to this.” And you see how you can generate good feature ideas from a news story that kind of comes and goes but has more meat to it.

The holidays are coming. Sometimes it’s hard for freelancers to take breaks. How do you organize your schedule so that you can take time off occasionally?

It was hard when I quit the Sun eight years ago. Because, like every self-employed person, you think every job you get is going to be your last. So my first year I worked kind of non-stop.

My husband and I went to Europe for a month and I worked the whole time there. I was taking calls from the housing minister at 2 o’clock in the morning in France. And I was phoning the city manager from a bar somewhere in Italy. And I spent two days in the loveliest Italian town locked in a hotel room writing a magazine feature about the head of Vancity. So the contrast couldn’t have been greater.

But I have gotten better. The last holiday I had, I took a full month off. I went to France. I didn’t answer a single work email. I didn’t write anything. And so I’m getting better at it. Kind of more confident that, yes, the work will still be there when I come back from holidays.

Why do so many freelance journalists have that worry? That each story they write will be their last?  

I think many journalists are kind of neurotic people. And you’ll see that even with people employed full time in newsrooms. “Yeah, I had a great story yesterday but who am I today? No one. So I need another great story.” There is a bit of a culture of “I have to keep proving to people that I exist” and that actually happens whether you’re a freelancer or not. At least for the people I know who are really hard-core journalists. They’re validated, in a sense, by seeing their work in public.

And it’s funny because it does make it hard to contemplate doing another profession. Because you can go and work hard at some other organization and do really good work, but nobody knows it except maybe 10 people around you, and that’s such a different thing from journalism, where you are on display every week. And if things don’t go well with a couple of stories in a row and it’s out in public for everybody to comment on, that can be really rough.

So why do we do it?

I think everybody who goes into journalism wants to feel like they’re serving a purpose by telling people important things that need to be known. One of the things you realize when you’re in journalism is what a paucity of information many people operate on. It’s like some terrible combination of tribal oral culture and rumours and this and that. And they’re getting through life on that.

And one of the things I discovered as a journalist is often big institutions won’t even talk to each other. You, as a reporter, become the mediator between the two of them, telling each side what the other side is thinking. So you perform this amazing role. You’re like the facilitator.

I remember Vince Ready, who does a lot of mediation work, he used to joke sometimes that he and I were kind of doing the same thing. I mean, that was very flattering and not true. And he also is paid much more than me. But yeah, you’re sort of driven by wanting to tell the world what people’s lives are like so they understand and they make good decisions about what to do.


You can find links to Frances Bula’s work on her blog and follow her on Twitter at @fabulavancouver.

Posted on December 11, 2015 at 9:00 am by editor · · Tagged with: , , , ,

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