This week’s interviewees give us a behind-the-scenes perspective on freelance writing, working with PR pros and what craft beers to keep an eye out for. They hale from Ohio University and have close ties with Soda Pop PR owner, Dyan Dolfi-Offutt, also a graduate from OU. So, sit back, relax, and take some time to meet Jen and Joe – seasoned full-time freelance writers, great friends, and a wonderful couple.
1. How long have you been freelancing and how did you get your start?
May will mark my eight-year anniversary as a freelancer—it is hard to believe I have been self-employed for that long! I’ve been on somewhat of a long and winding professional journey (I often joke that I’ve had “nine career lives”), but the short version is that after graduating from Ohio University with a magazine journalism degree, I ended up working in film and television production for about seven years in various capacities. However, on the side, I was putting my degree to good use freelancing for various publications! In 2005, when the show I was working on got cancelled, I happened to have a lot of side writing work going on. I decided I would freelance “just for the summer”…and here we are eight years later. It is a challenging job, but I wouldn’t trade it!
I have freelanced three different times since college, with the most recent stretch starting in 2011. The first two times I chose to freelance, but this most recent time I had freelancing thrust upon me. I wrote about that wonderful experience here. Yeah, I was laid off. That’s how so many freelancing careers begin. But it’s one of those things that worked out for the best, as I’ve learned much from my first two attempts and have gotten to write for some great publications.
2. What are the most important qualities/strengths one would need to become a successful freelance journalist?
One of the top attributes is having the desire and capacity to “hustle!” Being a freelance writer is truly a 24/7 endeavor that can often feel like a treadmill—you’re always on the move looking for ideas, networking, writing, meeting deadlines and revising. It can be tiring, so it’s crucial to be someone that thrives off of that type of workload and energy. It’s also important to be conscious of time management and how you spend your time. Every hour counts when you are generating all of your own income. Other qualities that matter: being curious, taking pride in your work, meeting deadlines (or being upfront when you can’t), and having an eye for great story ideas.
In no particular order: good ideas, a solid network of editors and writers, PR contacts, thick skin for all the rejections, the ability to see an editor’s needs beyond your own concerns and talent, obviously. If you have a supportive spouse, that goes a long way as well. I’m lucky I do.
3. We’re sure that you receive a ton of pitches, invites and press releases from publicists. Can you share your do’s and don’ts of pitching?
I have a bit of a guilt complex, as my inbox is often flooded with press releases and other communication from PR people. During busy weeks or months, it can be hard for me to read all of them, let alone respond. I find that personal, targeted emails are more likely to grab my attention. If someone takes the time to reach out to me with an idea aimed at one of the publications I write for frequently, I feel more compelled to consider the pitch. I find that great collaborations most often come from meeting publicists in person – a lunch or coffee meeting can be so productive and you can truly develop a mutually beneficial relationship.
One of my top pitching pet peeves is off-topic pitches. I can’t tell you how many times I post a HARO query and get numerous pitches that have nothing to do with my story (aka mosquito repellent being the perfect Mother’s Day gift). I understand that you have a client and a product to represent and it’s your job to gain placement, but it is not a productive use of either person’s time to try to shoehorn something into a story that’s not relevant.
Beyond spelling my name right and knowing who I write for, if you’re going to pitch a story, make it one that you the PR pro would want to read whether you’re the media consumer representing this client or not. Put yourself in a journalist’s shoes and ask, “What is interesting about my client or product X and why would people want to read about that?” If you come to me with a solid story idea in hand–one that’s not all puppies and sunshine, but that is actually interesting–you have my attention.
4. How do you think online publications and blogs have changed freelance journalism?
There have been both positive and negative repercussions from the explosion of online outlets. Some writers believe it has devalued what we do, as online rates typically pay about one-third or less of what print publications do; also, the proliferation of content mills has made the waters murky as far as quality content. However, there are so many more opportunities for writers now, and I believe it is easier to position yourself as an expert in a certain sector. If you are a cocktail writer, you can brand yourself as such with a dedicated blog, social media and by contributing to various websites in that realm. That can be invaluable when you are pitching an idea to a print publication and they see that you have a strong presence/knowledge base that would appeal to their readers. I write for both online and print outlets, and I find they both have their perks and pitfalls!
Those are two different things, so I’ll address them separately. Blogs are great. I’ve received jobs and clients because of my blogs. My thinking with my blogs is, if I can’t sell it, and I’m dying to see it in print, I blog it. And if I’m blogging it, it means I’m passionate about it, and my work will be really good, which is why people respond to it. I think everyone in media should have a blog, if only as a platform for sharing their passions beyond a 140-character tweet. Online publications are a mixed bag. On the one hand, they’re good because there are now more opportunities than ever for writers to get published. The downside is that the freelance budgets are small, so it’s hard — some say impossible — to make a decent living as an online freelance writer. Many freelance writers are subsidized by full-time jobs, parents, spouses, etc. You do it as a lifestyle choice, not money. This is both rewarding and frustrating, as you could imagine.
5. Seeing that both of you are OU alumni, we know you love great beer. What are some of your favorite craft breweries?
Here in LA, I’m a big fan of Golden Road! It was co-founded by a dynamic 20something female, Meg Gill, and I love the energy and vibe at the brewery. I’m also a big fan of Eagle Rock Brewery and Strand Brewing (the owner went to OU!). In truth, I’m more of a wine girl at heart, but there’s something about a cold, tasty beer that will always keep me coming back for more. Joe and I are actually headed to Athens, OH, in June for Ohio Brew Week and we are counting down the days! You can read an article I wrote on craft beer for LA Confidential here.
You know us too well. Jackie O’s in Athens, Ohio makes a great OPA–that’s an Ohio IPA. I am also a fan of Great Lakes Burning River Pale Ale from Cleveland. As far as California beers go, I’ll take almost anything from Stone, Sierra Nevada or Lagunitas.