Here’s what I’ve learned from my first year of self-employment.
1. Network like your job depends on it — because it does. In my experience, being a member of a writers’ group, such as the Professional Writers Association of Canada (PWAC), has been immensely helpful in getting face time with editors.
2. Pitching is not personal. It’s business. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. And again. And, well, you get the point.
3. Know your worth — and your rights. If you’re not happy with a fee being offered, try to negotiate when possible. If the client isn’t worth the time, don’t be afraid to turn down the assignment. And never sign a contract without reading the fine print.
4. Pick up a side gig to give yourself a source of steady income. It’s also helpful in giving yourself a bit of a schedule and staying connected with the outside world. Shoot for opportunities that will enhance your skill set. For myself, working part-time as production coordinator at a university newspaper has given me the chance to learn more about the advertising side of the business.
5. The corporate writing world is one avenue to earn enough money to pursue “passion projects.”
6. Sticking to set working hours goes a long way towards being productive. I typically work 9 to 5, but start earlier if it’s going to be a particularly busy day. Without fixed hours, it’s easy to get too laid-back.
7. If used correctly, social media is an excellent, cost-effective marketing tool. But it can also be a huge time waster. Log out of social media when you’re not using it for work-related purposes to avoid surfing.
8. Continuing education classes or workshops that are going to enhance your business are good investments. The write-offs they bring don’t hurt either. (Moderation is key.)
9. Keep in touch with a network of other writers so you don’t get lonely — and to stay inspired.
10. Always be on the hunt for new publications and clients. The unlikeliest clients can end up being the best ones. The Canadian Writer’s Market is a great resource, too.
11. Keep a daily freelance log of all the work you’re accomplishing. It will give you an instant lift at the end of the week…or serve as a motivational kick in the butt if you’re not being productive enough.
12. As your office manager, it’s up to you to be on top of the paperwork. Set up a system to ensure that you invoice promptly. And, of course, closely track what has been paid. (I find an Excel spreadsheet is the easiest way to do this.)
13. Give up trying to explain to your relatives that, yes, freelance writing is your real job.
14. Stay positive during slower periods. Never forget your reasons for wanting to freelance in the first place.
15. Freelance writing is really hard work (and not glamorous). But it’s also extremely rewarding to run your own writing business.Vanessa Santilli (@V_Santilli) is a Toronto-based freelance writer and a former youth editor and reporter for The Catholic Register. She has written for publications such as MoneySense, The Medical Post and Canadian Living, and she is a member of PWAC Toronto Chapter.
One of the best things about the magazine industry: the people who work in it. I’ve met so many smart, talented, creative types who are passionate about what they do. I’m featuring some of them in this blog, Q&A-style, starting with David Lee, associate photo editor at Hello! Canada. David and I go way back – we went to the same high school in Scarborough in the mid-’90s, graduating a year apart. David moved on to Ryerson’s journalism program, magazine stream. He’s been at Hello! Canada for three and a half years.
You were a yearbook photographer in high school. Did that influence your career path? Prior to working on the yearbook, I was already intensely interested in photography, so being able to take photos and use a darkroom only increased my interest in the field. I was also heavily influenced by the work of National Geographic and Time magazine photographers and how powerful an image could be in terms of telling a story. I took that passion with me to journalism school, where I ended up being the visuals editor for the Ryerson Review of Journalism in my final year. That position landed me my first photography-related job as an intern, then as a photo researcher, at Canadian Business magazine.
When did you know you wanted to work in the media, and magazines specifically? It was pretty early on. Before I had even decided to go to journalism school, I had always loved reading magazines. The gorgeous photography and in-depth feature writing were so compelling to me. It wasn’t until I went to university, though, that I knew working in a photo department was something I could do as a career.
What are your main duties? Basically I help research photos for stories, assign some of the photo shoots, and keep in touch with the agencies and photographers who provide us with photos. A huge chunk of my time though is involved with determining and obtaining rights to photographs. With such high-profile subjects and lots of exclusive images, making sure all the rights are in place is an important aspect of my job.
Whom do you work with at Hello! Canada? We’re a pretty tightly knit team here. Unlike most traditional newsrooms, a lot of the stories are generated because of a photograph. For example, the news of Angelina Jolie’s engagement broke with the release of a photograph of her wearing an engagement ring. Jennifer Aniston’s engagement news broke much the same way. When we find stories like that, the editorial team has to jump in and research the story behind it. I can’t really think of very many other newsrooms that have that kind of dynamic. It’s certainly different from a traditional monthly magazine, that’s for sure! On the flipside, the editorial team has to keep the photo department informed of what subjects they’d like us to photograph and what stories they’re working on. The art department sits between both realms and lets us know if there are different photos that they’d like to use or they need more images to flesh out a story.
Hello! Canada is a weekly publication. What is a typical week like for you? Typically our week starts out on Wednesday after we’ve closed last week’s issue. The editorial department will give the photo department a list of photos to start researching for some of the givens in the book: What’s On and the Lifestyle section. By Friday, we’ll have a sense of what stories we’d like to put into the news section of the magazine, and we’ll start putting some photos together for those. Once Monday rolls around, it’s basically non-stop until we close the magazine on Tuesday. A lot of the news that we cover happens from Friday to Sunday, sothere will be a lot of photographs to pore over and stories to consider.
When choosing images, do you work with guidelines, or do you have a lot of freedom? Every magazine has a visual style and Hello! is no different. There would be photos that would look obviously out of place in our magazine. Within the style of the magazine, though, there is still a lot of freedom. For major events like the royal wedding of Prince William and Catherine, there were thousands of different images to choose from. For a more typical news story, there are still a variety of things we can try. For feature stories, we can be a bit more creative as well and try things that we wouldn’t normally try in a news story, but again I think that’s true for any publication. Although the pictures we choose may differ from other publications, I think the process the photo department goes through is very similar.
What are some of your favourite issues, features or photo assignments? I’ve always liked when we do our big portrait-focused issues, like our Most Beautiful Canadians or Hottest Bachelor issues. We get to use photography from some of the biggest names in photography in our magazine. Some names that come to mind are Annie Leibovitz, Mario Testino, Herb Ritts and Peter Lindbergh. It absolutely never gets tiring to look at the stunning photography from the masters of portraiture. Aside from that, anytime there’s a huge news event like the royal wedding or the coronation anniversary, it’s really exhilarating to see the wealth of images coming in and just having so much to choose from. Getting to photograph a celebrity is always exciting. Working with talented people in front of the lens and behind it is always satisfying. Our recent fashion shoot with Avril Lavigne for our Canada’s Most Beautiful issue is a perfect example of that. Celebrity photographer Mark Liddell, who shot the story for us, worked extensively with Avril before, and I think it really shows in the pictures. Where sometimes a celebrity will be really stiff working with someone they’re unfamiliar with, the results you can get when the shooter and subject have a great rapport are fantastic. Sometimes when things go really well, it can lead to other opportunities, like getting the exclusive on her wedding photos, which Mark Liddell also shot for us.
How do you approach a big story like the royal baby? With big news stories, we go into the event with a plan in mind but it’s always difficult to know exactly what you’re going to get. You can guess at what kind of photos there will be, but until the event actually happens, there are no guarantees. For example, with the royal baby, we knew ahead of time that they were going to be coming out of the front doors of the Lindo Wing of St. Mary’s Hospital and that they would pause for a picture, but that only really guaranteed us two or three different kinds of photos. Getting the Middletons and Prince Charles and Camilla visiting the hospital were unannounced extras for us. The various expressions that they had and the interaction between the two was different from when William was brought out from the hospital by Diana and Charles.
How does choosing photos for print and web differ? Choosing images for the web is a bit different because of the way images are consumed. In print, you have very tight control in terms of how one photo relates to other photos on a page and how that arrangement tells a story.
At magazines that don’t have a photo editor, who researches and selects images? Some publications use a freelance photo editor or photo researcher on a per-project or per-story basis. Some publications will just use the art director to research the photos.
What tips do you have for people interested in being a photo editor? While there are courses out there to get started, most of the skills related to being a photo editor are learned on the job. Aside from time on the mountain, though, the best thing you can do is immerse yourself in photography. Learn about photographers from the past like Henri Cartier-Bresson, who defined The Decisive Moment, and current photographers like Edward Burtynsky, whose landscape photography is unparalleled in my opinion. Take this and apply it to whatever publication you’re working for, or want to work for. In my case it’s all about celebrity photography, so I try and keep on top of all aspects of the business, like the agencies (Getty, Reuters, AP), candid photographers and celebrity portraitists.
How about advice on image selection for editors who aren’t photo editors? I think most people have a visceral response to photography – you probably already have an idea of what makes a good photograph and what doesn’t. What a photo editor brings to the table, though, is being able to choose the best photograph from a group of the best photographs. That’s a much harder thing to do. Then to take those best photographs and put them together into something that tells a story is another thing on top of that. I think that sometimes editors forget that the photo editor’s job is much like an editorial editor.
Cover images courtesy of Hello! Canada.