Monday, March 11, 2013

Saying No

I had to turn down an assignment this week. It pained me to do so, because I don't take saying no to freelance work lightly. Yet sometimes it has to be done.

On the rare occasions when I contemplate turning down an assignment, I ask myself the following questions to decide whether it's beneficial to say, "Thanks, but no."

What kind of client is it? If it's my first assignment with a publication I haven't written for before—or one I haven't done much work for yet—there are few if any circumstances when I would say no. Turning down work before you've ever even taken an assignment with someone is a surefire way to not get asked again. Sure, there may be extreme circumstances that the editor will understand. If, for instance, I was going into surgery that week or was going to be on a big family vacation we'd planned months in advance, I'd probably have no choice but to turn down an assignment—even if it was with my favorite magazine. But in general, I don't say no to new clients unless it's absolutely unavoidable.

That doesn't mean I say no to my regular clients with abandon. They aren't chopped liver. But if I have a rapport with a specific editor or publication and have consistently written for them in the past, I can feel at least a little more comfortable turning down an assignment on occasion if I absolutely must.

That was the case this week. I've written regularly for this same publication for years, and I normally take on every assignment I'm given. But in this case, the timing wasn't right because my son is home sick from daycare the rest of this week, which won't leave me time to do the interviews and writing I need to do. So I passed.

Can I give the assignment the time and attention it deserves? The 800-word rush job I turned down would have required at least two interviews and needed to be done in less than two full working days. It's something I could have tackled had I been working full-time (or even part-time) those days, but with the little guy home sick, I would have been hard pressed to have time to squeeze in a couple of interviews, let alone research and write. Had I said yes, I likely would have totally missed the deadline or turned in less-than-stellar work, neither of which is a reasonable option in my book. So I was better off passing on the assignment than turning in something second-rate that might have hurt my rep and just created more work for my editor.

Will my other work suffer as a result? Once in a while I pass on work when I am so swamped I can't possibly take on another project. (A good problem to have, I guess!) As a freelancer, it's easy to say yes to every assignment that comes along, only to realize you've overextended yourself. If you have too many tight deadlines at once, odds are at least one of them (and potentially all of them) are going to suffer as a result. Most of the time I can juggle multiple assignments at once, but if taking on one more project means there is no way I can get everything on my plate done in time, I say no and explain to the client why I'm passing this once.

Is it worth my time? Sometimes an assignment comes along that is too much work and too little pay to make it worth it. Granted, if you're a freelancer just starting out or you're in a slow period where you don't have other work, that low-paying assignment is better than nothing. But if I am asked to do a project that doesn't even come close to my usual hourly rate, I might turn it down so I can focus on work that does pay a decent wage. (There's also a bit of principle at stake here—by taking on a ridiculously low-paying assignment, are you saying your work is worth that much? Are you setting the expectation with that client that it's reasonable to continue paying that rate? But that's a freelancing issue for another day and an ongoing dilemma many writers face.)

Where are my priorities right now? Am I at the point in my career where I am looking to expand my client base and to get published in new publications? If so, and a new client comes along, I'm going to say yes. Or am I working on building relationships with my existing clients and need to spend time developing new pitches to send to them? Then maybe an assignment from someone new isn't what I should focus on at the moment. Or, in some cases, freelancers decide to specialize. If I'm focused on health writing right now and a decorating writing assignment comes along, perhaps it's not worth my time because I am focusing on building up my clips in my new specialty area. All things to consider.

Regardless of your reasons for doing so, if you do say no, be honest. Don't make up excuses. I told my editor my son was ill. She understood and said she'd be back in touch soon with another assignment. The last thing you want to do is turn down an assignment and make up an excuse, only to be found out later. (If you say you're sick but later Tweet about a day at the beach, and your editor happens to follow you on Twitter, you're not going to look like the most reliable character. But I shouldn't have to tell you that.)

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Write What You Know—Or Not

Odds are, you've heard the maxim spouted off by high school English teachers: Write what you know. At least I remember mine saying that over and over. But the thing is, in high school I didn't want to write what I knew about. That was boring. That was just my everyday life. Why would anyone find that interesting?

In college, I changed my tune. I grew up in a small (very small—hardly on the map small) town in Wyoming. When I lived there, it wasn't remarkable. It was just life.

What I knew for the first 18 years of my life:
Devil's Tower and the Black Hills of Wyoming.
Photo via Flickr by Spappy.joneS
But when I headed to college in Iowa, suddenly I realized all those daily experiences I thought were so normal were actually quite remarkable. I learned that it's not every day the old timer cowboys golf in their manure-covered boots or that you can say your family grew up owning a "mountain." And so I wrote about Wyoming. It was what I knew, and it made for interesting stories.

After college, though, I wrote about other things I was assigned to write about—remodeling, decorating, health and wellness on occasion, business, green living. They weren't things I necessarily knew, but I learned about them as I went and so came to know a fair amount about these topics.

At this point, as the distance between my time in my home state and my life away from it increased, Wyoming became less what I knew than a collection of peculiar-sweet memories that made for good stories with friends or random people who remarked with surprise on where I grew up.

Now, however, I find myself gravitating back toward writing about what I know more.

As a new mom, I have started a growing list of stories I'd like to pitch to parenting magazines. And as a woman who suffers from endometriosis, I am researching and writing more about what this chronic illness is and how it affects my life. I have started a new blog on the topic, am busy connecting online with other women who have endometriosis, and I have ideas swirling around in my head for articles I want to write, more in-depth research I want to do, and even a book I may want to pitch to a publisher someday down the road.

These are the things I know now, the things I have personal experience with, the things that interest me at the moment. Sure, I'd still have to do research and line up expert or "real life" interviews to write articles on parenting or endometriosis. But I'd also have my own unique insights to contribute, which is incredibly valuable.

Last week, my freelance writing students brought in lists of story ideas they had brainstormed. Many of them struggled because, they said, they didn't know anything. They weren't experts on anything, so what could they possibly write about?

I told them two things:

1. You know more than you think. And writing about what you know—what you have experience with and personal knowledge of—is incredibly valuable and can set you apart. Don't downplay what you know or think it's mundane. Odds are, if it's interesting to you, it's interesting to other people too.

2. You don't have to write what you know. Think of a topic that interests you, that you wonder about and think others will wonder about as well. As a journalist, you aren't expected to know everything you write about inside and out. If you have a great idea, can do the necessary research and find the right sources, and identify the right market for your story, you can write about you want, even if you aren't an expert.

In other words: write what you know—or not.

A brief public service announcement: March is Endometriosis Awareness Month and I, along with many of my fellow endometriosis sufferers, are trying to spread the word about this chronic illness that affects as many as 10 percent of women in the United States.

Odds are, whether you realize it or not, you know someone who has endometriosis. You may even suffer from it yourself. But it's an incurable illness that often goes undiagnosed for years—and most women keep silent about because its symptoms aren't something they are comfortable talking about publicly. That needs to change, so people are aware of the problems endometriosis causes, so doctors become more informed of what can be done to help women with endometriosis, and so researchers have more funding to support efforts to find its causes and new treatments.

Please take a moment to learn about endometriosis and spread the word about this illness that affects so many women's fertility and quality of life.