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10 of Kathy Shaidle’s Greatest Hits

These are some of the Canadian culture critic's most memorable broadsides and inspiring provocations. Volume 1.

Kathy Shaidle


April 26, 2014 - 3:30 pm
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6. April 30, 2012

Talent Isn’t Everything: Five Secrets to Freelance Success

So you think you want to be a freelancer? A pro shares some tips for success.

I’ve been a professional writer since I sold my first piece to Seventeen at age 21, on my first try.

(Take that, Sylvia Plath: she racked up about fifty rejection letters from the same magazine before breaking in.)

Since then, I’ve veered between being an on-site staff writer and a full-time freelancer, doing one or the other for about three or four years before getting bored/wanting more money/getting sick of winter commuting/spotting an ad for the full-time “dream job” I just HAD to have (for a while).

Right now, I’ve been freelancing full-time since 2008. Along with the politics and culture pieces I do for PJ Media and other online magazines, I write web copy for clients ranging from funeral homes to roofing contractors; edit and ghostwrite books, newsletters, and op-eds; and manage a few social media accounts as well.

Over the years, countless people have told me they want to be freelance writers, too. So here are some tips and home truths about the freelance writing (or freelance anything) life.


#5 – Talent isn’t everything

Maybe you’ve won some writing awards. Maybe you’ve read a magazine article or an employee newsletter and thought: “Heck, I could do better than that.”

Maybe you’re right.

That’s not enough.

It’s likely that the magazine editor assigned that article to a merely competent writer –  who also filed the story early, met the requested word count, and made all the changes the editor demanded without complaint.

People like to work with… people they like to work with.

Now, coming from me, that’s pretty rich.

One of the reasons I’m a freelance writer is that, frankly, I don’t “play well with others.” I am too introverted, tactless, demanding, opinionated, and “masculine” to fit in with today’s feminized workplace — a pink and purple extravaganza of giggling, weekly birthday parties, crying-in-the-bathroom, “diversity training,” “team building,” and boring baby pictures/anecdotes — everything, it seems, except actual work.

And today, “fitting in” with the company “culture” (of bridal showers and non-stop conversations about food and “stupid husbands”) is prioritized over competence and intelligence.

Yet somehow, even a curmudgeon like me can manage to remain polite, helpful, and engaged for the length of that email or phone call with a client.

So just imagine how impressed they’ll be with a genuinely nice person like you!

You may be the finest prose stylist in the English language, and a veritable font of creative ideas. You may be an expert in your field, or a clever, well-read generalist.

However, if — just as an example — you bitch (aloud) when a client decides they want to change back to the version they just changed yesterday (and the day before that), your clients and editors will tire of your diva-dom (yes, to them, you’re the diva…) and replace you with a mediocre yet reliable writer instead.

Temperament matters as much as talent, if not more so.

# 4 – The one thing no one else will tell you

Now I’m about to tell you something that you won’t read in any other “how to be a freelancer” article, ever.

It’s mean and nasty — and it’s true. It may be the best piece of all-around work-related advice you’ll ever get:

Don’t be “the one with all the problems.”

Clients will pretend to be understanding when your grandmother is dying or your kids are sick and/or running around screaming in the background or the power went out across your city for 12 hours.

But they really don’t care.

They have deadlines and budgets and bosses and customers and clients (and problems) of their own.

When my father died, my old boss in book publishing asked me sheepishly, mid-hug, how long I’d be out of town for the funeral. After all, we did have a sixty page Christmas catalog to get out….

When my mother died, I went back to her apartment after making the funeral arrangements, got out my notes, dialed the phone, and interviewed a big-time author for a major daily paper, as I’d been assigned to do the week before.

Never miss a deadline. I know I have once or twice but I must’ve repressed the memory.

Your “brilliant” article or web copy or brochure text is completely and utterly useless until it arrives in your editor’s or designer’s or client’s inbox.

Until then, it may as well not exist. Freelancing is binary: all or nothing.

Even on his deathbed, Christopher Hitchens met deadlines.

Yes, he probably had an assistant (or two), not to mention a wife and a coterie of understanding friends and editors.

He also had cancer.

So you’ll need a better excuse than that.

(P.S.: Own two newish computers that worked fine the last time you used them.

(I don’t mean “have access to one at your mom’s house or at the library,” either. Your mom’s house and/or the library could burn down tomorrow or be inaccessible by road during a blizzard.

(“My computer just crashed” is also not your client’s fault, and you will be seen as — say it with me now — “the one with all the problems.”)

# 3 – Know your rates

It’s always better to quote a high rate and risk losing a potential client than low ball the quote, get the job — then find yourself trapped in project-creep hell with a persnickety client, and ending up making the equivalent of less than minimum wage when the project is (finally) over.

The cheaper the client, the more demanding they are.

My $75/hour clients tend to approve the very first version of everything I send them, thank me profusely, pay me immediately, and hire me again.

Clients I’ve taken on for far less (because I’ve felt desperate — or sorry for them) ALWAYS want more changes, more words, more pages, more of my time on the phone, more everything.

Eventually, I (politely) fire clients like that.  Inevitably, they are replaced almost immediately by more professional ones with larger budgets (and brains).

Now let’s get pragmatic:

The best “how much should I charge” web-based resources for writers, editors, consultants — pretty much anybody who works with words, which these days is… pretty much anybody — are here, here, here, hereand here.

The best all-around resource for starting out cold as a freelance corporate/commercial writer (as opposed to a magazine freelancer, which is a mug’s game that’s practically extinct anyhow) is Peter Bowerman’s Well-Fed Writer series.

(I know: the artwork on his website is corny. However, this is one time not to trust your instincts on that front, because Bowerman’s advice is solid and his newsletter is amazing.)

Even if you aren’t a writer, Bowerman’s stuff provides valuable insights into how businesses are really run, and how hiring and budgeting decisions are made. The success stories sent in by newbie and veteran freelancers are packed with “takeaways” about marketing yourself, too.

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All Comments   (6)
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You're taking this WAY to seriously. Star Wars is a kid's movie. Its not supposed to be realistic, its supposed to be fun....and its a ton of fun. Who cares if they have ray guns and sound in space? What counts is that they blast the bad guys to smithereens. Besides, who can resist Carrie Fisher in a metal bikini? You don't like George Lucas? Yeah, I bet he's weeping about that every time he looks at his bank statement. Get over yourself and stop whining about other people.
44 weeks ago
44 weeks ago Link To Comment
The FIRST Star Wars released is the only one worth watching... right from "empire" it was a merchandising machine that lost all appeal....

And Carrie was scrawny and loose in that bikini....too much weight loss too fast to be "sl*t-hot" by Hollywood standards, rather than showcase her natural beauty....that wholesome round-faced, almost Motherly Beauty she had with her hair down in the Medal Ceremony after destroying the first Death Star, is by far the loveliest moment of The Princess on screen.
44 weeks ago
44 weeks ago Link To Comment
All of them are merchandising machines. Its kiddie entertainment, that's the point. My dad, and every other kid his age, had a Davy Crockett coon skin cap.....Star Wars is no different.

Scrawny? What, is this fat acceptance week? You can have Lena Dunham, I'll take Slave-Girl Leia any day of the week. I'll pass on motherly beauty, it does nothing for me. I like em slender, young, and underdressed.
44 weeks ago
44 weeks ago Link To Comment
OK, Kathy...

For all the reasons you mention, "star wars" (notice the lower case?) as it became a Social Phenomenon, does indeed suck, and in a rather embarrassing way for those of us who saw it in its first release, BUT….

The First (and, IMHO, only one worth watching) Original Release was a PHENOMENAL Motion Picture in and of itself. I’m sorry you slept through it. I'm sorry you weren’t old enough to see it before knowing nearly all about it. It was ruined for you, already a cliché before the theater darkened that night, and that my dear, is a very sad thing…

Because, for a certain generation of Adventurous Boys, ones who’s Dads and Uncles were in WW-2, kids who built endless models of Spitfires and Messerschmitt’s believing The Battle of Britain was the ultimate in manly, righteous chivalry, kids who ran home after school to watch Steve McQueen OWN those freaking Krauts (even after he got caught, AGAIN!) in “The Great Escape” playing on the 4:30 movie, like, three times a year for a decade…..

Well, for us, Star Wars (caps this time, sugar!) was THE culmination of every hero-fantasy we ever imagined, and by God, it was OURS. Not in black and white, not John Wayne on a horse, not some “tail end of the studio era” re-run of a movie that was originally released the year before we were even born….No. This one was Ours. Today. And it was GOOD.

Because it was, for one gleaming moment, a vision of who we KNEW we were supposed to be, reflected back at us for the first time, in REAL-time…

Cocky, idealistic, proud of our heritage, brave…militaristic in the POSITIVE sense, fighting the Krauts AND the Hessians all at once as Home-Spun Patriots taking to arms, but with Starships and Blasters instead of Muskets and Mustangs…

Star Trek was wierd, we didnt quite get it...Set for Stun, and The Prime Directive..who are the bad guys, are you going to kill these aliens or not? WTF are you DOING there in the FIRST place!?!

No, Star Wars was different...It was all of our fathers and big-brothers heroics transformed FOR US, even AHEAD of us, in a way we already understood, but though was only in the past…battles we never would be allowed to face, reduced to pretending to BE our fathers, when we knew we never could…No, Star Wars gave us a vision of Ourselves, Brave Into the Coming Future, and it was GOOD.

It was indescribably awesome to see in its original release, in a REAL theater, way before Darth and Luke and the Droids became embarrassing merchandise for effeminate geeks…right from that first opening scene (Oh. My. GOD! How big is that thing!?) to the fast-paced final battle, we saw who we could be, tomorrow…

Technically skillful AND Physically capable of necessary, righteous violence, with clear confidence to judge good from evil, to CHOOSE the right side, and to nobly face the possibility of Death, with Honor.

The Blessed Spitfire, that sacred ghost of a past we could not be worthy of, was an X-wing…. and the future would wait for us to fly her, in OUR time, we could fight evil, and too, be MEN.

Amazing stuff for a 12 year old, growing up in That Last Twilight of Real American Boyhood, between the Shadow of Viet Nam and The Dawn of The Nanny State….

Pity my son will never know of such things.

44 weeks ago
44 weeks ago Link To Comment
The Root 83. That was an awesome post my friend. I completely agree with the sentiment, although for me that experience came from a different source. Ms. S. perhaps can't really understand this, tis a boy thing. FWIW I lived near an RAF base in 1972 and I can tell you that the memeory of the Spitfire was alive in the minds of many young English boys: when I saw one in the Imperal War Museum, I could think of NOTHING better than flying that thing over France and blasting away at the Messerschmidts.
44 weeks ago
44 weeks ago Link To Comment
Thank you, Eightrock

What that film WAS and what it BECAME are so tragically opposite it makes me weep. I just tried to watch The Original with my own son for the first time on DVD, and the clumsy sacrilege of the Lucas Ego has utterly ruined it.

We will see no more of this franchise in our household....

Spits, Hurricanes, Mosquito's, Lancasters, I built them all...and lets not forget the Swordfish pilots who crippled the Bismarck...if ever a tiny fleet was sent to battle The Death Star, it was they...and you do know much of the "combat dialog" in S.W. was straight from "the Dam Busters" right?
44 weeks ago
44 weeks ago Link To Comment
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