(Illustration by Matt Lubchansky)
First things first: NEW ALL-STAR ZOOM PANEL!!!!!
You know how coronavirus has decimated newsrooms around the country? Let’s send a little help to those in need!
On July 30, pour a glass of wine and join me; Undefeated writer and Pulitzer Prize finalist Soraya McDonald; Gazette columnist and author Lyz Lenz; freelance journalist and author Kim Kelly; and New York Times reporter and author Sopan Deb; and 60 Minutes correspondent and author Wesley Lowery for a Fundraiser Ask Me Anything hour!
Now, back to freelancing.
In the 2018 guide to pitching I wrote for Harvard’s NiemanLab, I included the text of what I thought was a perfect pitch. It was a cold email I had gotten from someone I had never interacted with before, and it was about moving in with your partner. It immediately caught my attention thanks to a snappy subject line, and that story became the first of dozens I would commission from her.
How did she become a regular? How does she come up with so many successful story ideas? How does she keep track of them? And what does she charge?!
All that and more in this lightly edited Q&A.
Tim Herrera: You tweeted about your process for coming up with story ideas, and something you said that I loved was: “I’m organized because you never know when an idea will be a good fit for the news cycle.” What exactly do you mean by that, and how does it help you generate ideas?
Anna Goldfarb: I write a lot about relationships and careers, so most of my story ideas are pretty evergreen. Part of pitching a story to an editor is to identify the “Why now?” part of the puzzle. One of the ideas I’ve had sitting in my idea spreadsheet for a year is about how to show gratitude at work. Many people bring sugary food into the office to share with their coworkers, which isn’t always a hit with everyone. But now that people aren’t in the office, this topic becomes more interesting: How do you show gratitude at work when you aren’t in the same room? So that's one example of finding a new angle to an old idea.
TH: You do seem to have carved out something of a beat with relationships and pop psychology, at least in a lot of the work we do together. Was that intentional? Do you think having a few specific lines of coverage is more advantageous than being a generalist?
AG: I didn’t set out to have a beat, but I’ve found it’s easier to get consistent work as a freelancer when you have one. A niche helps in three specific ways: First, it helps me narrow my focus when I brainstorm ideas to sell. Second, it’s easier for editors to assign me pieces since they know the topic is in my wheelhouse. And third, it helps me build an audience of readers who enjoy and follow my work. Everyone wins!
TH: Does that apply to everything you write with every editor? Or does your beat change by editor or publication?
AG: For the past few years, my beat has remained consistent. I write mostly the same kinds of articles for every publication I write for. Part of the fun for me is that I’ve developed relationships with a variety of sources, so I have a large pool of experts to draw on when I approach a story. I have switched my beat over the years, from music writing to relationships to food and back to relationships. At this point, I’m most engaged when I write about pop psychology and relationships because that’s what I'm most fascinated by. But that could change again, I suppose!
TH: Every freelancer wants to get on the “regulars” roster for editors. How did you do it? Yes, I am asking you how you got onto my regulars roster!
AG: You can let me know if my hunch is correct, but I think it’s because I’m reliable, flexible, and accurate, and I’m open to edits. I’m responsive and always get back to you within an hour, if possible, so you never have to feel like you’re chasing me down or waiting on me to move forward on something. [Ed. note: Can confirm!] I’m also a team player! I’ve come up to NYC for Smarter Living events to show you how much it means to me to be published in your section. I’ve cultivated relationships with other Smarter Living writers, too. I look at it like we’re all on the same softball team or something. I want the whole section of Smarter Living to succeed. If we had a Smarter Living mascot, like a badger or something, I would totally wear that costume around town!
TH: I’m def going to expense that badger costume, and once quar is over I fully expect to see you in it! But let’s drill down a little into specifics and talk about the actual story ideation process. One of my favorite stories you’ve written for me — and one of your most popular — was How to Be a More Patient Person. How did you come up with that idea? Did it change much from your initial thinking around it to publication? Did you know you were onto something good when you pitched it?
AG: I love this story because it was so deeply personal. I noticed I was becoming more and more impatient in my daily life. I’d get so angry waiting in slow lines or traffic jams. I’m not an angry person, so I was perplexed at what was going on with me. My father is an impatient person. I was curious if it’s a genetic thing, a fixed trait we had no power to control. My only goal with the story was to better understand the mechanisms behind something we all struggle with. The story turned out better than I imagined because the experts did such a great job illuminating the topic for me. They brought up nuances I hadn’t seen in any other article that addressed impatience. Reporting that piece changed my life for the better. I also had fun telling my dad that he inspired me to write the story because I didn’t want to be as impatient as he is. We both had a good laugh about it! So this was a personal story with universal appeal, which is something I always strive for.
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TH: Did you know it would turn out so good? How? This came up the other week in a Sunday panel and I think it’s so interesting — how can a writer know when something they’re writing is above their average? For me, I can tell I’m onto something good when the writing just pours out. The best stuff I write tends to take the least amount of time. What does that look like for you?
AG: I knew I was onto something good when I interviewed the researcher Sarah A. Schnitker, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University. Talking to someone who researched impatience gave me a very different perspective than, say, a therapist who deals with impatient people. Ms. Schnitker’s interview made me realize how elegant the subject of impatience is: We can choose the story we tell ourselves about the kind of person we want to be. We are in control of our emotions. I found her contribution to be very empowering! I also liked another expert’s idea to create a mantra when you feel yourself becoming impatient. I still use mine, and it does help calm me down! I didn’t know how good my impatience story was going to be until I read other stories on the same topic. I usually read as many other articles about my topic as I can before I submit a draft. That way, I can see where my story differs from what’s already out there. It became clear how much more useful and deeper my story was going to be once I measured it against the other articles I read.
TH: Let’s talk about money. Do you make your whole income from freelancing? What’s your average rate? Does having a bunch of NYT bylines help you command a better rate elsewhere?
AG: I make my entire income from freelancing. After doing my own thing and writing my blog from 2008 to 2014, I started writing for other publications in 2015. Rate-wise, I started from the bottom. I made $25/post for a local food blog. Then I jumped to larger local blogs at $150/post. Soon I started writing for national websites for $150/post. Then I wrote for Vice at $350/article. Now I write mainly for the NYT at $1/word, minimum. That’s generally my rate, and I try not to go below it. I don’t think having NYT bylines helps me command a better rate, but it does filter out places if I don’t need the work.
TH: You talk a lot about networking with peers rather than reaching up. What do you mean by that? Why is that helpful?
AG: In my experience, people who are more established in their field don’t have the same concerns as those who are starting out. Not always! But enough where it became clear to me that I’d have more support and camaraderie with someone who is in a similar point in their career. In the same way first-time parents might form tighter bonds with other first-time parents, or college freshmen form tighter bonds with other freshmen. They’re all on the same playing field; they all have similar concerns. Find your tribe, because they might be more generous with their time, contacts, and encouragement than someone who is more established.
TH: Lastly, you’re never at a loss for story ideas. I just tweeted that it feels like every week I’m publishing something from you while also commissioning something new. How do you keep track of everything? You talked about how staying organized is a key to being able to do everything, but practically, what does that mean? I love your Google Sheets template to track stories!
AG: I have a notebook with the word “ideas” scrawled on the cover. Every so often, when I want to pitch a story, I’ll call fellow writer Allie Volpe to brainstorm ideas. I ask her about what’s been bothering her lately. I’ll talk about what’s been bugging me lately. We'll sift through our ideas until something bubbles up that looks promising. Every few weeks, I’ll look through my ideas notebook and transfer my favorite ones into a spreadsheet. Sometimes I’ll chew on an idea for weeks or months before I pitch it to see if I’m still intrigued by it. Of course, this has all changed with the coronavirus. To sum up: I use a notebook for creativity and then input my ideas into a spreadsheet for quick access.
TH: Any last words for your fellow freelancers?
AG: Freelancing is a team sport. It’s very hard to do this job in a vacuum. You need a community. Set money aside for professional development. Read books on the business of freelancing. Join professional organizations like the ASJA. Have a good attitude, be a team player and enjoy the ride!
Oh, a few other things …
• If you’d like to donate to help offset costs for this project, here is my PayPal. Anything above the costs for maintaining this — $515 per month — will be contributed to the Journalist Furlough Fund. I’ll publish receipts of contributions in this newsletter every month. (For regular readers: Yes, monthly expenses have increased — you will see why in next week’s newsletter!)
• Lol, I just want to flag two wonderfully silly tweets that IMO really capture the essence of everything we’re doing here:
• Friendly reminder to take 15 minutes right now and email that editor who has owed you money for an assignment for months. It works!
Okay bye ily!