A lot of ink has been spilled about freelance journalism recently. After the USA Today-ish Sports on Earth implemented staff layoffs, Deadspin writer emeritus Drew Magary (now of GQ) most notably took his turn:
[Freelancing] is the little roller coaster you stay on for years and years until someone rescues you, because a full-time job offer is almost an act of charity in modern America. Or you never get rescued at all. You just hustle and hustle and hustle and hustle, until you can’t hustle anymore.
Magary knows. Despite being a name even casual journalism observers may recognize, it took him eight years of freelancing (simultaneously in journalism and advertising) to find a full-time opportunity. And the truth is freelancing, maybe journalism as a whole, can be immensely challenging. Large portions of it are spent being rejected—your sloppy prose is sent back for revisions; your job applications and pitches are ignored (not even rejected). The industry at large is notoriously nervous, as news about layoffs seems to come at regular intervals. Clear career ladders don’t exist; older journalists can forever hold positions you want and your peers (or folks even a few years younger) rise to notoriety within and beyond the craft in ways that seem impossible. Outlets you perceive as beneath you will pass; some you can’t imagine returning an e-mail will respond out of the blue. Real-world journalism simply doesn’t make as much sense as the concept did in a classroom or campus newsroom.
Even after two years of freelancing, some answers will emerge. But in no way, shape or form does a clear strategy or path really surface. That’s coming from one of the lucky ones—someone with a 9-to-5 that provides reasonable security and OK pay. Even in this situation, it’s necessary to supplement by writing more on the side (because what journalist in their late 20s is saying,” Actually, I’m quite comfortable. No thanks”—Pablo Torre? Rembert? Again, don’t ever look up the ages of more established peers.)
Beyond the hazy logistics, the other extreme freelance frustration is the lack of feedback. On a microlevel that involves editors who need a continuous flow of copy and may not have time to go through a draft (let alone drafts) with writers. But it’s also difficult to know if you’re freelancing well. The criteria looks different for every writer—is “success” the total number of assignments? Is it a story with a really notable outlet? Is it finding the most bang for your buck (the elusive favorable word rate)?
In the hopes of finding some metric that can help determine “is this working?,” it was time to apply the most basic and generous measure of success from the sports world—batting average.
Batting average simplified is the number of successes (hits) divided by the total opportunities (times you step to the plate or plate appearance). So a freelancing average could be the same thing—successes (the total number of stories written) divided by the total opportunities (number of stories pitched). As an added bonus, both prominently involve pitching and searching for hits (ask a writer, having something hit the front page of reddit will sound like the same adrenaline rush as a late inning homerun).
Logistically, no writing or pitching done for a day job should be calculated (it would undoubtedly bump the average up even for those lucky enough to work in a position without writing quotas). No stories pitched in 2013 but published in 2014 factor in; the same goes for pieces that went live in 2013 but earned inevitably late paychecks.
With those caveats, my freelancing average is .316 through eight months of 2014. That’s Todd Helton’s career figure. He’s probably not a Hall of Famer, but it’s a borderline case. Helton’s definitely a jersey-retired-by-the-team type of guy. Encouraging, right?
That .316 is built off 79 total pitches, or slightly more than nine per month. If it takes 15 minutes to craft a pitch (likely a horrible underestimate, considering you need to follow ongoing news, research your idea, research the publication’s preferences and style, find contacts if it’s an outlet you haven’t worked with, write the pitch… inevitably wait two weeks and follow-up on the pitch), that’s an extra 2.5 hours of work per month before stories are assigned.
If you’ve been calculating, a .316 success rate from 79 pitches means 25 stories published so far. That’s slightly more than three additional pieces per month. For a time estimate, let’s assign two hours to each of those (again, likely an underestimate—research, scheduling interviews, conducting interviews, transcribing, writing, revising, possibly handling additional multimedia). It’s an extra six hours per month.
So for an unrealistically low 8.5 hours per month, you can freelance at a .316 clip. But in freelancing, productivity may only be as good as your rates. One 300 word article can take just as long as another, but factors such as print versus web or Q&A versus a review could impact the value for certain outlets. And when dividing my total freelance income by those 25 pieces… it comes out to $101.96 per article. (Note: only dig further for per word rates if you’re feeling masochistic.)
If we assume it takes three hours to go from pitch (1/3 are successful, 15 minutes per) to story (two hours for reporting to submitting), that’s well worth the time on an hourly rate. But if trying to stretch that freelancing rate full-time? Well, $30/hr for 40 hours per week is nice… but is it realistic to keep .319 up? If going 3/9 takes eight hours now, could that become15/45 per 40-hour week or 60/180 for the month? O_O
For now, .319 feels good. It reaffirms some ability in a variety of different roles—the men’s magazines, the tech pubs, food and drink reviews, music blogs and whoever will accept obscure pop culture. That variety may never pay the bills on its own, but freelancing what you’re interested in (rather than pushing for numbers—mostly financial, not total bylines) could lead to better stories, which leads to better clips, which theoretically leads to opportunities (if people ever return those e-mails… maybe that happens during an elusive .400 season).