Bonnie Tsui has freelanced for publications for more than a decade, including The New York Times, Travel + Leisure and as a contributing editor for San Francisco magazine. Recently she received an annual award for food writing from the San Francisco Chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier.
That gave me the opportunity to interview her, since both of us became Dames recently. She concluded that it has become simultaneously easier and tougher to freelance — but she’s going to keep at it. Here are her reasons:
Why it’s Easier to Freelance for Publications
1. It’s easier to break in. The barriers to entry are lower. Years ago, there was a more formulaic way to get published: You started in smaller, local publications and moved to bigger venues. It was difficult to break into a glossy national magazine if you didn’t have solid clips.
Now there are more and varied venues for getting published, and you can build up a body of work on a platform like Medium and in other digital publications. Editors recognize strong writing, whether it’s on a blog or in an online magazine; if you have a distinctive, compelling voice, people will notice, and the trajectory of your career will be altered for good. Things move faster. You don’t have to wait for the print cycle to see your work and share it.
2. You can find the right editor. With a little smart sleuthing, you can track down an editor’s email or get in touch with them on Twitter.
3. You can write from anywhere. In fact, it’s helpful to live away from the New York publishing universe. You can be an asset to editors by finding stories from where you are.
Why it’s Harder to Freelance for Publication
1. The money has declined. This is 90 percent of it. Budgets have been slashed at most print publications, so you have to hustle and write more to make the same money. And online publications simply do not pay as well as print. It’s harder to make a living wage.
2. You have to move quickly. The second news happens, you have to write something quickly, because the news cycle moves on and it’s gone. Newspapers feel this acutely, and fight over every angle; monthly magazines can take more time, but they have to figure out fresh angles that will hold until publication.
I don’t have an easy takeaway to wrap this all up. The hard and honest truth is that freelancing as a writer is damn challenging. But I love it. I’ve been at it for 14 years and I will keep doing it because it makes me happy. And also, I am terrible at a nine-to-five desk job. When would I go surfing?
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