The 5-Minute Freelancer Q&A #43 — Tom Hawthorn

by Monte Stewart

Photo by Paige Lindsay

Award-winning journalist Tom Hawthorn has spent most of his career as a freelancer. He is well-known for contributing obituaries to The Globe and Mail, but also writes about living people for other media outlets.

During the 1990s, he served as a staff reporter with two daily newspapers. He has also authored a number of books, including The Year Canadians Lost Their Minds and Found Their Country, about Canada’s centennial year, and is currently working on a biographical history of The Ubyssey student newspaper.

When he is not freelancing, he works part-time at iconic independent bookstore Munro’s Books in Victoria, B.C.

In this Q&A, Hawthorn, explains why he cherishes awards shaped like tombstones and offers tips – along with a few caveats – to current and prospective freelancers.

How did you end up becoming a full-time freelancer?

I did four stints as a summer intern – at The Vancouver Sun in 1980 and ’84, and The Globe and Mail in arts in 1986 and sports in ’87. I spent the 1990s as a staff reporter and desker at The Province in Vancouver and The Times Colonist in Victoria. In between and ever after, I’ve freelanced, mostly to newspapers and magazines.

Having learned journalism at a student newspaper [The Ubyssey], I’ve always enjoyed generating my own story ideas. I also have to say I can freelance full-time in part because my partner, also a journalist, has a union job with solid benefits. This would be much harder as a solo effort.

Who do you write for?

I write for anybody who issues a cheque, and on occasion for those who do not. I regularly write obituaries for The Globe and Mail; longish features for The Tyee; cultural pieces online and in print for Montecristo magazine in Vancouver; political, sports and literary entries for the Canadian Encyclopedia; features for many other journalistic clients; and, unpaid biographies for books published by the Society for American Baseball Research. I also write the occasional speech or op-ed piece.

What does it mean to you to be a multiple award winner for your obituaries?

It’s an honour to be recognized by your peers. The Deadheads – fellow obit writers – are an interesting bunch, as fun and quirky as any group of journalists I’ve come across. They have high standards, too.

I’ve won awards for sports writing and feature writing, and shared in a national Canadian Association of Journalists investigative award for a series about youth and the criminal justice system, but the only awards I’ve ever displayed have been from the Society of Professional Obituary Writers. They call their prizes the Grimmies. They’re shaped like a tombstone.

How did you get into obituary writing?

The occasional obit assignment came my way during my decade as a staff reporter. When I returned to freelancing in 2000, the National Post was a happening paper. I was selling stories to the sports section. I then began pitching to sections I knew had editors but few or no staff assigned to them – books, cars, and obits. After the Post severely cut back on freelance in 2001, I began selling obits to the Globe, which has maintained a world-class obit page through all the industry contraction.

As any obit writer will tell you, obits are about life, not death – unless the means of death was particularly newsworthy. It’s the most intimate writing you will ever do without meeting the subject.

What makes a good obit? What makes a good obit writer?

Detail, detail, detail. The best obits capture what the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson described as the “decisive moment.” What set a person on the course of their life? I’m always keen on finding the Rosebud in someone’s life story. What were they pursuing? What motivated them?

A good obit writer is fueled by the same trait any good journalist has – curiosity.

Turning to some practical matters, what tips do you have for freelancers pitching prospective stories to editors?

Read the submission guidelines. Know the publication to which you’re making the pitch. Be honest and accurate in your pitches. Deliver on your promises, or, if you find they were misinformed, let the editor know ASAP. Have a sense of the visual possibilities. I always try to envision a pitched article actually appearing in the publication or online. What kind of headline might be appropriate? Include that in your pitch. File at the agreed time and at the agreed length in the format requested.

How do you set your rates?

My rates? Sheesh. They’ve fallen from the glory days in Toronto in the late 1980s when you could actually make a living doing this stuff. “Working harder for less” is the life of a freelancer.

 Do you have any set contracts with any outlets?

Some outlets have standard contracts which you sign once; others send contracts along with each assignment. I’m not a lawyer and certainly can’t afford one, so I give them a read and sign. In any case, it is always essential you and the assigning editor have a good understanding of the scope of the article, the length, and the due date. Out of the thousands of articles I’ve sold over the years, I’ve only had a couple go sideways.

Do you have any contracts that cover work completed during a specific period of time?

All my contracts with newspapers and magazines are for piecework. Payment [is] either on acceptance or, sometimes, on publication – well, billable after publication. I’m operating a one-man sweat shop somewhere on the information highway.

Do you do any other types of freelance – for example, broadcasting?

I appear from time to time as a commentator on CBC Radio and as a guest on commercial stations. If a CBC Radio show asks me on to speak about a subject in one of my areas of so-called expertise – baseball, obscure sports history, B.C. politics or a feature I’ve written – then I am paid for my time. If I am invited on CBC to talk about one of my projects, for instance a book, then I am not paid, as I am clearly doing self-promotion. I have never been paid for appearing on a commercial radio show. I’ve had some fun times talking with Mike Smyth on CKNW.

Speaking of self-promotion, what’s your advice to freelancers and/or budding book authors on that topic?

It is one of the cruelties of writing that a craft that attracts introverts demands they self-promote. In this age, it is essential. I always advise journalists and authors to – at the very least – post links to their latest work on social media. Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, YouTube and Instagram are all evil, in their own way, but writers have little choice but to use them to their advantage.

If unfamiliar with social media, attack it the same way you do a story. Do your background research, read plenty, surf the Web, ask those in your circle of friends and colleagues about it. Then produce material at least as interesting as your journalism and post it. For a major project, I would produce a short video to promote the work, whether a book, a series of articles, or a cover story for a magazine. Make sure you have your friends link and retweet and do whatever is necessary to get the word out. That’s how social media works, exponentially.

What do you see as the pros and cons of working as a freelancer versus working as a full-time staffer with a publication or another media outlet?

People often say to themselves: “I’ll freelance. I’ll be my own boss!” In truth, freelancing means you’ve replaced one boss for lots of bosses. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean dealing with the quirks and desires of a lot of different people. The benefits of freelancing? You set your own hours, your commute lasts as long as it takes to get from bed to chair, and you can write in your pajamas if that’s your predilection. The downside? Long hours, low pay, irregular cash flow, no paid holidays, no benefits, and financial institutions look at you as if you’re a scam artist. Freelancing is not for everyone.

What tips do you have for experienced journalists who are looking to freelance part-time or full-time?

If you’re leaving a full-time gig to become a freelancer, get your financial house in order and establish a line of credit while it looks like you still have a steady source of income. If you have a romantic partner, check in what way their benefits package helps you.

Gigging on the side while you have a full-time job can be fun. The money’s gravy!

For an experienced journo, freelancing can be a chance to break out of the daily grind, to stretch a bit on the writing side, to explore stories your regular publication has rejected or ignored. Check with your employer about competition clauses. I know some good journos who got in serious trouble by innocently violating a condition of their employment.

How did you end up working at Munro’s? Why did you choose to work there?

Munro’s Books is a superb bookstore in a heritage bank building in downtown Victoria. It was founded in 1963 by James Munro and Alice Munro. Yep, that Alice Munro [winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature]. I’d been a regular customer for years. I was working on a book and needed a regular income to get finished.

I figured working at a bookstore would give me good insight into the retail end of the business. As a young man, I had worked at New Star Books in Vancouver as a typesetter and gofer. As a journo, I had written dozens of book reviews. Munro’s kindly took me aboard. I’ve learned plenty about how and why books sell. I also work with wonderful, informed, thoughtful and funny people.

Me working in a bookstore is like Charles Bukowski working in a brewery. My obit has already been written: “Tom’s dead. Free books.”


Monte Stewart is a freelance journalist based in Vancouver. He covers sports, business and other topics for wire services, newspapers, magazines and online media outlets in Canada, the U.S. and Europe. You can find him on Twitter at @MonteStewart.


Posted on March 9, 2020 at 6:00 pm by editor · · Tagged with: , , ,

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