Monday, August 2nd, 2010

Seven Years as a Freelance Writer, or, How To Make Vitamin Soup

WHERE THE THINKING HAPPENSPeople like my resume—here's a PDF! But a resume is only the skin of a career. And, even then, it's skin with a lot of make-up on it. People live their lives, knowing the interior of their existence, and can only compare it to the exteriors of the lives of others—so, as a public service, here's a look at the interior of my seven years as a freelancer. That is to say, seven years as one of the choosiest beggars imaginable. The Devil does not wear Prada. The Devil wears Times New Roman. Or Arial Narrow. And he shows up in my inbox every hour on the hour. And the Devil is sneaky. He gets deputy editors to send me emails that read, in full: "Hey there. Got an idea for you. Any interest in writing a James Franco profile?"

In 2003, at my mother's house in Apex, Nawf Carlana, I read a Mediabistro panel discussion that described Chris Napolitano, then the front-of-the-book editor at Playboy, as the only editor in Manhattan who still answered his phone. I took this literally. So I dialed 411: "New York, New York, please. Playboy Magazine, please. Chris Napolitano, please."

I pitched him over the phone. He gave me the green light and hung up. I sat there happy beyond belief, but also totally confused by this editor—as I would be confused by many, many editors still to come—because he had not told me how many words to submit, or given me a deadline, or mentioned pay. I called again and left a voicemail. He called back. My mother answered. Her: "Richard, Playboy's on the phone for you." Me: "I got it, Mom! You can hang up now!" I drove 10 hours to New York, stayed overnight in Murray Hill with a high-school buddy, did my reporting and drove 10 hours back. I filed some very bad writing and mercifully got some very heavy-handed editing. And presto chango: "I've written for Playboy Magazine and other publications." Unwisely, I had also pitched the same thing to Brian Farnham, then the front-of-the-book editor at Details, who green-lighted a quote for the opener there. I lost my New York media virginity in that accidental threeway with them.

Even before I attended the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, I was writing features for Details that were being debated on "The O'Reilly Factor." I wrote one of the rare freelanced cover stories for the New York Daily News —a school scandal I had pitched to the New York Times only to be told never ever to use the word "scandal" in my pitch (they ended up chasing the story the next day; it took two reporters to re-report my story). I went to the Turkish countryside to write about a 600-year-old Turkish olive-oil wrestling tournament for ESPN. I lived at a research station in the Alaskan Arctic for the Times. I went to Peru for National Geographic. I went to keggers at New York magazine and went to parties with Sigur Ros and the cast of "Saturday Night Live." (Note: not the same party.) I was part of Topic, a genuinely cool-if-a-bit-precious "nonfiction literary journal" in Brooklyn. And I'm part of a new magazine, about videogame culture, called Kill Screen. Passion projects!

There's a lot of good times in freelancing! I had a bet with a Times reporter about who could get the phrase "that's how we roll, yo" in the paper without quotes; I won (though somewhat on a technicality), with an essay that, upon submission, got my editor to come over to me and give me an actual explicit compliment. I wrote about men in a wet T-shirt contest for the Wall Street Journal and got a gay male porn mention (with photo!) in Playboy. State attorneys general in California, Connecticut and New Jersey launched investigations into a shady business after I wrote a story about it in the Times. I wrote crazy opening sentences about boobies and gay Jews in a paper that prides itself on running "all the news that's fit to print." I was called "a great interviewer" by Dan Rather. I won awards. I was on television. There was just one day in all these seven years that I had an actual job, at Gawker; I quit after the first day, an event that ended up becoming good anecdote for someone else's story in the Sunday Times. I get invited back to my journalism school to speak to the class about "how to be a successful freelancer" and "the art of freelancing."

I once got paid $100 a word.

What's more, I did this all from my $875-a-month-Craigslisted apartment in the West Village, where I've lived for the past five years, mostly spending my days watching television, napping, noshing, strolling around, seeing matinees, playing The Sims, having sex and getting intoxicated.

That sounds like success, right? It may or may not be. Decide after reading.

When people say they want to get into freelancing but don't know how to do it, what I tell them is: OK, fine, you don't know how to freelance because you've never done it before, but take something you do know how to do—dating—and just use the same rules. Freelancing is basically just courtship, but the freelancer-editor relationship is nothing more than friends with benefits. The editor likes you because you remind the editor of when she had enthusiasm and appetite and vision and so you make the editor feel powerful in the way that nostalgia empowers people.

But the editor will never choose you over the publication to which he is married. It will not even be a fleeting thought in the editor's mind. The freelancer can have a lot of fun, but is ultimately the editor's plaything. And any one freelancer is, above all things, unnecessary and replaceable. I always felt like the most fumbling juggling act in the industry.

Freelancing is an adventure the way "Locked Up Abroad" is an adventure. Journalism even at its best is already a fairly caustic and draining experience. All the qualities that make you a great journalist make you a terrible person: gossip, urgency, obsession, noisiness, theatrics and hysterics. I help anyone who asks for it. Just this past Friday, I got an email at 3:38 a.m. from a Pulitzer-winning friend who wanted my help with a New Yorker assignment; I called back at 3:39. I never wanted to be one of those broken, bitter people. Why would anyone want to lose friends and alienate people? I was particularly struck—and maybe scared—by a story a friend told me after he snagged a great job at Condé Nast. He talked about how he shared his apartment with a married couple and their cat, and that the couple was on vacation and there he was, in his bathroom, trying to take a dump, and this cat was lonely and pawing at the gap under the door, and all he could think is that he had this glamorous job at this stylish magazine and he couldn't even manage a life where he could take a dump in peace. Maybe I was emboldened by that lucky cold call to Playboy, but I fought against the rulebook and tried a lot of crazy things that seemed to work.

After getting the runaround for a month, I sent balloons to an editor at Rolling Stone with a note: "This is cheaper than skywriting. Lemme know about my story." When the Times asked me for writing samples, I sent them only a 3,000-word essay I had written about unrequited love with a straight guy. I sent a looooong note to a personal and professional hero, Adam Moss, wherein I compared him both to Big Bird and The Pope and quoted him to himself—no, really. An excerpt:

Without making you sound too regal or papal, I hope for an audience with you. I'm not stupid or naïve enough to be job-seeking. There is so much grabby noise in journalism—which is why it stood out to me so much when Michael Wolff wrote about you (in a New York profile before your reign) that you are "a mild man among bullies and screamers." As a journalist, a thinker and a gay professional I respect your opinion a great deal. At a panel discussion at the Ethical Society, with Clay Felker in attendance, I was really impressed by the way you used the Finkel scandal as a teachable moment for both yourself and the audience. You can be rather heroic. Who doesn't want to meet their hero? Once, when I was 5, I met Big Bird. He wasn't so big in real life. But I was still glad to meet him. Grown-up to grown-up, I think I'd fare far better with you.

It ended up landing me an hour-long meeting that restored my faith in journalism and in myself but it also ingrained the difference between writers and editors. Heroes be damned; a writer should not model themselves after an editor. That is probably the single best realization I have made as a freelancer.

Moss said the thing that all editors inevitably tell all writers—something along the lines of "I really admire your determination, because I tried freelancing and didn't last six months." Editors like to talk about how much they need freelancers and how much they envy our freedom and our work ethic and our Rolodex. Whenever a friend loses his staff job at a magazine or newspaper, his ensuing panic reminds me that they put all their eggs in one basket and that I am cushioned because I have my eggs spread across so many baskets (which is a different kind of panic). Freelancing has great rewards, but trajectory is not really one of them. You do not go from being a freelance writer to a freelance editor to a freelance deputy managing editor. Essentially, I'm doing the same thing I was doing in 2003. The market for my vaudevillian sales of wonder tonic can dry up at any moment. An editor leaves. A magazine folds. And poof! Gone.

But the Sword of Damocles isn't what's most toxic to the freelance experience. What's worst is that, in order to be a freelancer for very long, you have to think of yourself in certain ways. You know what they say about beautiful people? That every pretty girl or gorgeous man is someone's ex, was too much hassle for someone. That's definitely true of freelancing. You show up to the party with the Times or Playboy on your arm and people always, always, always think that you are the half of that relationship that is the lucky one. There are a lot of squinty glances. Really? What do they see in you? Are you rich or something? Hung? Family friends? Because it could never be the case that Beauty lucks out by being with the Beast unless the story ends with the Beast becoming beautiful too. It's like Lena Horne said: "You have to be taught to be second-class."

Freelancing requires such strict adherence to toadyism, to sycophancy, to the grubbiest, lowliest submissions. It is an on-spec life and it is full of what can only be described as insane serendipity (or serendipitous insanity). After the Giants won Super Bowl XLII, an editor at the Times' then-existing Play magazine noticed that there were a lot of celebrities at the game and asked me if I would be interested in tracking down all of the celebrities involved, interviewing them for play-by-play analysis peppered with colorful scenes (maybe Kate Hudson got mustard on her dress! Maybe Will Smith missed seeing that great interception because he was in the bathroom!), and then combining all of these scraps into a 300-word meta-narrative-with a deadline of 24 hours to complete it. "Sure thing," I said, because when an editor gives you an impossible assignment, it's better to try and fail than to be the guy who didn't even bother. Only Spike Lee got back to me, but I turned it into a fun story that the editors said they loved.

You make your own luck, though. In 2004, I had an interview for a gig at Fortune. I had $10.13 to my name. When I showed up for the interview, the editor paused and said "This is how you show up to an interview? You need a haircut. And your tie is dirty." I explained that I only had enough money for either a Salvation Army tie or a haircut, and I had wagered on the value of a tie (even though I had selected a dirty brown polyester one).

Then he looked at my clips and said "Don't you hate this part, when I'm pretending to read your work that I clearly haven't read already?" I said, yes, actually, this part really sucks. Then he asked me, without looking at me, if I read Fortune. "No," I said. "I'm young and poor. Why would I read Fortune?" The silence went on long enough that I got distracted by the thought that his office was bigger than my studio in Harlem. Then he laughed and said he liked honesty, and hired me. I went home to my empty studio-nothing but a suitcase, a towel, a laptop and a bundled-up jacket I used as a pillow when I slept on the floor—and laughed that I freelanced for Fortune. I was ballsy and I was defying the odds.

But last year, I had a very different experience.

I had heard there was a need for a staff blogger at Speakeasy, the culture blog at the Wall Street Journal. Technically, it was openly advertised on the Dow Jones career website, but, as is typical, the job offer was described there in the vaguest terms—"reporter" or "news assistant" or something. I had a crew of cheerleaders within the paper. I submitted a white paper laying out my take on things, including their requested analysis of 300-plus New York City-area blogs. I met with editor after editor, onward and upward, until I was in Robert Thomson's office, answering his questions about an online video series I proposed called "Wasted Opportunities," wherein I would get drunk with some noteworthy person the way they used to on, say, Dick Cavett's talk show. He liked that, he said. He laughed (he has a great laugh) and I laughed too, even though I was wearing a very conventional navy suit with a blue-and-red striped tie and had gotten a haircut where I told the stylist "I need to look like I work at the Wall Street Journal."

But what really sticks out about that meeting with Thomson is the moment just beforehand, when I was idly chatting with his assistant, trying to get some clues to help me brave the lion's den—I was nervous, having learned to be nervous—when my eye caught a piece of paper on her desk. It was a printout of a Talk of the Town from the New Yorker. I recognized the accompanying illustration. "Oh, you have this? My friend Steve wrote that," I said.

"Oh, really?" she said. "How weird! He's also applying for the job. It's down to you two and another person."

Five days earlier, Steve had been on the roof of my apartment, at my 30th birthday party, wishing me well on my Journal prospects. When Steve got the story in the New Yorker, I called him that Monday morning to congratulate him and then took him out to a steak dinner. Steve was a kind of kindred spirit at that time. We met each other at the Times, where we were both regular writers for the all-freelanced, now-defunct City section of the paper. And we knew some of the same people at Details and Entertainment Weekly and GQ and New York. But, more to the point—at least for me—he was from small-town Pennsylvania and knew what it meant to have made it to New York, to have made it into the Times newsroom without any of that Harvard-Yale-Princeton so-and-so fancypants muckety-muck background.

And so I had naturally confided in him that I was going for this job, and I had laid out my strategy and divulged all the reconnaissance I had gathered, seeking his advice and guidance. And he used that all against me, to go for the job himself—and, in fact, he got it and still works there.

I texted him after I left my meeting with Thomson: "you and I are two of the three finalists. good company to keep."

He replied, in full: "who is the third person?"

That's what freelancing is: not just to believe that your station in life demands gratitude that an editor deigns to respond to you, let alone engage you intellectually and creatively, but also that clips and contacts and especially actual paying, salaried-with-benefits-and-corporate-email jobs must necessarily curdle you (which you always tell yourself is more about being professional and mature and responsible) into being a creature not unlike Gollum from Lord of the Rings. If clips are precious treasures, all the more for proper jobs.

Freelancing is pitching two ideas to a new editor at the Times, after having written for the publication for five years, and being told (quoting exactly here): "I think you'd have better luck pitching your stories elsewhere."

It's paying your own way to Boston after securing an interview with a famous, millionaire recluse, only to have the story live in limbo until the day you read the latest issue of the publication and see, oh!, they have a feature about the very phenomenon you were writing about—which means, at least, that your editor hadn't mentioned your story to anybody.

Freelancing means walking from the West Village to the Upper East Side and back because you don't have enough money for the subway. Freelancing means being so poor and so hungry for so long that you "eat" a bowl of soup that's just hot water, crushed-up multivitamins and half your spice rack (mostly garlic salt).

Freelancing is being woken up on a Monday at 8 a.m. by an editor who gives you the following assignment: "Put together everything interesting about all the city's airports by Friday," doing it, and then not getting credit when it runs… as an infographic.

Freelancing is having your mother send you a book called $ix-Figure Freelancing which lists as helpful resources, on page 198, the dictionary, thesaurus and

Freelancing means your editor will reject your pitch and then, seven month later, run the story you pitched—with the same language as your pitch—and then have it submitted for a National Magazine Award.

Freelancing is having an editor tell you that he really loves the story you've filed and wouldn't change anything, and in fact suggests you expand upon the characters a bit—and also cut the story in half. Because, in an editor's world, it's possible to expand upon characters and not change the structure while you also cut the story in half.

Freelancing means having to chase down checks every time, even when that means waiting two years for $1000. It means having stories killed and being told that the editor-in-chief gave no reason, but that the same editor would love to work with you some more.

Freelancing is that remarkable stretch from February to December 2009, where I wrote entire features… using only my phone, a first-generation iPhone jailbroken for T-mobile, bought for $100 from a friend at Mac Week. That was because my computer had broken and I couldn't afford a replacement.

The most confusing experience in my seven years at this singing-for-supper routine is a contest between two instances. I pitched a Talk of the Town to the New Yorker that was dismissed as "a bit too ready-made for Talk"—which was true, because it ran the next week, written by a staffer. The other was the time I pitched the New York Observer and was rejected, only to be contacted three weeks later: "It turns out that your idea is a good idea after all."

But the best case for how incomprehensible the whole system can be of course comes out of what is routinely called the best magazine currently in existence: New York.

I once pitched an Encounter to New York and the editor got back to me with probably the most-condescending email of my career, and that even includes the time the New Yorker told me that my Shouts & Murmurs submission was "good, but not great."

Here it is. The punctuation is original:

I think what you should focus on, since you're not really settled in here as a writer yet, is news value: not a celeb, or someone like curtis who we've been discussing for some time, but someone and something that isnt pie in the sky but isnt obvious either—and that you can get.

Sorry to put such a high bar on this, but even with the pizza thing you havent really proven yourself here yet. You need to get a reputation for getting things done, clearly and cleanly and accurately, which, if you put your mind to it, you're capable of, I'm sure.

I know freelancing is difficult. Ive done it, and in better times than these. But in this day and age, there are also fewer pages to fill. So its tough. So you have to be a pro.

Anyway, I ended up running the story with a different editor at New York on the website. When that blog post ran, a third staffer at the magazine emailed me asking how I had secured access to the celebrity, who he said they had been trying to land for an Encounter for the past few months.


Even if you can navigate the interpersonal vagaries, there is the added obstacle of payment. The New York Times' Sports section pays a flat fee of $200 per article, which is about 25 cents a word. The Washington Post Style section has a ceiling of 2,000 words and $350, which is about 17 cents a word. That Alaskan jaunt for the Times? I financed it with a fellowship. That ESPN Turkish adventure? They only covered my expenses after the fact; it was a $1,300 gamble on my part. People blame the recession. Or the business model. Or consumers' sense of entitlement about free information. Or the editors themselves. (While writing this, I IM'd with Choire Sicha, my Awl editor, for guidance and called him—jokingly!—a "lazy bitch," to which he replied "TRUTH. All the editors are the same.") Being a freelancer today is like being a single parent. I'm the father. And the mother. And, for as long as you'll believe it, I'm Santa Claus. At some point, it becomes unclear what exactly it is that editors do. And one cannot conceive of a world where writers treat editors the way editors treat writers, although I once made an attempt:

hi editor,

i'm excited to work with you on any innovative new projects you're planning. specifically, i'm looking to be involved in something that takes public data that nobody else has noticed and lays out a broad, complicated, everyday, powerfully subtle truth relating to shocking, poignant human dramas. something intellectual and breezy with a real red-meat statistical core that's garnished with fun, topical pop culture references. something that brings ordinary people's deepest private fears and anxieties and taboos into sharp relief in a way they feel comfortable sharing and being photographed for — but also something i can infuse with celebrities' and other power players' candid, vulnerable, insightful epiphanies that i'd like to draw out of 20-minute phone conversations. so… ideally, i'd like to do this at $1/word in about 300 or 400 words, not including captions for the online slideshow or any part of the audio and video supplements i'll put together as well. i'd only need a week or so to file this.

thanks again for this opportunity. i'm looking forward to hearing from you soon.



Freelancing isn't just about finding good stories. It is also—more so?—about finding good editors. I have solid relationships with four, which, over a seven-year span, works out to encountering one good editor for every 21 months. Maybe I sound as silly and vain and vacuous as Jessica Simpson talking about her very real struggle with acne and how Pro-Activ Solution helped her, but journalism is built upon the values of truth and transparency and intellectual service and candor—of sunshine being the best disinfectant.

And now I live in Memphis, covering higher education, science, health and technology for The Commercial Appeal—a daily newspaper since 1839 (even when the Civil War made the editors publish on the run from Union troops! And even when the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1878 reduced the staff to two!). I get to shake off my umbrella at reception and say "Helluva morning out there, Lois!" A nerd-dream fulfilled! Not only all that, but in a newsroom built as the set of a fake Washington Post for the 2008 thriller Nothing But The Truth!

Even here, though, I was bumbling. My cover letter, written while watching "Glee," included gems like "I'm too sour to bother googling it" and "I'm not cool" and ended with me writing about when I cried over butterscotch milkshakes. When they flew me in for an interview and asked me about any skills I had, I flaunted a trick wherein my middle fingers appear to be connected through my palms. The editor said "That's not the kind of skill I meant." To which I said: "Well, can you do it?" He could not. I got the job. I'm actually part of a wave of hires there; they also snagged the Washington Post's religion editor and a court reporter from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I'm still allowed to freelance, but there's less need now.

My feelings about it are best expressed by a mentor's thoughts that he shared when I went to him for advice about the job offer: "I'm excited, Richard, because it's not covering courts or cops or city councils or school boards. It's not stenography or racing to slap content onto a blog. Someone is trusting you to be the guy who covers intelligence and innovation. They are valuing you at your actual value, at the value you know you have and that I know you have. All the assignments you've taken at the fancy newspapers and fancy magazines, they've always come to you with the sense that you should be grateful and that you still have lots of dues to pay. This is the first time I've heard you describe a boss who recognizes that you've paid your dues and deserve a reward. And, Richard, this is a hell of a reward." Finally.

Richard Morgan previously wrote for The Awl about black athletes who do not play basketball. Today is Richard's 31st birthday, so think about that before you contact him with your thoughts about this story.

112 Comments / Post A Comment

ayellis (#6,131)


love, the best comment.

Adam Taylor (#6,134)

happy birthday <3

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

This was terrifying and inspiring.

Don't forget good readin'.

doubled277 (#2,783)

I cried, a bit.

sigerson (#179)

This post needs a good editor!

Laura (#6,533)

Happy birthday, and: a depressing but wonderful piece. As an aspiring freelancer fantasizing about the glamour of the clips you have it's somewhat of a relief to hear that even making it in the big names doesn't necessarily mean you're rich and comfortable…wait a minute.

Okay. Is the prestige of having your name in NYT worth living off actual starvation? Is it possible to manage a comfortable dayjob and a worthwhile freelance career? Maybe I am no longer so convinced that this has to be my one and only career option. Maybe writing is really the least worthwhile career possible (while being the most intrinsically necessary?)

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

What is that quote widely attributed to Flaubert? "Writing is a dog's life, but the only one worth living." You can believe him or not.

deepomega (#1,720)

I'm glad it's not just freelance animation that has all this bullshit. Like producers making up requirements and ignoring your stated work experience and etc. etc. etc. Great read though!

garge (#736)

Thanks for sharing, and happy birthday–

(I am going to pour a drink, steal your resume format, and maybe look into becoming an accountant.)

semiserious (#2,430)

One of my town's most prolific freelancers also happens to be the kind of guy who will show up to a busy club, cut the line, try to walk right in, and if he's questioned drops a "Don't you know who I am?" He gets away with it most of the time.

It's always struck me that the freelance path requires a healthy ego, loads of confidence, ass kissing, and a lot of keeping up fake connections. Of course that helps in certain aspects of journalism (but doesn't guarantee, you know, you can actually write or do anything interesting with the access you've pushed yourself into). For some people that comes naturally too, but if you're forcing it seems like the kind of thing that will slowly crush you.

I'm the kind of guy who patiently waits inline even if I know I'm on a list and the prospect of losing my job and even temporarily trying to make it as a freelancers absolutely scares the hell out of me. Even more so after reading this.

That was really good.

This was amazing. Also, I can't believe that guy Steve did that!

MikeBarthel (#1,884)

This is the third thing I have read in the last week that's made me glad I went to grad school.

Happy birthday! Also plz to post a video showing the middle fingers trick.

Yes! Agreed. Or at least a drawing.

Matt Baume (#3,974)

Delightful. I love reading stories of freelance exasperation. Reminds me of the time I pitched a story to one of those FUTURE OF JOURNALISM startups here in SF and the editor responded, "this sounds interesting. Are you pitching it for yourself or would like one of our reporters to take it on?"

I took it to

roboloki (#1,724)

happy birthday. thanks for writing!

David Roth (#4,429)

Really, really good piece, and one that arrived in front of my eyeballs at just the right moment for me. I haven't been at this as long and haven't been as successful, but I have also struggled hard with the weird ego-bifurcation you write about — the fleeting sense of accomplishment chased by the beaten down feeling of still being broke and uncomfortable and always on the hustle. Finding a professional home sounds pretty awesome even after three-odd years of this, but — and this might be me projecting or it might not — I think the most hopeful thing is that you seem set up to get to enjoy writing again, and feel proud of being a writer, down there in Memphis. I hope you get that.

I've been thinking a lot about that part, recently. I love this thing, and everyone I know who does this work does, too. But the personal compromises behind the work-getting — really, I've been happiest writing for free, which has to mean something — and the awful lifestyle that goes with writing for money just makes it so painfully tough to get the sort of joy out of it that one should. You wind up doing what you love, and hating it, somehow. So congratulations on making your break from all that. Big envious congratulations. And happy birthday, o'course.

zidaane (#373)

Very nice.

KarenUhOh (#19)

Lotta living in 31 years. You should write about it.

Michelle Orange (#6,535)

Freelancing is having a bummer profile convergence chided by The Awl, then finding comfort in an excellent piece about the giant bummer convergence that is the freelance life.

Charlie (#4,250)

1. Happy Birthday
2. Thank you so much for this
3. I don't like Steve

Dave Bry (#422)

Wow. Great piece. Great ending. Congratulations and happy birthday.

Screen Name (#2,416)

Excellent. Really great read. Someone once sent me Memphis BBQ from a place called Central BBQ. As I recall you put it in the oven with a steam type of set up to bring it back to life from frozen, something like that. It was good shit. Anyway, nice piece.

enderle (#6,539)

OK so where do I go to learn that finger thing? Seriously, nicely done and happy birthday!

Just wow. Magnificently told.

LondonLee (#922)

Great piece.

So did you write it for The Awl or have you been shopping it around?

sunnyciegos (#551)

this is what I wondered too!!

banner "how your sausage gets made" day at the Awl – loved the Ned Ryerson piece also.

seanmichaelhart (#6,541)

That's some good bragging.

barnhouse (#1,326)

I also loved reading this but especially wanted to say: Steve is a big jerk!

Have you been to Gus' Spicy Fried Chicken? You probably have. It was the best fried chicken I've ever had. Near the Civil Rights Museum/Lorraine Hotel.

Dan Kois (#646)

This was really great, obviously.

PE Westlake (#6,544)

Happy birthday. Great post.

I went back and forth between freelancing and full time (video) and always wind up coming back to freelance. As bad as the daily hustle can be, it's still better than dealing with the nudniks EVERY day.

Good luck in Dixie.

carpetblogger (#306)

This story is like a recent college graduate with a 3 page resume.


Out of curiosity, what exactly IS the protocol when you pitch something to two different magazines/papers? Do you have to wait for a firm rejection? Because the last article I sold I sort of pitched to two places at once, and both bought it. It was sort of weird and humiliating, but I had to beg off one for the other.

So what exactly do you do? Do you pitch to one paper at a time and wait interminably while they bury your good ideas in the steaming minds of awful interns? Is it uncouth to pitch to two places at once?

Graydon Gordian (#3,206)

Great stuff, although, yes, horrifying at points.

I had the best BBQ of my life in Memphis. Coming from a Texan, that's supposed to be meaningful. Either way, point is, eat a little something while you're there.

Kris Graft (#6,548)

What a great story….

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

Totally had me hard up until the last paragraph.

For the movie adaptation I'd change it to "so I worked hard on my contacts and convinced investors to back an uniquely formed national publication that exploded in popularity."

Otherwise, you're going to spend your 30's in Memphis. Memphis. You're like a smelly polluted river across from Arkansas.

Russell Totten (#6,276)

delete "an":

Not only all that, but *AN A* newsroom built as the set of a fake Washington Post for the 2008 thriller Nothing But The Truth!

Great contribution!

joeks (#5,805)


balsa_wood (#465)

Well, I guess we know who's not paying $100 a word.

keisertroll (#1,117)

I may not be good at freelancing or dating, but this gives me hope about at least one of 'em. Great job, and happy (belated) birthday!

Journalists! I don't know why you people do all that. However I was gripped by this story!

But should it not have been called "Seven years below the masthead"?

KarenUhOh (#19)

You know, honestly, what a rush of a high-wire act. What a wonderful way to be spending your youth.

Wonderful, too, that you've landed in something relatively steady. The earth will still shift beneath your feet. Points of the compass and all.

Keep fighting the good fight. We can't all retire on foil-wrapped grilled cheese.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

Many happy rewrites returns.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

So much for strikethru tag jokes. Seriously, though — this reminded me of the part in Boswell where Johnson is staggering homeless around London just before getting set up with the dictionary gig.

janedoedoes (#6,552)

Wow, if ever there's a time to write a braggy, name-dropping essay about how cool your life is, I suppose one's 31 birthday is the time. But as these kinds of "Poor me, I live a life the rest of you can only dream of, but really…woe is's not entirely fabulous" [a genre which includes: 'poor me, I'm rich' and 'poor me, I'm a celebrity'] essays go, this one was incredibly well-written. Obnoxious, but well-written. But one thing: New York is the best magazine of our times? Seriously, who says that? Besides investment banker boys who find their Details subscription too intellectual? New York is like the stupid (moneyed) man's Atlantic.

ericdeamer (#945)

I agree with the first part of your comment and with the caveat that it's unusually well written for one of those but don't agree with your put down of New York magazine.

zachdionne (#6,507)

As for who thinks New York mag is one of the best magazines of our times (and I think Richard was maybe being a bit hyperbolic, but yes, it's extremely respected) — um, just about everyone involved in media thinks that.

LondonLee (#922)

"a braggy, name-dropping essay about how cool your life is" is the last thing I thought this was. Did you miss the part where he's now working for a local newspaper in Memphis?

And NY magazine is terrific and very highly regarded in the business.

bb (#295)

it's funny how some people think this was too braggy and some think it was totally harrowing. I go in the latter camp, but I guess that's because I am not a freelance writer. I am thinking the life might not be quite as bad if you lived outside of NY while freelancing – just the cost of living would take the edge off. But maybe you need that edge to burn through 2,000 word articles at 17c a word.

Chris (#5,644)

Really great piece. Enjoyed every word of it.

Toby Young (#6,557)

You may not have wanted to lose friends and alienate people but I ended up having a movie made about my unsuccessful efforts to "take Manhattan" whereas you've ended up in … Memphis. Maybe you shouldn't have played so nice.

Seriously, though, good piece – and I should fucking know. I've been freelancing since 1985 on and off. One caveat: You didn't make enough of the revolving door policy most publications have. Those four editors you have a good relationship with – one of them will still be around in five years' time if you're lucky. When you get to my age (46) the bit that sucks the most is having to cold call 23-year-old deputy features editors who have no fucking clue who you are. As the late, great Ernest Lehman said about Hollywood, it's getting to the point where I don't dare shake the hand of an executive for fear of being arrested for child molestation.

And I often think: If this is what it's like for me, God knows what it must be like for someone just starting out.

Bottom line: Anyone embarking on a career in journalism at this point in time is either a moron or a romantic (probably both).

janine (#248)

Someone's never had chicken n' waffles or been to Interstate.

zachdionne (#6,507)


Francine McKenna (#6,584)

Or all out of reasonable options….

buzzorhowl (#992)

Toby you magnificent bastard! I read your book!

KarenUhOh (#19)

The confession of hubris, wittily or archly deployed, can be charming; the rest of the time, it's a sump of quicksand.

MissA (#6,563)

Great article and so true. I was a freelance journalist for 3 years and have just paid off my debts from that time in my life 5 years later. Now I have a staff job and when I have a tough day I remember the days when I hid from my landlady because I didn't have enough money for rent.

Michael Jecks (#6,561)

All I can say is, Toby, if you think working freelance is bad, try novels. No guaranteed income, no pay per word, and only the hope (rarely justified) that you'll make a living at it! And yes, when, like me, you used to be a professional, it is very hard to accept the fresh-faced youthfulness of those commissioning your works! It really must be hell for those starting out hoping to be a novelist today.

At least novelists don't have to talk to celebrities. I read this with a sense of gleeful superiority. Don't spoil it!

Michael Jecks (#6,561)

Fair comment, MNIMA!

Nisha (#5,905)

I freelance, but I have to say if I had a staff job and had to quit freelancing I worry I'd get restless. The fun thing about freelancing is the constant hustle to get published in better and more prestigious magazines. Some people are well-suited to that restlessness and would, I think, get bored in a staff job.

jobbotch (#3,528)

Nice. But I'm not sure I get the "I'm half-broke" part. Since the author seems to have all the right "ins" in place, the obvious solution would be to write for the NYT a little less and for places like Travel & Leisure a bit more. If half of one's assignments (let's say a story a month) come from the glossies, the workload described here sounds like $80K-$120K a year to me, depending on the word rate.

carig (#4,986)

A wave of wires after a spate of buyouts and layoffs at the CA … while in the midst of a union dispute about outsourcing jobs to India. I was going to apply for the job you have, but I wasn't really convinced of its stability. But good luck.

balsa_wood (#465)

When a freelance writer's passionate essay about the glories of his own freelance life serves as a pristine example of why a freelancer needs a staff editor…

I mean, it's kind of interesting, but Braggy McBraggerson over here, jaysus.

jhatch (#6,575)

This is very well timed for me as well — I recently quit freelancing after 8 months of trying it out full-time, because I had seen enough, was not making anywhere close to a living, and to be honest, in the end I just found the whole process deeply insulting to my dignity, whether it was not hearing back from editors or not being paid for work that I wouldn't have even done in the first place without the promise of money. Well, in some cases the promise is all I got. So I found a steady job that so far I enjoy doing, where I actually, you know, get paid what I'm owed on an appointed day, and where my contributions to the common cause are actually appreciated. And now I am free to write as I please with the rest of my time, and not worry too much about whether I get published or not.

Luke O'Neil (#6,577)

This was heartening and very true. Been at it for a little bit longer myself, with a decent resume, but not as impressive as yours, and I encounter most of these issues all the time. Thanks for sharing.

Billyjoe (#6,579)

There's no evidence of a Richard mOrgan at the Memphis Commercial Appeal

Billyjoe (#6,579)

Read those last few paragraphs . . . "Nothing but the Truth!" Not quite . . . Did nobody else catch that he's punking us?

Francine McKenna (#6,584)

You mean I have to pitch? I wait for the phone to ring. It does sometimes. That's spoiled me for groveling.

winandtonic (#5,877)

I've romanticized the hell out of freelance writing. I did freelance web design for a while and hated it. I like to think I'd fare better with words than pictures.

The main detractor of me pursuing it was a combination of semi-cushy (but thoroughly soul-crushing) office jobs taking up my daylight and sheer terror.

Unemployment month two is now over, and with approximately $40 to my name, now I think it's time I went for broke, so to speak.

After reading this, I'm still terrified – but at least now I know what to be terrified of. So, thanks.

Niki Torres (#6,594)

Great read! Glad to know that you finally got a reward that you deserve. Happy Birthday!

anewnadir (#1,896)

This piece reads a hell of a lot better when the sentence "So then I fucked him." is appended to the end of each paragraph. Try it.

Myles Linklater (#6,606)

This was fantastic.

Anarcissie (#3,748)

New York magazine is good? Huh. I unwillingly received the remainder of the subscription of a deceased relative and could not get it shut off. Four years! Every issue seemed to be about vacuous celebrities, with some pop psych and pop sociology thrown in — the seriously dumb kind. It was just a hair above supermarket checkout level. Oh, well, tastes differ — let's get down with the real folk and all that, I suppose.

Memphis isn't so bad, but it is, like, seriously spaced, so you may need the right pharmaceuticals and additives for a happy stay.

berlynn (#6,629)

After months of attempting, and failing, to get a job in the glossy magazines — I have seriously considered becoming a freelance journalist. This article made it appear much more romantic than I ever imagined, and it also made me want to vomit in my mouth. Although I'll still dream of being a lazy, cushioned editor, it's nice knowing what my future life as a writer may look like: success with a side of multiple ulcers. At least now I'm armed with a new soup recipe and a strong gut feeling that I should invest in Pepto-Bismol stocks. Thanks Richard Morgan! -Jenn

Thanks for a great piece, Richard. Yes, yes and yes. I'm going on 30 years in the writing business, and have gotten a bit jaded over the years. I know it shouldn't boggle me when an AOL editor praises me one day for being reliable and then fires me the next, but really? Forget to take your meds, sweetie?

I'd say "onward to better things," but if it boils down to dealing with 12-year-old editors who think you should be oh so grateful for whatever crumbs they throw your way or who rule by fear and intimidation, "better" isn't in the picture.

Instead, I'm reinventing myself so I don't have to rely on editorial twerps. Yes, I said twerps.

Mandy Van Deven (#6,650)

Oh, how true-to-life this piece is! I've been freelancing for the past two years, and have already has so many (too many) of these experiences. Thanks for the validation, Richard!

Sprague D (#3,732)

Great stuff: 4,485 words and it was good to the last one. Kudos to Morgan and his editor for letting something good run long.

I think this is the first complement I've ever given to any blog post anywhere about anything.

(That slipped out. I hadn't quite made up my mind to admit it. Now I suddenly feel as if I've taken all my clothes off.)

maisie001 (#6,662)

Were you drunk or high when you wrote this? Parts of this are completely incomprehensible. Other parts are insightful and funny. Try being sober next time you write (might also get you more commissions). Just a tip…..

Miss Solomon (#6,670)

Happy Birthday first of all. At first the piece was really inspiring then I thought wow, there is someone only mildly successful doing what I have never done for seven years. You are write. Freelancing is scary because I have never done it. I want to. I feel like I can write about more than just whats on my blog but the start, the first step seems the hardest. I have never been a sycophant but its been the word of the day at least twice on my calender. I could learn to kiss ass, to play the game. Its remarkable how you write. if this piece is indicative of other works, I'm sure you'll be writing for many years to come. Great job, great life, great writing.

Miss Solomon (#6,670)

And I misused write, I'm already doomed

Annie Faye (#6,678)

Intriguing. You are the black and white 2D version of Frank Abagnale Jr.–"Catch Me if you Can;" not that I could catch up to you!
Thanks for the article, twas a pleasure to read.

Erica Manfred (#6,686)

Great, great piece and oh so true. I've been freelancing for 25 years and am now writing books, which may be worse. I remember when I was starting out I hosted dinners at New York eateries for freelancers I'd met through a writer's organization. One night I was talking about my fear of rejection. One of them, a successful freelancer and very ballsy dame asked me without irony "then why did you go into freelance writing?" I've been asking myself that question ever since. She became a successful literary agent 20 years ago.

Jessica L Mezyk (#6,694)

Tip for you: make friends with freelance designers. They have spare computers. Laptops even. Some of them live in the West Village. You are welcome to mine next time you need one.
Peace baby.

loganathan (#6,711)

Your article too good, very useful for me, Who are all looking for part time and home based jobs, Visit the website:
In this website you can freelancing jobs as well as you can find number of freelancers for home based working.

lorihenry (#6,719)

Fantastic. :) I'm a freelance travel writer. Same shit.

Happy Belated.

Freelance designer, turned 9-5 Newspaper designer for print & web. Probably not as glamorous, but very similar. I enjoyed my journey with you!

Berfrois (#6,770)

[...] 'Freelancing is basically just courtship, but the freelancer-editor relationship is nothing more than friends with benefits.' [...]

Sean Kinn (#6,835)

I think the freelance world may have changed a bit. As in, I believe modern-day freelance writers should also consider correct Web 2.0 Freelance Blogging methods. It involves time and effort, but the end result is enough AdSense revenue to subsist on as a freelance writer: * Blog often. * Write separate articles about your topic to submit to sites that accept articles (, for example); the articles provide important back-links to your blog. * Quote and link to subject matter experts from within your blog. *Also post comments at blogs that allow comments (like this one), specifically for the additional back-links. * Lean toward maximizing AdSense placement, without overkill; in other words, placing AdSense ads at the top of blog posts between title and text will maximize exposure, but you are only allowed a certain total number of AdSense ads. * And, finally, don't give up because it's not a scam and it actually works over time. SK

Chris Connell (#6,875)

Read it and weep, free-lancers and editors alike. Best of luck in Memphis, Richard.

Steve Din (#6,913)

Steven Kurutz is one of the three Speakeasy bloggers at the WSJ.

Diane Shipley (#7,040)

Oh God, I relate. I'm glad you've found somewhere that values you now, I can't believe you made that soup, and a belated happy birthday.

Nancy Beckett (#7,063)

The glamor class is always paid for on the backs of real talent and the hard work of an underclass.

Writers are the most complicit, exploited, over-educated, contingency worker group (next to teachers) on the planet.

Great piece about creation and finding peace. Thank you and best of luck.


sarlens (#7,207)

I once wrote an article for the Boston Globe and the publisher/editor of a new magazine contacted me and asked me to expand it for his publication. I did. I didn't hear from him. My best friend was a stripper at a Boston club and it turned out he was a regular client and he complained to her about me having no idea she knew me. Realizing he wasn't going to publish the piece, I demanded a kill fee, which he then proceeded to complain to her about while buying her overpriced drinks. I did finally, after months of emails to him, get a kill fee out of him. And I didn't even have to do a lap dance.

Roya Wolverson (#11,197)

Therapy. Thanks.

Great piece — as a freelancer myself, I identified with your pain. My lowest freelancer moment came writing for an online city guide that was paying me $35 for 400 word restaurant reviews with no food budget — I was supposed to visit the restaurant and describe the feel of it, but not actually eat anything. When I had written about 8 of these things over about 4 months, I said "what with the price of gas, can you bump up my rate please?" The editor said she would give me an extra five dollars.

Thankfully, I quit writing for her and found greener pastures — but honestly, the GALL of some people!

pkh3 (#22,067)

As a 30 year veteran of the freelance wars, I can verify this is the truth, however wrapped in hyperbole at times.

Freelancing is like marriage to an abusive spouse who keeps you hanging on with intermittent rewards.

The best defense is to define your own terms–draw the line on what you will tolerate–and then stick to them. You may get less work, but you'll also take it up the ass a lot less frequently.

Crystal Yorker (#244,489)

I really enjoyed your article! Making money freelancing can be hard at times, but its one of the most rewarding jobs if you do it right. The key is finding a website or client you like and working with them as much as possible. So far the best site for me personally has been

sebbal (#252,763)

You have done a great job. I will definitely dig it and personally recommend to my friends. I am confident they will be benefited from this site

You sir, are my hero!!

Tyler King@facebook (#263,845)

About a year ago I became the editor of a small online entertainment publication. A third of my day is spent scouring blogs and other industry sites for qualified freelance writers. After having spent so long clawing for gigs as a freelancer, I now find it nutty how difficult it is to find good talent. That said, I'm hiring!

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Maura29 (#280,531)

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