Bailey and Joey are supportive of my writing.

Bailey and Joey are supportive of my writing.

Writing is a solitary enterprise, which may explain the vast number of organizations dedicated to the craft. Should you join one or more? Maybe. Some writers enjoy, or even crave, the occasional company of kindred souls. Others feel no need to engage.

My experiences have been both rewarding and frustrating.

On one hand, I have met fascinating people, picked up job leads, and learned skills that make me more profitable.

On the other, some groups are more inclusive than others. Some people are downright catty. I once engaged in getting-to-know you conversation with another attendee at a gathering of journalists. In so doing, I mentioned I had freelanced for the Chicago Tribune for more than 20 years. “Boy, you’re in a rut, aren’t you?” she exclaimed. Her remark stung–I’m proud of my long-time association with the newspaper. That’s not the only reason I shortened my relationship with that organization, but it is indicative.

Different writing groups have different objectives and formats. To help you find a compatible match, here is a rundown on the various types:

* Critique groups read your work and then offer commentary and advice. Groups usually are small and meet at homes, coffee shops or libraries. You can also find critique groups online.

* Niche groups serve writers of specific genres. If your primary interest is romantic novels, for example, you may find Romance Writers of America to be more relevant than a group of generalists or nonfiction writers. Other niche organizations are the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and the National Association of Real Estate Editors.

* Professional journalism organizations often provide career development programs, networking opportunities and conferences. They sometimes sponsor service programs such as an annual communications contest for high schools or scholarships for college students. Some professional groups, such as the American Society of Journalists and Authors, have qualifying standards for new members.

* Accountability groups get down to business. Members set goals, say, sending 5 query letters each week or finishing to more chapters, before the next meeting.

* Create your own group. My favorite writing group is an assemblage of remarkable women who have become some of my dearest friends. Most of us met in a writing class at a local community college, and we decided to stay in touch. A few came along later. At first we operated as an accountability group. Now we mostly keep up on Facebook, but still get together for a pitch-in dinner once a year. We cheer each other on in all endeavors, whether a hard-won assignment, a new boyfriend or a health crisis.

* Business networking groups. When you join the Chamber of Commerce, Rotary or other community organization, you’ll be one of the few writers, perhaps the only one. Other members will be more likely to call on you rather than someone they don’t know to write their brochures, press releases and website copy. My book co-author, Jackie Walker, found me by looking up writers in the member directory of Fashion Group International, a group we both belong to.

Before you sign up, give thought to what you can give. The success of any group depends on the willingness of its members to participate in meetings, serve on committees and ultimately take leadership positions. What you get is proportional to what you put in.

I leave you with another story: A writer friend once served on the board of a professional communications organization. Years later her marriage broke up and she realized she needed to trade her freelancing lifestyle for the security of full-time employment. Another board member from that term tipped her off to an upcoming editorial opening at her company. My friend got the job before it was ever posted to the public.

I have written several stories about orchids.

I have written several stories about orchids.

One of the most difficult challenges to building a career as a freelance writer is finding assignments. You need to keep them rolling to provide a steady income.

At the beginning of my career, I had two part-time jobs: One was a fashion copywriter position for a chic department store chain. I learned about it through a newspaper Help Wanted ad. The other was a weekly column about local fashion and beauty happenings for a suburban edition of the Chicago Tribune. Before I decided to write, I worked as a fashion coordinator, trainer, model and makeup artist. The Tribune editor asked a colleague of mine to write the column. She said she was too busy and recommended me. With those gigs, I could cover my bare expenses.

Since then I have written for dozens of editors, publications, agencies and corporations. Many turned into long-term relationships. Here are some of the ways I found them–or they found me. Perhaps they will work for you:

* Going through the Yellow Pages of the Chicago telephone directory and calling every business and enterprise that might use writers. I introduced myself and asked for an appointment to show my portfolio.

* Responding to requests for writers on journalism message boards, especially those run by professional organizations.

* Pitching story ideas to editors at writers’ conferences.

* Reading industry publications to learn about new magazines and contacting the editors. (Start-ups are tricky. Editors need to cultivate a roster of writers, but indie publishers often are underfunded. You might not get paid.)

* Telling public relations account executives who pitched me stories that I was looking for additional work. PR types know a lot about what’s going on at media outlets.

* Cold-pitching editors who don’t know me.

As you become known for producing quality work on deadline, editors and project managers will seek you out. I have gotten assignments and referrals from:

* Other freelance writers who are too busy to take on a particular assignment or who are not interested.

* Friends and acquaintances in the printing, advertising, marketing, public relations and photography industries.

* Editor-colleagues of my editors.

* Editors I have worked for who moved on to other publications.

* Editors who see my Facebook, LinkedIn and WordPress profiles.

* Former students who became editors.

* Adjunct professor colleagues who are editors in their day jobs.

* Members of networking groups I joined.

* People I’ve written about.

These measures have not worked for me, although they could for you: Touting my college and and high school newspaper experience. Neither of editorial positions carried any weight, perhaps because they were well behind me when I choose the freelance path. I have not used Craigslist, Elance or other Internet sites, but I know of writers who have been successful with them.

Where do your assignments come from? Do you have suggestions I haven’t mentioned?

Wynn Las Vegas

The Wynn hotel in Las Vegas. Don't take chances with your money.

Two words often associated with freelance writers are “poor” and “starving.” It doesn’t have to be that way. Life is expensive, and ramen noodles and pbj soon lose any culinary charm. Many writers earn comfortable livings, some even in the six figures. Here’s my advice for becoming a career freelancer:

* Take any assignment offered. We all love bylines, but most magazines and newspapers don’t pay well. Especially not when you’re starting out. My ultimate goal was to do strictly editorial work. However, to keep the cash flowing and my rent paid, I also wrote newsletters, press releases, brochures and speeches. One of my early assignments was a press release about a new battery-operated, plastic sump pump. I got paid $50. At least I was writing.

* Find a steady side job. I tended bar and worked in a jewelry store, 20 hours a week or so. These gigs were flexible enough that I could fit them around my writing assignments. I also got health insurance. As my writing income grew, I ditched the part-time jobs.

* Always have multiple sources of income. The freelance world is volatile, and clients come and go. Years ago I made the mistake of keeping myself busy with only two clients. When one relationship went bust, I lost half my billings. It took me two years to make up the money, with several smaller clients and editors.

* Live under your means. I love great clothes and beach vacations as well as anyone, but what I love more than spending money is saving it. I’m a bargain shopper and a coupon queen. I drive a 16-year-old Toyota Corolla. I could buy another car, but this one runs just fine. Someday you’ll want to buy a home. Lenders don’t look favorably on freelancers, so you’ll need a big down-payment to get their attention. Start saving now.

* Invest in your career. You’ll find many writers groups, organizations and conferences, but most aren’t free. Some focus on professional development, and others are more social. I attend only the events that will help me make money. Networking is fine, but I’m not looking for a sorority. Visit a few groups to see which is best for you. As for getting a master’s degree, I’m lukewarm. Don’t go into debt for grad school unless you know your writing income will increase.

* Fund an Individual Retirement Account. Every year. You don’t have an employer to help finance your future, so you’ve got to do it yourself. The sooner you get started, the less money you’ll have to sock away. Give up a vacation if you must. Or sock away your side-job earnings.

* Writing is an art, but treat it like a business. That means keeping regular  hours, marketing your skills and managing your time and money. My philosophy: As long as I take care of the business end, I can afford to practice my art. You can, too.

Writing a Column

July 4, 2011

Celebrating my column and more on July 4

Celebrating my column and more on July 4

Writing a column, for me, is both privilege and challenge. It’s a journalistic assignment that positions the writer as an authority on a particular subject, builds an audience of readers, and earns a somewhat regular income.

In the magazine and newspaper arena, which is where I’ve keyboarded most of my career, there are several types of columns. Some dispense opinion; others give advice. Others are informational. Columns run daily, weekly, monthly or any other frequency, and usually in the same space on the page.

I’ve written several columns. My first effort was for the local newspaper when I was a senior at Silver Creek High School in Sellersburg, Indiana. I wrote the Dragonland Review, which was a compendium of school goings-on. Our mascot was a dragon. Maybe it still is.

My first professional column was also one of my first freelance writing jobs. I’d been working as a fashion coordinator and stylist when I was tapped by a subsidiary of the Chicago Tribune to cover suburban fashion events. It’s customary to ask established reporters to do columns, but in my case, my background filled a need at the paper. From there, I graduated to general writing assignments. I’ve settled into lifestyle features, which includes homes, architecture, design, healthcare and education as well as fashion.

For the past decade I’ve written a column called “Community Living” for the Chicago Tribune. The goal is to give readers information that will make their condominium and homeowner associations more successful and harmonious. I’ve covered a broad range of topics such as new legislation, special assessments, smoking wars, bedbugs and how to have a pool party for 400 people. My column runs twice a month in the Chicago Homes section.

The biggest challenges are coming up with ideas and meeting deadlines. It doesn’t matter how many other projects are on my desk or where my social interests lie. Every two weeks without fail I turn in a column on a brand-new subject, complete with sources and references. The column doesn’t pay the highest of all my freelance jobs, but it’s the most prominent and recognized. I am honored the assignment is mine.

How do you get started as a columnist? Launch a blog. Come up with a subject you have a lot to say about, perhaps your life as an at-home mom or photography advice for neophytes or your hippie political views. Then write about it, and write some more. Just keep on writing.

Deadlines

May 5, 2009

The End

When I was a younger writer, I wrote in a constant state of worry. I worried that I wasn’t good enough to finish the assignment I was working on. I worried that the editor wouldn’t like it after it was done. (I knew I wouldn’t.) Then I worried that I wouldn’t get enough assignments to pay my bills. When I got more assignments, I worried that I wasn’t good enough…

In all my years of writing, I have never not turned in a story. That’s why I won’t panic that today is Tuesday and I don’t have a single idea for my column deadline on Friday. I won’t. Really.

Contact me: pmckuen@gmail.com