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.

(NOTE: Critical Encounters is an initiative at Columbia College Chicago, where I am a member of the adjunct faculty, to stimulate conversation on socially and culturally relevant issues.  This year’s theme, “Rights, Radicals and Revolutions,” looks at how the art world can create change. Here is my essay about a person who influenced me: Helen Gurley Brown. It was published in “The Columbia Chronicle” on Oct. 24, 2011.”)

Glass sculpture by another favorite radical, Dale Chihuly

I grew up in a place where dreams ran small: Rain for the corn crops, a win for the high school basketball team on Friday night, a blue ribbon for the dress I entered in the 4-H fair. Women rarely worked outside the home. If anything, they were teachers or secretaries. A few were nurses. Despite my father’s resistance, my mother got herself hired as a typist, so I, their first-born, could go to college. That’s where I discovered both “Cosmopolitan” magazine and the women’s movement. These entities aren’t as opposing as they might seem.

My radical, Helen Gurley Brown, was the long-time editor-in-chief of “Cosmo,” as the publication is affectionately known to its readers. But she didn’t start out that way. She spent many years as a secretary and a copywriter before authoring the then-sensational and best-selling “Sex and the Single Girl” in 1962. Three years later she took the helm of “Cosmopolitan,” and she steered it for 32 years.

Helen Gurley Brown, who married at the age of 37, celebrated women and the single lifestyle. She urged us to pursue big careers, to be financially independent, and to enjoy sex and lots of it–but only when we chose to and when fully protected. She championed birth control when it was inadequate and abortion before it was legal. She promoted inner strength and outer beauty. Unlike her bra-burning contemporaries–and often scorned by them, she delivered her message of freedom and choice while dressed in Diane von Furstenberg wrap dresses and high-heeled pumps. And no one from my generation will forget the infamous nude centerfold of actor and heart-throb Burt Reynolds, with one hand delicately draped in front of his delicates.

The magazine for many years was my personal instruction manual in both life and eyeliner application. When I launched my career as an independent journalist, I took its encouragement to heart. Yes, you can do this, it said, issue after issue. I came to believe that I could.

In more ways than one, my life has paralleled that of my radical. I, too, was a secretary and a copywriter. I went on to write magazine and newspaper features, and have been published in dozens of national and regional consumer, trade, association and special interest publications. I wrote a book about fashion and self-identity. I marched for abortion rights in Washington, D.C., with the National Organization for Women. I underwent the horror of breast cancer. I compiled a stock portfolio and bought a sports car. I got married.

Through it all, I have worn stilettos.

Thank you for everything and more, Helen.

Heloise and Pamela, 2009 NFPW Conference

The Pantyhose Trick: Got a run in your pantyhose? Don’t throw the garment away. Simply cut off the damaged leg. Do this every time and soon you’ll have a “good” right and left leg. Don them both, and you’ve got a complete pair! (And two layers of tummy control.)

For more than 50 years Heloise has dispensed household hints such as this, but she’s got a laundry basket of advice for journalists as well.

Heloise writes a daily syndicated column, a monthly feature in “Good Housekeeping” magazine and myriad books. She’s a second-generation investigator, the daughter who took over after her mother’s death in 1977. But today’s Heloise isn’t merely rehashing what came before. She’s constantly testing and updating, and addressing new concerns. After all, Mother didn’t have to deal with how to clean cell phones and whether it’s okay to dry clothes in the microwave.

“Our challenge is the same as your challenge,” Heloise said at the 2009 National Federation of Press Women conference, at which she was named Communicator of Achievement. “People rely on us for accurate information.”

Here are a few of Heloise’ Journalism Hints:

* Ask yourself, what does my audience need? When Heloise composed laundry tips for college students, she didn’t go into the nuances of hand-washing and dry cleaning. For them, that’s TMI.

* Do the research. Heloise and her team spent days investigating the difference between a “leaking” iron and a “spitting” iron. They called multiple manufacturers and talked to engineers. And they ironed.

Look for telephone numbers that don’t start with 800—-those tend to be call centers rather than corporate offices, she said.

BTW, an iron reservoir filled with too much water spills over and leaks. An under-heated iron spits rather than steams.

* Check your facts. A reporter once wrote a story about Heloise that contained an error. When later stories contain the same error, as they frequently do, she knows somebody copied without checking.

“It’s your reputation on the line,” she said.