eleanor beardsley in paris (pledge so hard)

If you love song parodies and NPR and “Watch the Throne,” boy, are you in luck:

This video is almost two years in the making — I wrote “Eleanor Beardsley in Paris” originally in 2012, and when I heard that Carl Kasell was retiring this spring, I realized we had to make the video a reality.

Fun fact: I’ve written song parodies since I was a teenager, but always just performed them for friends. I hope this video will get me one step closer to my dream of becoming the heir apparent to Weird Al.

I gotta give shoutouts to Jay and ‘Ye for writing the song this is based on, MaryKate Moran for being the Jay-Z to my Kanye, Matthew Luken for doing the camera work, Vicky for being the camerawoman on the ground in Paris, and Pat Jarrett for editing this whole deal better than I could have ever done.

a magazine pitch that totally worked

manischewitz matzo newspaper ad circa 1930

Back when I was a baby freelancer, pitching felt like a mystery. I knew in theory how to write an article pitch, sure, but they were usually half-baked. I usually didn’t know what the what was yet and wanted an editor to tell me what to do.

In the last nearly two years as a full-time freelancer I’ve come to appreciate how much research and tailoring needs to go into a pitch if you want to place an article in a major magazine. Not only do you need to know why you’re pitching the story to a particular editor at a particular magazine, but you need to have a convincing case as to why they should care. This takes a ton of time to prepare, but when all those elements align, you’ll have a much better success rate.

When you’re just starting out as a journalist, it’s also hard to find good examples of successful pitches. So I thought I’d share this recent successful magazine article pitch of mine:

Hi, [editor's name],

I’m a freelancer here in Cincinnati, and [mutual acquaintance] suggested I get in touch with you about this story I’m working on.

A man trained as a kosher butcher emigrated from Lithuania in 1886 to serve an orthodox Jewish congregation in Cincinnati. Behr Manischewitz eventually became the patriarch of a mechanized matzo empire that led the world in matzo production — and ruffled rabbinical feathers. The family’s history illustrates the story of Jewish life in Cincinnati: Like many Jews, they settled in the West End in the late 1880s and moved to Avondale as they became more affluent in the 20th century. Eventually, the Manischewitz headquarters moved to New Jersey in 1930, and Cincinnati’s matzo fame waned. But Behr and his wife remain buried in Covedale.

I’ve done extensive research on the family in local archives and would love to tell the Manischewitz story for Cincinnati Magazine. There’s a wealth of interesting historical imagery and maps to go with the story, and I have a few ideas for interview subjects.

My writing credits include Wired, HOW, Family Tree Magazine and other national publications. This story could be great for April 2014 to coincide with Passover. What do you think?

Grace

A few details for context:
  • I had already done about three months of research by the time I wrote my pitch.
  • This was a cold pitch — I had never worked with Cincinnati Magazine before.
  • I sent this pitch in June 2013, proposing it for the April 2014 issue. That might seem excessively early, but I got a call back within a week and sold the story. It was due in January 2014, which gave me even more time to research.

You can read my piece about the Manischewitz family in Cincinnati Magazine’s April 2014 issue.

the sound of one man networking

Back in August, amid moving and other craziness, I got a last-minute invite to talk at Weapons of Mass Creation in Cleveland. It was one of those moments where against better judgment I said YES, and it worked out great. They just posted the video of my talk, so I’m posting it here! (I sound a little like I’m hyperventilating because I was SUPER caffeinated.) It’s kind of based off of my earlier blog post about networking, but with way more Top Model screenshots.

PS: Me and Ann Friedman totally met up and got hot dogs the next day.

PPS: The shine theory should be co-attributed to Aminatou Sow.

freelance financial transparency

profit! freelance budget spreadsheets

This piece in the New York Times yesterday about writers getting asked to work for free reminded me about the ongoing struggle freelancers have to get paid.

I’m a big believer in fiscal transparency — to the point where I’ve been known to ask people questions about money that I later realized were super awkward. But for real: If freelancers don’t talk about money, we’re all less equipped to negotiate for ourselves and value our own work properly. (Margo blogged about this last month in a post on financial habits.)

Creative freelancers, I know you deal in images and words and concepts, not math. For everyone who doesn’t feel adept at crunching numbers, I am here for you. Though I haven’t taken a math class since high school, that last one I took was honors calculus. I was a straight-up mathlete, y’all. The business side of creative enterprise is endlessly fascinating to me, and spreadsheets are like my catnip.

Without further ado, here is my freelance budget spreadsheet template for your fiscal enjoyment. Feel free to download it to your Google Drive or desktop, and tweak it and make it your own. It includes three tabs: The first is a year-at-a-glance budget projection sheet. The second is an invoice tracker that lets you see what invoices are unpaid and how much you’re bringing in per month. And the third tab is a time tracker that you can duplicate for every one of your clients to keep track of time and invoicing.

I developed these spreadsheets in my first year of freelance life, and I’m sharing them with you because every freelancer should be the captain of their own finances. I hope it helps you get ready to make 2014 your most successful year of freelancing ever!

BONUS! Here are some of my favorite freelance business books:

grazing + finding creative inspiration

put a mustache on it handmade card, portlandia parody

A consumer packaged goods expert recently divulged to me that she never, ever looks at her competition. That really took me by surprise, because I always over-research everything. (My local branch librarians know all about me and my extensive interlibrary loan requests.)

Instead of looking at the competition, she told me, she examines parallels. What else do people in the target market desire? [Related: this customer profile worksheet from my book.] How can she make the product remind them of those other things, or draw on the best qualities to incorporate into her own design? For a high-end chocolate product, for example, she might look at Sephora’s prestige cosmetics packaging for inspiration. She pays no mind to Hershey and Nestle.

She confirmed what I’ve been thinking lately, that the best ideas come when you’re looking where no one else is. I love trolling through old books and magazines. You might love hiking in the woods or beachcombing or looking at art or gardening or visiting factories. All of these places are rife with things that could inspire you to make something you’ve never made before. Chris Glass refers to this as grazing. Cows do nothing but chew on grass all day. It doesn’t seem like they’re doing much of anything. But if they didn’t graze all day, they couldn’t produce milk. It might not feel like you’re working when you graze, but without taking that time to browse and nibble and ruminate and digest, you can’t make anything of value. This video of Chris Glass’s talk from Creative Mornings Cincinnati (which includes his bit about grazing) is 43 minutes of awesome:

I know a lot of writers, artists and designers who straight up don’t read blogs about their industries. When you spend a lot of time “keeping up” it can start to feel like an echo chamber. There’s a difference between keeping up on the news and falling into a state of obsessed self-flagellation. This is even applicable to journalists. Sure, there are lots of interesting blogs about the journalism business, and it’s important to follow your competitors to make sure your coverage is on point. But staying inside your bubble of contemporaries isn’t going to help you find great story ideas. Lisa Congdon recently illustrated this quote from Jack London: “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

Hunting down your inspiration should also help with avoiding committing plagiarism and following trends. Craft trends bug the hell out of me. It’s not that I hate mustaches (except that I totally do) — my problem is more with the idea that some crafters feel like they have to jump on a bandwagon to be successful. It’s much better to be a trendsetter than a trend follower, and to do that, you have to look outside your field. If you’re a crafter, stop scrolling endlessly through Pinterest. When you’re trying to develop a new product or design, look at anything other than other crafters: grocery store displays, florists, flea markets, old magazines, architecture books — whatever gets you going.

I also kind of hate pre-packaged “inspiration” for crafters, designers and artists. The idea that someone can hand you a pile of stuff to be inspired by seems counterproductive. It just keeps the same aesthetics and motifs circulating. (I also really really have no patience for step-by-step craft books. Partly because I hate following directions, but also because I don’t see the point in making something to look exactly like something someone else made. You feel me?)

washi tape weaving

We recently had an Etsy #craftparty here in Cincinnati, and as people were arriving, I made examples of what people could do with the materials we had. But I wasn’t making things for people to imitate or really following the provided instructions at all. I let myself go with the flow and make whatever felt right at the time. Being truly inspired is allowing yourself to be in the moment and do what you feel. And all of what you’ve seen and read and digested before helps you find your way.

never network alone

Q. Do you have any tips for networking? I’ve debated asking a fellow freelancer about getting work, but I’m afraid of stepping on her toes.

A. When I started freelancing, I thought that meeting other freelancers was the best way to get gigs. They get gigs, and I want gigs, so they can give me some of their gigs, right? But I quickly realized that other freelancers aren’t the people I should be hitting up for work. (Those are the people who control the budgets — editors, project managers, publishers.)

Networking with other freelancers is a great idea, but you should just approach them human to human. We all have people who we would like to be when we grow up — and the dream networking situation with them would involve porting all their knowledge and connections straight into our brainmeats. But play it cool. If you’re desperate for work and approach everybody as a conduit to finding work, yes, it can be awkward. (Grilling strangers for work leads is never a good look.) Networking, when you’re doing it right, feels like making a new friend — or at least pleasantly interacting with a coworker you like. And when you’ve shown them that you’re cool (even if you’re freaking on the inside), they’ll be much more likely down the road to potentially share leads or introduce you to other people.

The best way to avoid feeling like you’re encroaching on someone’s territory is to realize that we’re all in this together. You’re a freelancer, I’m a freelancer: Let’s get together and dish. An email to a fellow freelancer might look something like this:

Hey, [awesomely successful person]!

I’m a freelancer also living in [your city], working on [whatever you do]. I really loved that project you did about [an awesome thing]. Could I buy you a coffee some time? It’d be great to meet up and share war stories!

Recently I set myself a goal of meeting one new person a week, whether it’s by going to a networking event or reaching out to a specific person. My trick is that I don’t only aim to meet people who I might get work from. Sure, I love to meet editors and publishers, but I’ve also met other writers, marketing people, tech entrepreneurs and nonprofit folks.  I love going to networking events where editorial freelancers are in the minority, because meeting people from other fields is really interesting. And as a bonus, I’m likely also a curious specimen to them.

[Tangent: Don't be that guy who gives his business card to literally every single person at a networking event, even people he didn't talk to. One deep connection is worth more than 100 shallow ones.]

An acquaintance here in Cincinnati seems to know everybody and frequently offers to help me like it’s no big deal. At first I was like, what’s your game, friend? Who offers to help without expecting something in return? But then I read “Never Eat Alone” and totally got it. Networking is about focusing on what you can give other people. She’s a connector of the highest order. She helps people by meeting everybody and learning what they’re working on, and then she connects the dots by introducing the right people to each other at the right times. As one of the recipients of her professional matchmaking, I can tell you that I have frequently introduced other people to her. The song never ends. (Related: Ann Friedman’s Shine Theory)

By saying that networking is all about giving, I don’t mean to imply that good networking involves divulging all your proprietary info and personal contacts to anyone who asks for them. (I protect my best editorial contacts with all the power of Xenu.) When you connect successfully with a fellow freelancer, what you walk away with might not be a job but a rec of a must-read blog or a referral to another person you should meet or just a new lunch buddy. And when you meet a freelancer in need, you share alike. You’ve been there.

getting work and keeping work (neil gaiman and gifs)

This Neil Gaiman commencement speech was mentioned recently on NPR and is now available as a book, “Make Good Art,” designed by Chip Kidd. The thing that really stood out to me in the interview was his two-of-three rule (this “secret knowledge” for freelancers starts around minute 14):

You get work however you get work. People keep working in a freelance world — and more and more of today’s world is freelance — because their work is good, and because they are easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time. And you don’t even need all three. Two out of three is fine. People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. They’ll forgive the lateness of the work if it’s good, and if they like you. And you don’t have to be as good as the others if you’re on time and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you.”

This is so true. I’ve made decisions based on these three attributes, subconsciously, as a magazine editor assigning articles. And I often doubt my abilities as a writer (Gaiman also talks about impostor syndrome in his speech), so I make it my business to always be on time and as pleasant as possible to work with so I at least get that two out of three.

And if nothing else, I can make rad GIFs (jifs):

freelance venn diagram based on neil gaiman

After hearing Neil Gaiman on the radio, I came up with this hypothetical rule of threes specifically for pitching magazine articles. Everybody knows that to sell a story to a magazine, you need a solid topic with a fresh angle. But you also need at least two of the following attributes:

  • Access: Do you have physical proximity to the subject matter, or a personal connection that gets you access where other reporters cannot?
  • Expertise: Have you written about the subject before or have an advanced understanding of it?
  • Reputation: Are you known by the publication’s audience as a trusted voice or by its editors as a reliable writer?

pitching magazine articles infographic

If you have all three, your pitch is way strong, and you might be a wizard. But if you have two out of the three, you still have a really good chance that your pitch is going to get picked up.

If you’re held in good esteem by magazine editors and have access to people or places, you might get by with being a novice in the subject matter. (Example: Susan Orlean goes to a local cream cheese factory to write about collusion with the bagel industry.) If the magazine’s never heard of you before, you need to have written about the topic before and have access to the right interview subjects. (Example: You’ve been reporting on a local university for years and have all the background info on a recent scandal to pitch an in-depth piece to a national outlet.) Or if you’re a known entity to editors and are an expert in the subject matter, the magazine might help you get access to the people or places of note — or be more likely to straight-up assign stuff to you. (Example: You’ve written about  health policy for a magazine many times before, so you’re their first pick to profile the new surgeon general.)

That’s my theory of how to get a pitch picked up. Fellow freelancers, what do you think?