Cheeseburger Gothic

How to be a freelancer v.1

Posted August 10, 2012 by John Birmingham
Ask Jon Gruber of Daring Fireball what it takes to be a successful blogger and he'll give you three tips. You need a fancy way to make coffee, lots and lots of coffee; over-carbonated water from your own soda stream; and a clicky keyboard. I have managed only one of these. The coffee.

I bring up Gruber's Three Commandments because I've been asked over on Twitter to write something about How to Be a Freelancer, and a lot of people, especially baby freelancers, tend to conflate blogging with freelancing. They appear to be similar, and they're certainly related, but they're not the same thing. Not by a fucking longshot.

[caption id="attachment_3689" align="alignright" width="266" caption="Mr Birmingham, I represent the slouchbike division of GlobalOmniHyper Corp and we'd like to discuss developing a relationship with you."][/caption]

So let's get the blogging thing out of the way. You want millions of hits and banner ads out the wazoo? You want mendacious spin doctors from massive PR firms trying to corrupt you with kickbacks and payoffs and freebies? You want top political insiders knocking on your back door with exclusive insider stuff? Titans of industry parking brand-new Lamborghinis on your front lawn and walking away, leaving the keys in the ignition, with a wink and a nudge?

It's yours, baby. And all you need is a fancy way to make coffee, super carbonated water, and a clicky keyboard.

Freelancing, however, that's a tougher gig. I'd add ‘increasingly so’, but things always feel like they are increasingly difficult, don't they?

So that's the first question you have to ask yourself, I guess. Do I even want this gig? Is it too tough for me?

Some perspective, unavoidably personal. I freelanced, almost entirely for magazines, for 10 years before Felafel was published. I was pretty good at it. One of the best, actually. I'm not pounding my own pudding here. I'm telling you this for a reason. At the height of my freelancing powers, when I was a contributing editor at Penthouse, Playboy, Rolling Stone and Inside Sport, and a contributor at about half a dozen other titles, I was trousering about twelve grand a year.

Not a princely sum, was it?

After Felafel, when my byline became a commodity, that jumped up some and never went back down again. But not everybody gets to write a book like that, and even if they do there is no guarantee it's going to sell. Luck plays a huge part.

So what else has changed in the intervening years? Well, Google has eaten our business model and the print media appears to be in a death spiral. That can't be good for freelancers, right?

No and yes.

Magazines and newspapers are going out of business at an accelerated rate. (They've always gone out of business, often very quickly, like most businesses do. The difference now is that the old established media houses are crumbling away as well).

It's not all bad news, however. New magazines are constantly opening, new distribution channels are emerging online, and yes, self-publishing is becoming an option in a way that it simply wasn't before.

[caption id="attachment_3698" align="alignleft" width="239" caption="Omigod why, WHY did I agree to moderate Andrew Bolt's comments?"][/caption]

Downsizing within the print media industry is also something of a left-handed gift for freelancers. For starters, we're cheap. Or at least cheaper than full-time staff. Freelancers do piecework. Publications pay only for the words and images they buy. They don't pay any on-costs such as sick leave, holiday pay, superannuation, income tax, training, and, increasingly, expenses associated with research. The freelancer covers all that stuff herself. We are the Indian call center operators of the media world. Or maybe the million monkey's in Rupert Murdoch's basement. (Update. Massive layoffs rumored for NewsCorp monkey division).

What this means is that while full-time jobs are disappearing at a scarifying rate, the low status, uncertain, poorly world of freelancing is going from strength to… err… strength.

There are hundreds of magazines and trade publications, niche titles, which have not been bent over a barrel by Google. They still need regular copy. They still pay. And mostly they don't have large full-time staff to generate content. They buy it in as piecework just like they always have.

(One of the interesting things about Fairfax is that huge swathes of the business are still very, very profitable.The trade press publications and regional media titles all make good coin. The broadsheets, not so much.)

So, assuming there is money out there to be earned as a freelancer, how do you get in for your chop?

Well here's a tired old story, you start at the bottom and work your way up, son. As it ever was, as it ever will be.

If there is one caveat to that, I'd say that in the modern, post-Google world of publishing, you should start to specialize much earlier than I did. (Yeah, I specialize. Stop sniggering. Sports writing and food. Two specialty subjects of mine, which I often write about as a mere drone, selling the copy rather than my byline.)

The future of publishing lies in figuring out what people will pay for. That might seem a fatuous statement, but it's not. In the good old days we didn't actually have to worry about that sort of thing. Because we had a monopoly over print advertising it subsidized the indulgences of writers and editors.We'd just write about the stuff that interested us and assumed a readership would follow. That's no longer the case. People will pay for content, but only the content that they'll pay for, if you get my meaning.

General news, for instance, fuggedabouddit! If you can get the information free, online, you're not going to hand over the folding stuff. But niche content, especially quality assured niche content, yeah, you can still make some scratch off that.

My advice to baby freelancers, then, would be as it always has been, with a tweak. Write, write, write. Write about anything and everything at every opportunity you get. But find a couple of areas about which you can accumulate some expertise and start learning the shit out of them. You have to be able to do something that 99% of other people cannot do. You have to be able to deliver something they cannot hope to deliver to an editor who's buying the story, and beyond him or her, a readership who'll pay for it.

It's not about the art or the craft, it's not about the grand traditions of the written word, or the existential freedom of cutting your own path, it's about getting paid. Never forget that.

Where do you start? Where do you find your first payday?

[caption id="attachment_3694" align="alignright" width="160" caption="No. Not for you, I'm afraid."][/caption]

In the newsagent, for now. I mean this, take yourself off down to the newsagent right now before their business model collapses too. (Most news agencies now make most of their profits from lottery tickets and cigarettes. You can see where this is going.) Check out the surviving magazines on the rack. Any in there that catch your eye? Okay, forget about writing for The New Yorker or Cigar Aficionado or even Frankie at this point. They are beyond you. But some of the smaller, more obscure fringe publications are not. They do pay, mostly, if poorly. And they are still looking for freelance copy.

[caption id="attachment_3695" align="alignleft" width="216" caption="Ah! Yes, that's more like it!"][/caption]

Choose your target. Grab twelve months worth of back issues from the library. Study them. Get to know this publication. Build up a profile of the editors obsessions. They all have 'em. Familiarize yourself with the house style. Try hard to imagine what a future edition might look like. Those are the stories you're going to be pitching.

How do you make that pitch? Check the front of the magazine. Somewhere up there you'll find a panel listing the names of the editorial staff, the publishing company, and contact details for both.There may even be a line or two about freelance submissions.

If there is a deputy editor, I'd pitch to them. It's just a trick I picked up over the years. The editor is often buried under production deadlines. The deputy editor, or features editor if such a thing should still exist, is less likely to forget or ignore your pitch.

The pitch itself should be less than 100 words whether delivered by phone, e-mail, fax, whatever.If you can't summarize your idea that briefly, you haven't thought it through properly. In fact 100 words is probably way too much in the age of Twitter.

If they're interested they'll ask you to send something through. That doesn't mean they've commissioned you. It doesn't mean they're going to pay you anything. It doesn't mean if you run up any expenses researching and writing this thing you can expect to have them paid. It just means they'll have a look at your stuff. If you're starting out in the game, that should be enough for you. There are ways to cast your net even wider. There are many, many more magazines published each week than you will find at your local newsagent. Most of them are listed in media guides such as The Australian Writers Marketplace published by  the Queensland writer's center. All the information you need, not just to be a freelancer, but to be a working writer of any kind, you'll find here. I can't stress enough how useful a publication like this is for someone just starting out in the game. Hell, it's useful to someone like me. So you probably can't afford to be without it. Besides listing hundreds of publications that pay for content it also has details of industry organizations, agents, publishing services, literary courses, writing competitions and awards and grants, publishing houses and markets for specialist material such as travel, illustration and design, and even poetry.

Get a copy, choose your markets, learn about them, and start working them like a motherfucker. You'll want to give yourself a couple of years to build up your business to the point where it actually pays your bills. I gave myself five years, it took about three.But remember even at the height my freelance output before falafel, I just wasn't earning that much money. It was only after I published that book that I was able to turn my name into something editors bought instead of the copy I was offering.

This brings us circling back to the subject of blogging and electronic publication in general. This of course is the major change to the industry since I started. For both good and ill effect.

There is another whole essay to be written on the role of blogging in the professional life of a freelance writer. But this writer has other deadlines to tend to, so you'll have to wait for my thoughts on that.

 

49 Responses to ‘How to be a freelancer v.1’

Paul Nicholas Boylan mumbles...

Posted August 10, 2012
You had me at fatuous.

But seriously, what an awful job you describe. High effort with no assurance of any reward whatsoever. The more I learn about the real world of professional writing, the more I admire those who actually do it, while being utterly grateful I chose a slightly different path. Perhaps the best thing that ever happened to me is not having a story within me that is burning to be told.

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Chaz reckons...

Posted August 10, 2012
Excellent piece

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Barnesm mumbles...

Posted August 10, 2012
"Update. Massive layoffs rumored for NewsCorp monkey division" at least until they turn out that copy of Shakespeare.

That's sounds like a solid intro to the subject, but not being a freelancer I have no idea how accurate but you certainly have the record to show you have accomplished it. The most heartbreaking part of it is how you say even doing everything right it can come down to a piece of 'luck'. That's not right, every story ever written and hero's journey made on the screen tell us that if you work hard, have talent and never give up on your dream then you'll succeed and get the brass ring, the girl, the job, the gloating over the falling bodies of those who mocked you? Are you saying all these stories lied Brimingham?

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DrYobbo ducks in to say...

Posted August 10, 2012
What PNB said. It's even uglier than SCIENTS, because at this stage it's still not possible to be scooped by a home-office warrior with a PC2 lab in his bedroom.

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Surtac ducks in to say...

Posted August 10, 2012
Very good piece indeed.

The other piece I'd recommend to budding creative types is Neil Gaiman's commencement speech at the University of the Arts. Here's a link:

http://vimeo.com/uartsphilly/neil-gaiman-addresses-the-university-of-the-arts-class-of-2012

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pitpat ducks in to say...

Posted August 10, 2012
I am looking for tiny amounts of gold in an expanse greater than the area of Brisbane and Ipswich combined. In the course of a fairly chequered career I've had over 30 jobs/contracts through differnt employers some who paid well some paid peanuts. There is no job security and so far have been through three busts where work stoppped coming in virtually overnight but in comparison to what you've just described its a freakin doddle and I glad I don't have to write for a living.

Two sayings I use are : 'Lucks a fortune' and

" The more I practice the luckier I get"- jack Nickalus

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Naut mutters...

Posted August 10, 2012
Or write Mummy porn with vampires.

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John Birmingham is gonna tell you...

Posted August 10, 2012
Yes, there is that, Naut.

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HAVOCK21 is gonna tell you...

Posted August 10, 2012
and a few explosions Naut and I think the demographic might expand again!

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EveryDayMan puts forth...

Posted August 10, 2012
Holy shite JB. The timing of this is incredible. Just last night I was thinking could I give freelance writing a go instead of my current deadend, largely thanks to CanDo, public service job. Perhaps the universe is trying to tell me something in offering me your eternal pearls of wisdom on the subject.

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insomniac mumbles...

Posted August 10, 2012
i don't have it within me either to be a writer because i can't stands a clicky keyboard, although if there's a publication called Chai Latte Sipping Patent Searchers Weekly, i'm there

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Murphy ducks in to say...

Posted August 10, 2012
Hmm, this probably works in Australia, but I wonder if it works Stateside?

I did some freelance work for local shopper papers, two or three stories, made twenty to thirty bucks per and then that dried up right about the turn of the century. I was building toward trying the same thing with the main local paper only to find that since I didn't have a BA in Journalism I could forget about it. Applied for work with the alternatives like The Pitch, no go.

I did write for a year with the campus paper at UMKC and made decent money for college pocket change. I nearly got onto the campus radio station as one of their food critics when someone else wasn't available. Unfortunately, the timing wasn't right and the opportunity was missed.

One could write reviews in the science fiction field but those are mainly done by bloggers now for free. The one upside of those free reviews is that they can lead to developing connections which might lead to other work.

Otherwise, here in the States, they seem to want it for free or next to free.

Respects,

Murph

On the Outer Marches

P.S. Definitely have the clickety-click-click keyboard. It is Da Bomb!

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NBlob ducks in to say...

Posted August 10, 2012
Damn & Blast it JB.

You told me years ago : step 1 secure fabulous and embarrasingly succesful partner. Step 2 encourage Him / Her / Them to do PostGrad. Then step 3 was something along the lines of "Who cares how you spend your day, pulling bongs & PS3, pretending to develop a writing career, open an art gallery or whatever. You're immensely& eye wateringly rich, who cares?"

So I've slavishly followed your advice, and look where it gets me? - cold, wet & stinking of mullet.

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Brian mumbles...

Posted August 10, 2012
NBOB

You missed beautiful in 'fabulous and embarassingly . .' . Got to use the full quote, lest JB's life gets sorta . . .complicated.

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pi reckons...

Posted August 10, 2012
Great piece. Begads that all sounds like hard work. The young gal will find it very interesting, as she's currently studying film and television at uni, and is doing a minor in journalism. Being a fan of your books, she might even take the time to read what you've written, even if it was passed on by me... maybe. 12,000 a year? She'd probably be thinking... "awesome".

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Quokka swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted August 10, 2012
Ah, Nbob.

You had me at Mullet.

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Blindwilly ducks in to say...

Posted August 10, 2012
Sounds like my life - except I got into the niche game early on and have managed to hang around the space so that people know me well enough that I can make the calls and pitch for work. Still the money sounds the same as described.

The only word of warning I have for baby freelancers is to pick a niche you are still going to like in a few years. Not much point writing about stuff you can't stand - unless it pays an absolute motza and then you will find you can write about any old shite.

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Paul Nicholas Boylan mutters...

Posted August 10, 2012
I know I will regret admitting this, but I have this idea for an alt history novel wherein I ask and attempt to answer the question "how different would things have been if, when Pizzaro invaded Peru, he discovered that the Incas had television?" My novel will champion the hypothesis that, if the Incas had television, then world history would have turned out to be quite different than we know it today.

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Blindwilly puts forth...

Posted August 10, 2012
PNB

I would read that all the while asking/ignoring the question of how the Incas got television well before the antecedent technology required to make television, but that's the fun of alt history, right?

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Paul Nicholas Boylan mutters...

Posted August 10, 2012
No, not really. That's sort of where the concept falls apart.

I said I had an idea. I didn't say it was a good idea.

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Paul Nicholas Boylan ducks in to say...

Posted August 10, 2012
Ideas are easy. Good ideas - not as easy.

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HAVOCK mumbles...

Posted August 10, 2012
Sept for gods!

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Paul Nicholas Boylan mutters...

Posted August 10, 2012
So says a god. Mere mortals, not so much.

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Anna has opinions thus...

Posted August 10, 2012
I thank you for your wisdom sir.

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Peteb mutters...

Posted August 10, 2012
niche is right, it's so small I can't find the bastard ..

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Aprill mumbles...

Posted August 10, 2012
Love it. Keep it comin'.

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alangraii puts forth...

Posted August 10, 2012
I got a freelance piece published in the early '90s. Second submission never made it to print 'cos the magazine went broke between their "Sure, send it on over!" letter (yes, letter) and me dropping it in the red box. Resubmitted elsewhere, bam, thirty bucks. Stars in eyes, dreams of glowing embossed book covers with my name. Next submission: "Return to sender." They'd gone under. And again with the next one.

Thinking of submitting to Brisbane Times next. Reckon I could take them down too.

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Orin is gonna tell you...

Posted August 10, 2012
Hit deadlines. Always hit deadlines. Those deadlines? Hit them.

Neil Gaiman said it best - you need to be able to be able to play two of the following three cards:

A) Write amazingly well

B) Be likable to your editors

C) Hit deadlines

If you can pull off all three, that's fantastic - but a lot of editors will settle for two.

Also writing in an area that other people find difficult to write in (specialization) will always put food on the table.

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John Birmingham ducks in to say...

Posted August 10, 2012
Ha! Alangraii, reminds me of my first commission by food and travel magazine. They sent me to new caledonia to review a French restaurant. I had no idea what I was doing. My notes consisted of "steak good". Luckily the magazine collapse before I had submit my story.

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John Birmingham reckons...

Posted August 10, 2012
Yeah. What Orin just said.

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JG is gonna tell you...

Posted August 10, 2012
Good advice, JB. You have to be driven to freelance. I did it for a couple of years after finishing my Master's degree in writibg, editing, and publishing from UQ. While good money can be made from work--ie a great hourly rate--I didn't enjoy the uncertainty of having no work between gigs.

I worked for a few publishers doing online writing and editing work, but both ended after a short time. One place had the writers returning from hols, and the other decided to employ a full-time graduate with marketing quals.

What I'm saying is that freelancing work is piecemeal. I enjoyed the freedom, but I wouldn't do it long term. It's no way to make a decent living, unless you like the uncertainty and challenges.

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JG reckons...

Posted August 10, 2012
^Another freelance job in publishing ended shy of three months. Don't count on freelancing as secure work. It ain't.

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Dark Matter Fanzine has opinions thus...

Posted August 10, 2012
Thanks for the pointers, I'll follow through on that. I've applied to a few places and never heard back. I know I need to put more time and effort in, but I feel like I'm being torn in 100 different directions at once; I need more focus.

What I object to is that people assume I'm raking in the money, when in actual fact my blogging and website cost me money. The only 'freebies' I get are books to review and the occasional media pass, none of which actually cover my expenses when, for example, I attend launches to take photos, write them up and promote someone else's product for free. Don't get me wrong, I'm supportive of the local guys and I realise that a lot of the local stuff I support doesn't make money - or not much money - but I get comments and vibes about me rolling in dough when I have not received even $0.01 for advertising. Attending events, even with a media pass, costs me $$ for travel, eating away from home, camera equipment, internet quota etc. I'd like it if my contribution to local culture wasn't taken for granted. Instead I recently saw someone giving a shout out to what they described as 'Australia's only geek culture magazine' that requires $10,000 crowdfunding to get off the ground - what am I, chopped liver? Or don't I count because I'M A WOMAN? The other guys were exactly that, guys. Grr.

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harryfiddler reckons...

Posted August 10, 2012
Spot on JB, spot on Orin. Write on brief, on deadline, on word limit and you're 75% there. Write beautifully as well, and you're looking good. The more specialised you are, the more you can charge (but the smaller the market). Don't stop writing and don't forget to send your invoice. I love freelancing, but it's not for everyone. You have to be driven, and you have to enjoy and use the adrenalin of a deadline.

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Abe Frellman ducks in to say...

Posted August 10, 2012
Nice one JB. Would love to read more along these lines.

I have flirted with the idea of doing a bit on the side since the editor of a trade mag sounded me out to write under a pseudonym. Haven't really taken it seriously because I have a full time (exclusive) gig here at the sausage factory. The main thing holding me back is that I suspect she is after my secret recipes and they kind of belong to the sausage factory, because I am nothing if not a company man.

Anyway, one thing i think that put me on her radar was that while I know my stuff, I have always been generous with my time to her and her staff reporters, which speaks to one of Orin's points.

The other thing I did was to write a spoof interview of myself that took the piss royally out of a few competitors and sent it to her for fun, written in the style of her mag (and in as close to her own 'voice' as I could manage). It's a small market and, as with many aspects of Australian society, my Qld-based smallgood competitors are rather infamous and well known for their arsehattery, so they received the royal treatment in this spoof. Anyway, she loved it so much she tried to sign me up on the spot.

So the lessons I learned by accident are: cultivate good working relationships, as they might come in handy; know the style of the mag - each will have one - and at the risk of being a leeeetle sneaky, read the mag until you can recognize the writers by their voice. Then when you write your freeby copy for them, see if you can pull off replicating the voice back to your audience. My theory is that people like reading the same cadence as their own - it reduces the amount of doubling back and re-reading that you tend to do when your mind wanders while reading.

That's about all I know about that.

But I'd be interested in knowing whether these editor types can be trusted to keep their secret writers just that, and how would one keep them honest in that regard?

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bigAPE is gonna tell you...

Posted August 10, 2012
Annoying JB, here was me enjoying some wine and "watching" some skirt crap with the woman on the goggle box when you have to distract me and fill my brain with wise & interesting commentary on the state of online media. Stop it.

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John Birmingham is gonna tell you...

Posted August 10, 2012
Sorry BigA, go back to the skirt. And Abe, that's some fine advice.

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Barnesm asserts...

Posted August 10, 2012
Wikipedia records the first recorded written use of the term 'Freelancer' was in Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe (1820). The OED recognized it as a verb in 1903.

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Spanner swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted August 10, 2012
See this is why I likes me cushy government job.

Spanner

On ma lounge in G'bah

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jimmy swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted August 11, 2012
Well hot dog.. I've been trying to set myself up as a freelance writer for about 6 months.. and holy cow it's hard. It seems like I take 5 steps forward, then exactly 5 steps back again...

Everyone seems really interested, then I never hear back from them.. it's probably because my writing isn't good enough yet, but come on people, if you say you're interested, at least have the decency to tell me you've changed your mind so I can move on.

Serenity now!!!

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Abe Frellman mutters...

Posted August 11, 2012
Cheers.

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cottonward mutters...

Posted August 11, 2012
So true! I love journalism, but the money is plummeting for the full-timers. Hopefully this will go back up again when the new business models are discovered. *When*!

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Matt99 would have you know...

Posted August 11, 2012
I writ this about same:

http://content.mycareer.com.au/advice-research/career/follow-your-prose.aspx

FYI and for what it's worth, since all the cost-cutting on staffers, I've never made more as a freelancer than this F/Y. So slash n burn, bean counters, slash n burn.

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Shell swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted August 11, 2012
Thanks for that Jabe. Bought my copy of that book in Byron Bay which says it all really. Maybe I'm too old for this man. Oh, and I don't drink coffee. Mep, doing it anyway.

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Carlos José Pérez Sámano has opinions thus...

Posted August 13, 2012
That's what I did: "I quited my job, broke my girlfriend and sold my car. I went to África and wrote about that. Now I'm selling my book like hotcakes" Wellcome to http://facebook.com/sombraslargasafrica

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John Birmingham ducks in to say...

Posted August 13, 2012
I wish I could read Spanish, Carlos, because i'd use that as a case study for my next entry.

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Friday Fry-Up — Speakeasy asserts...

Posted August 17, 2012
[...] really like John Birmingham’s advice on How to Be a Freelancer, and not simply because he lists the Australian Writer’s Marketplace as an essential [...]

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SEO consultancy in Essex mutters...

Posted August 19, 2012
Thanks for a great source of information , as a freelance Web designer & search engine optimisation consultant i'm pleased to see a blog utilized properly

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http://www.neighborcity.com/member-profile/303343-noodleear1/ asserts...

Posted March 8, 2013
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