4 things I totally misunderstood before becoming a freelance writer
1. “Trying to be a writer” vs. “Being a writer”
About a year ago, I was sitting in the living room of a famous South African politician and writer’s house. I was there mostly as company for someone else who had scheduled to meet with her. I had spent the majority of their meeting nervously picking at my fingers in the background. Finally, towards the end of our meeting, this famous woman looked at me and said “And what do you do?”
“Well, I’m trying to be a writer.”
There are few responses I’ve ever had that I regret more than that one. At that time, I wasn’t yet making writing financially work, or doing it full-time. But after that moment, I realized that in order to succeed in writing, I needed to give myself my own sense of legitimacy. I had to allow myself to be what I was striving for.
Over time, I’ve learned that the difference between being a writer and trying to be a writer is actually obsolete. To make my career as a writer work, I couldn’t be trying to be a writer. I had to convince myself that I already was one. I had to frame myself through what I believe I am, not what I’m scared I can’t be.
2. “Fame” vs. “Respect”
In the social media age, writers can fall into the habit of believing that their “work” isn’t legitimate until it’s gone viral. Yet throughout my nearly four years writing, I have found that my best moments haven’t been seeing my articles reach the #1 spot of a website, or get shared by someone with millions of followers on Facebook. My best moments are when I see people I admire tell me they respected and appreciated my work. It’s been when my college professor commends my writing style, when my former roommate calls me to say she’s read my piece and she’s proud, or when a friend from a college writing workshop writes to tell me that my piece opened their mind to a new perspective. That cliché Ralph Waldo Emerson quote about the real definition of success — “To win the respect of intelligent people…To earn the appreciation of honest critics” — has turned out to be true.
3. “Prestige” vs. “Influence”
As I’ve spent the last few years building a freelance writing career, I sometimes worry that I should have instead invested that work into something with a more “legitimate” or “prestigious” outcome. After seeing many of my former classmates enter PHD programs, I often worried that maybe I should do the same.
Yet once I became an editor here at Matador, I was surprised to find that many people who submitted pieces to our site were college professors with PHD’s. They would tell me that even though they had more academic credentials, they worried that their work had little influence until it was recognized and noticed by others. That’s why they needed to write for the internet.
Their emails made me realize that writing gives me specific kind of power and influence that others don’t have, and often need. Whether I end up eventually getting a graduate degree or not, I realized that ultimately, I am most satisfied whenever I can use the power of my professional position to promote good work. That power matters much more to me than simply holding a title or credential that may not offer me the same amount of influence.
4. “Making connections” vs. “Building relationships”
Ever since college, I’ve received the constant career advice of “networking.” But when I started working after college, the idea of networking always felt shallow. I didn’t want to force relationships with people simply to serve my own career interests. I believed relationships and connections should happen more naturally.
But once I began pursuing writing, I realized that networking no longer felt like a chore, and instead became something I did do naturally. I wanted to meet people who were involved in my same line of work. I wanted to connect with people who shared my same passion.
During those career advice sessions in college, I wish someone would have told me that making connections isn’t only about your career or financial advancement. It’s about meeting people who make your work feel part of something bigger. It’s about making you feel less alone. When I began “networking” as a freelance writer, I didn’t connect with other writers to gain an opportunity, or to find a job. I connected with them simply because I enjoyed chatting with someone who shared my same passions and vision for their work, and because it was comforting to speak with another writer in a hard space, trying to “make it.”
As writer and activist Courtney E. Martin has said “The biggest mistake people make with networking is when they think it’s a separate mode from just being a kind, generous, curious human being.” Once I started networking not for the sake of networking, but for the sake of gaining these meaningful connections, the whole process stopped feeling like a necessary evil and instead felt authentically satisfying. And ultimately, the benefits and opportunities still came naturally afterwards. My two latest freelance clients were not people I sought out through networking, but people who connected with my writing in the past and who later sought me out for work. By connecting over a genuine alignment in values and ideas, and not out of self-interest, I ended up finding the work I truly wanted in the first place.