I don’t want to speak out of turn here since I’m not a freelance writer by trade (anymore), nor do I have tons of experience doing it. On the other hand, I think I’ve experienced enough to give people just starting out in the freelance world some good advice and safety tips. Some of this information is common sense while others fall on the borderline of paranoia. Your mileage may vary.
In no particular order:
IT’S BETTER TO BE EARLY THAN LATE. More than likely, some of your first gigs will require you to drive someplace and cover an event, whether it’s reviewing a restaurant, covering a concert or interviewing a celebrity. The worst thing you can do is show up late. In the case of movie screenings, the PR firm holding the screening will probably have very strict adherence to their schedule and will lock the doors to the screening room to anyone who shows up late. I’ve even seen fellow journalists remind the PR people to do that. That’s because people suck. Anyway, running behind for an appointment means you’ll be rushing, and bad things happen when you’re stressed on the road. I got into my first and, thankfully, only car accident because I was late to a screener in LA and couldn’t find parking. I was at fault, not looking at oncoming traffic as I tried to turn down an alley where I thought the parking garage was. Luckily for me, it wasn’t serious and the other driver decided it wasn’t worth his time to involve the insurance companies and just drove off after giving me a dirty look, but it could have been a whole lot worse. I get that waiting around sucks too. That’s why you should travel with a distraction like a Nintendo DS or a book or, if you’re like me, with a pack of cigarettes.
KNOW WHERE YOU’RE GOING. This is kind of an extension of 1, but it’s important enough to have its own number. Before you travel on assignment, it’s good practice to have a map of your route and a backup alternate route in case there’s construction or traffic or whatever. This is especially handy for budgeting your time. Sometimes the junket following the nighttime screener is early in the morning the next day. It’s always nice to know when you’ll be getting back home to maximize your sleep before you have to hit the road again. Speaking of which…
KEEP YOUR CAR RELIABLE. Yeah, I know. Common sense, right? But you and I both know how easy it is to keep putting off that oil change or to say, “I’ll just fill up tomorrow before I had out.” These are little things easily and quickly resolved. So to put them off is dumb, since the little things have a habit of rallying together into something nasty at the most inopportune time.
INVEST IN A VOICE RECORDER. Unless you’re an expert in shorthand or you can write fast and legibly, a voice recorder is a necessity. A) It allows you to interview someone while still engaging them naturally like in a conversation. B) A recording protects you and your publication from libel when you quote something unsavory said by the celebrity or political figure or whoever. I’ve heard stories of celebrities denying making disparaging remarks about a particular location, not knowing that a journalist in the room was from that location who consequently printed the celebrity’s words. Anyway, it’s probably best to get a digital recorder, that way you can transfer your data to your computer with little to do. You can get a decent one for about $100 these days. That’s not to say that the recorder will replace your pen and paper (which you should also always have), but you’ll definitely need the recorder for review later.
RESEARCH THE HELL OUT OF YOUR ASSIGNMENT. It’s a dicey situation when you sit down to interview someone and don’t know the first thing about them. Sometimes their management will get you a press kit before hand. Sometimes they won’t. Sometimes you’ll go to review a restaurant and the Executive Chef will come out and sit down with you. As a writer, you need to perform your due diligence by knowing the contextual facts surrounding your assignment. You may not be a professional writer yet, but that doesn’t mean you can’t behave professionally.
TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS. During the early stages of your career, you’ll be scrounging for assignments to build up your portfolio. Sometimes, after a string of rejections or losing assignments to other writers with more experience, you may start feeling a little desperate to take anything you can find. Fight that urge! Remember that there are a lot of people who want to take advantage of you. More importantly, there are a lot of people who want to hurt you. If you feel like something is a scam or you show up to a location and you don’t feel safe, just walk away. The potential of getting a writing credit is not worth risking someone stealing your work or doing you physical harm. Recently, a woman was lured to a home through Craigslist and was killed for entertainment. Granted, she was applying for a babysitter position, but it’s easy enough to swap the scenario for a writing gig. Startup publications will often want to meet with you to make sure you’re a good fit. Try to schedule the location in a public area rather than some small back-office or a home. Once, I applied for a writing gig to cover an event and the employer wanted to meet. The location was a public place to start, but then he emailed me some excuse about feeling sick and asked to meet in his hotel room. I backed out of that job without hesitation.
HAVE A LIFE LINE. If you do take a gig that you’re not 100% on or if you’re simply going to a place you’ve never heard of before, make sure someone knows where you’ll be and will be expecting to hear from you within a certain amount of time. Better yet, tell a lot of people. My friend Danny Boy teases me about doing this, but I say better to be laughed at than missing my kidneys.
NETWORK. As writers, we’re typically maladroit and antisocial. We much prefer to communicate in writing rather than in person through speech. Too bad! Writers these days can’t just be writers anymore. You need to be your own agent, publicist and manager. If your writing career is so important, you need to take control of it yourself. If you’re lucky enough to score an industry gig where you know celebrities and professional journalists are going to be, maximize that opportunity. Get your name out there. Exchange business cards. Make friends at different publications and let them know you’re looking for professional work. Chances are slim, but you might get a bite. If you don’t network, you definitely won’t.
Whatever kind of writer you’re aspiring to be–whether you focus on screenwriting, business writing, book writing, magazine writing or general creative writing–I hope at least a few of my tips will prove useful. My greater hope, of course, is that my words will have more authority when I become more prominent in the industry. 🙂