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The Realities of My Media Dream Job: Yikes, Watch Out for That Cow Pie!

Posted by Claire Vath on Mar 11, 2015 in Success Guide, Writer Rants

Once upon a time, my vision of becoming a writer involved jetting off to white sugar beaches and surveying the Paris skyline from the vantage point of the Eiffel Tower. Then I became an editor at a farm magazine. While I spent a good portion of my career there tanning from the glare of my computer screen, I did get to do some travel. And, well, let’s just say my expectations were managed.

Expectation: Jetting off to places like New York, Paris, or some exotic island.
Reality: Paris, Texas; Texarkana, Ark.; and backroads Mississippi.

Expectation: Wearing fancy dresses and business suits while traveling.
Reality: Wearing jeans that can get mud on the butt or cow spit on the legs.

Expectation: Going to parties, perhaps on the beach, sipping champagne cocktails as the breeze blows through my hair.
Reality: Conferences where we eat barbecue or cheap Mexican food while learning the perils of being sucked into a grain bin. If the event is outside, bug spray is optional.

Expectation: Nice cars to escort me around.
Reality: Old trucks that smell like dirt, bumping through pastures and down gravel roads.

Expectation: Writing a story about the locals in a quaint city like Charleston.
Reality: Writing about some farmer taking me to the “bottomlands by the river.”

Expectation: High heels (which I did wear in the office.)
Reality: Ten-year-old Doc Martens that have seen their fair share of cow manure and hay—often mushed together.

Expectation: Well-groomed dogs lying at the entrance of some charming shop.
Reality: A farm dog with blood running down his face because he got in a fight with a neighboring farm dog.

Expectation: Manicured hands.
Reality: Hand licks from the sandpapery tongues of cows.

Expectation: Press releases from four-star resorts and spas.
Reality: E-mailed photos of a mobile semen lab for cows.

Expectation: Samples of new products in shops.
Reality: Sample patches of jeans from Dickies, along with the offer of a desk-side workshop tool demonstration.

Expectation: Coffee table books on architecture.
Reality: Farm office books on the joys of keeping farm animals and growing oats.

Expectation: Travel impediments like hurricanes or snowstorms.
Reality: Electric fences, unruly cattle, and machinery that can eat you to pieces.

Expectation: Flight itineraries to exciting locations.
Reality: A cow’s flight zone (basically how to herd them through a corral using their line of vision).

Expectation: Touring a family’s home and writing about the décor.
Reality: Touring a milking barn and commenting on the farm hands who are artificially inseminating cows. Said workers also are riding around on a golf cart painted like a cow, with semen tanks on it.

Expectation: Well-groomed business people.
Reality: Farmers wearing their names on their shirts.

Expectation: Interviewees waxing poetic about their homes.
Reality: Interviewees complaining about commodity payments and corn prices.

Expectation: Walking down a cobblestone-lined street having just drunk a cup of coffee.
Reality: Sweating off the morning’s caffeine while wandering down a row of corn, trying not to get a paper cut on the leaves, and watching out for frogs.

Expectation: The latest products to review.
Reality: The latest herbicides and fertilizer brands.

Expectation: Gift boxes full of gourmet food.
Reality: A 50-pound bag of specialty horse feed.

So it’s not all wine and roses (okay, not even close), but I’ve perched on the viewing deck of the Eiffel Tower before (unrelated to work), camera aimed at the city below. And while trips like that are indeed a dream, walking through a pasture matching strides with a farmer responsible for nourishing the country is a different kind of dream. And listening to their stories while overlooking a sun-baked field of fluttering cornstalks, it’s easy to forget about that sandy beach. It’s a different job, sure, but a reality and a privilege I wouldn’t trade for anything.

 
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Is Journalism Dead?

Posted by Deborah Huso on Aug 26, 2014 in Musings, Writer Rants

Originally published April 6, 2010.

About three years ago when I was on travel assignment in east Tennessee for Women’s Health magazine, I remember having dinner with the photographer assigned to my story and the two of us poking fun at our twenty-something assistants who were exchanging My Space addresses.  We earnestly and, as it turns out, foolishly believed social media was for people under 25.  Two years later, my twenty-something assistant is helping me get hooked up on Facebook and Twitter.  Not because I relish joining this new world of over-the-top online narcissism but because being linked in and socially networked has become essential for professional survival in the Information Age.

Plenty of people in my industry haven’t yet figured out how to jump on the mercenary digital bandwagon.  And I’m not just talking social media.  I’m talking the brave new world of online information in general.  If you’re not prepared to flesh out Hollywood’s latest fashion disasters on Yahoo! or provide a 400-word bullet point distillation on health care reform for MSN, you might find yourself out of work these days if you’re a journalist.

Why?  Because in case you haven’t noticed, long-form journalism and investigative reporting are dying a rather quick and ugly death in a culture addicted to tabloid-like news that can be scanned in 30 seconds or less.

In a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times, writer Sheelah Kolhatkar lamented, “While most people are worried about getting paid for their work, I’m more concerned that journalists might be the digital-age equivalent of monks illuminating manuscripts, a group whose skills will soon disappear.”

Kolhatkar is definitely on to something.  When I started out in this business more than a decade ago, I remember being tutored by editors to work hard to develop my narratives–fill them with local color, vivid descriptions, exclusive and meaningful commentary from sources based on intensive follow-up questioning.  Now the order of the day is catchy sound bites.  And a few quick bullet points because nobody wants to actually have to read an article.

Plenty of journalists like Kolhatkar are worried about their paychecks, yes, but they’re also worried about just what kind of information is getting passed around in this “Information Age.”  There will always be work for those of us who provide content (whether that content is good, bad, or just plain stupid), but how much of the content we produce is actually worth reading anymore?  Are you really gaining any insight into the world when you fire up your Internet browser in the evening and search the latest “headlines?”

In a recent review of The Death and Life of American Journalism, Chris Hedges contends Americans are being bombarded today with gossip and trivia.  “But news,” he says, “which costs money and takes talent to produce, is dying not only because citizens are migrating to the Internet and corporations are no longer using newsprint to advertise, but because in an age of profound culture decline the masses prefer to be entertained rather than informed. We no longer value the culture or journalism, as we no longer value classical theater or great books, and this devaluation means the general public is not inclined to pay for it.”

Dear reader, are you guilty?  Do you grumble over having to pay for an online newspaper subscription?  If so, you may be part of the problem here.  Because high quality information like high quality anything costs money.  If you want advertising to pay your ticket to information access, then expect the editorial you read to be closely linked to the advertisers who pay for it.

Is journalism dead?  Well, that depends on what and where you’re reading…and who’s paying for it.

 
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Walmart Supports Illegal Immigration, And So Do I: If You Eat Food, You Should, Too

Posted by Deborah Huso on Apr 16, 2014 in Writer Rants

IMG_5143

Illegals at work? No one’s asking…

To be quite honest, I don’t know Walmart’s corporate stance on immigration. Heck, they may not even have one. That’s pretty irrelevant. As with people, I judge companies by their actions, not their words or mission statements.

And Walmart is the single largest purchaser of Driscoll’s Strawberries in the world. Who picks these strawberries? Illegal immigrants for the most part.

This is not to bad-mouth Walmart…or Driscoll’s for that matter. We all need to eat. And a recent trip to “the salad bowl of the world”—Monterey County, California—gave me yet another lesson (most likely not needed) in why politicians are stupid…and why some of their constituents are, too. 

Before I begin this rant on the ignorance of people and politicians (yes, I consider the latter separate entities), let me make a disclaimer: I am a contributing editor with The Progressive Farmer. That’s a big part of the reason why I came to California in the first place to look at food production.  But my work with this highly respected agricultural journal for the past 10 years has been focused on objective reporting. My rant here is completely separate from my contract work with any magazine, though I’m happy to rant for money on this issue if anyone wants to hire me….

I digress, however. Because some things wind me up to the degree that I will actually forego any type of remuneration in order to write about them. The issue of illegal immigration and American agricultural production is one of them.

Do you want to know where your food comes from? And no, I’m not talking about the level of ignorance where people think it magically appears in the grocery store.  That’s a whole other issue.  I’m talking about where it’s grown. Guess what? 80 percent of the produce we find on American supermarket shelves (and yes, that includes Whole Foods, my Birkenstock-wearing friends), is produced in Monterey County, California…where 70 to 80 percent of the agricultural workforce is made up of illegal immigrants.

It doesn’t matter if the produce is from a corporate farmer like Dole or Driscoll or a smaller family farm operation like that of fourth-generation organic producer Chris Bunn, owner of The Farm, who is quick to say, “The government is the biggest obstacle to farming today.”

This isn’t news to anyone in the agriculture industry, but it may be news to a lot of American consumers who believe illegal immigrants are stealing American jobs. Bunn wasn’t referring exclusively to federal and state governments’ stances on immigration (and it may be hard to believe, but if you’re an illegal, you’re a heck of a lot safer in regulation-heavy California than Arizona). 

He was also referring to the too often ridiculous legislation that keeps growers from making the money they need to make to stay in business. (And let me tell you, when the county says you have to plow under 15 acres of your strawberries because a domestic dog or a raccoon walked through your field and may have pooped there, something is seriously wrong with how we approach agriculture in this country.)

Bunn’s biggest concern, like that of his other farmer neighbors, however, isn’t even the absurdity of local and state regulations that make California the absolute worst state in which to do business…or farm.  It’s labor.

Bunn told me 70 percent of the farm laborers in Monterey County are illegals. When I asked another Salinas Valley farmer, Steve Church of Church Brothers Produce, if Bunn’s statement was true, he replied. “No, it’s 80.”

Don’t go assuming these farmers are “bad guys” hiring illegals and stealing jobs from Americans.  Far from it. Every one of them is complaining about labor shortages, and strawberry farmer Ken Lewis says even when he’s placed advertising on the side of the road offering employment with benefits, “I’ve never had a single Caucasian walk into my office and ask for a job.”

So California agriculture has become kind of like the military: don’t ask; don’t tell.

Plenty of producers would like to hire legal immigrants, but most say the government’s H2A program has become so cumbersome and expensive, they can’t afford to use it anymore. Instead, they hire Hispanic workers who come to them with documentation, probably plenty of it fake, and employers fill out I-9s for them.  Under California law (A.B. 263), producers can’t question the validity of workers’ documentation unless it is blatantly obvious it is forged.

At the same time, however, they can be fined up to $1,500 per person in Monterey County if they knowingly hire an illegal.

When Lewis once asked his foreman how many illegals he thought were on the payroll, the foreman replied, “Do you really want to know?” To which Lewis decided to answer, “no.”

And that’s because these farmers know that they’d have no one to plant, harvest, or package their crops were it not for illegals. For a variety of complex reasons related to everything from the back-breaking nature of the labor to unemployment benefits that make sitting at home a heck of a lot more attractive than working in the fields, there is no one else to do this work.

Illegal immigrants are keeping food on all of our tables.

And don’t presume this is some kind of John Steinbeck scenario where well-to-do landowners exploit the foreign masses (though one producer did remark, rather tongue-in-cheek, that “Hispanics are America’s new Negro”). Illegals are making decent money here, most of them receiving pay well above minimum wage. A fast picker can earn up to $22/hour in the fields if he’s working berries, for example. Many types of produce allow pickers to get a “piece rate” in addition to their hourly wage so they have an incentive to work harder.

Lewis says he doesn’t understand why the government wants to keep Hispanic immigrants out. He says most of them are hard workers who want to improve the lives of their families. As an incentive to do so, Lewis will pay for any of his employees to take English classes while they work for him. “Not knowing English is the critical barrier to advancing in employment,” he says. He would like to see a program that allows immigrants to work legally in the U.S. and be eligible to apply for citizenship so long as they can go for a period without any felonies on their records.

It seems a simple enough solution.

Why do politicians make it so hard?

I wish I had the answer.  Plenty of us who enjoy the benefits of American citizenship today do so because our ancestors came here, poor yet hopeful, wanting to improve their own lives and those of succeeding generations. My great- and great-great grandfathers were cotters in Norway—nothing but tenants farming fields they would never own. They came to America with the hope they could, through hard work, become landowners themselves. And they did, and each succeeding generation got along a little better than the one before. Today the descendants of those foreign tenant farmers are dentists and doctors. This is the American dream, is it not?

Apparently, only for those who already have it, many of whom are the same people decrying illegal immigration or fussing that the very people who supply the food on their dinner plates are trying to destroy the very environment they depend on for their livelihood.

If you want to keep eating, you might want to consider a little harder where your food comes from and what’s involved in bringing it to your dinner table.

 
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Learning How to Write…From My Daughters

Posted by Mollie Bryan on Dec 18, 2013 in Motherhood, Mothers and Daughters, Writer Rants
Mollie daughter

My daughter hard at work…

My girls are both writers. I’m not sure how I feel about it, given how difficult life can be as a writer. But even though they’ve gotten involved with things like theater, music, and dance, what they do at home when they have downtime is write. For fun.

These days they are both working on entries into a national competition. They both have such different working styles, but it’s been fascinating for me to watch and even  learn from them.

Yep. I’ve been writing my whole life, now as a mystery novelist, cranking out a series and, believe me, I still learn things every day. It’s really not so surprising that I’ve picked up some writing tips from my daughters when parenting has been the most learning-intensive experience in my life.

Now, to be fair, these things that I’ve learned are not necessarily new, but they are excellent reminders. That’s one of the best things about parenting, isn’t it? The way your kids remind you, take you back to certain youthful moments—opening Christmas gifts, the magic of birthdays, learning to read, and to write.

Here’s my daughter-inspired writing reminder list:

  1. Figure out your working environment. Now this may seem simple enough. But working at a desk in front of a computer is not for everybody. Watching my oldest daughter Emma writing brought back a flood of memories to me. She takes a notebook and sits in front of the TV (while it’s on) and writes. Which is exactly what I used to do at her age. She then transposes it on to the computer. My younger daughter, Tess, loves to sit at the computer and write—but she does have notebooks filled with her thoughts as well. There is something about putting pen to page, about the way the pen glides across the page that is meditative for me. I must not forget that, even as I pluck away at the keyboard. But at the same time, writing by hand was a major obstacle for me to overcome in college—learning to write on the typewriter (now computer) and not in the notebook. Tess already has made that leap—but Emma’s process is important, too. In her transposing of text, she is also editing and reworking, and that is a huge step forward for any writer. That first draft is never worth much, so get over it and get on with the work.
  2. Write what you DON’T know. Writing is the best way for some of us to learn and live out our fantasies and dreams. If you follow “writer’s rules,”  one of them is “write what you know.”  It always makes me cringe. Part of my process has always been writing to discover, to learn, to communicate, and entertain. One of my daughter’s stories is about a gang. (My first novel was about a gang, too.) There’s something to be said for working that stuff out on the page—instead of real life. Feelings of not fitting in, finding others like you, and yes, even exploring darker, deeper sides of yourself. Writing about it gives you the emotional texture of having experienced it without the real dangers.  My other daughter is writing a paranormal story about a young woman with special powers who is facing great changes in her life. Wow. Without the paranormal element of “special powers,” that could be any teenage girl’s story as she faces so many changes every day, right?
  3. Write what you love. Once again it sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? But I think especially as we mature and other things enter into our process—like keeping the market in mind—this might be one of the hardest lessons of all. Our time is finite, and we feel like we need to write what will sell to a publisher. If we are lucky, we hit a sweet spot where we enjoy what we’re writing and can sell it. Some days, I can hardly pull Tess off my computer to eat or watch TV because she says, “I’m writing, Mom.” And I have to tell you the only kind of writing worth doing is precisely that kind of writing. Because if it doesn’t hold your interest, it’s not going to hold your reader’s interest either.

 

I love what I do. It’s my sanity, my escape, and my work all rolled into one. If I didn’t love it, if I could think of something else I’d be good at, something else that could hold my interest and earn me a living, I’d do it—because writing is also a heartbreaking, lonely, gut wrenching experience. The business is one of the toughest and cruelest. One of the edges I walk is trying to don a vigilant thick skin, while allowing myself to open up enough to write honest words on the page. Sometimes when I read a negative review or I get a rejection, I hibernate awhile and lick my wounds. But the words and the page pull me back every time.

“What if I don’t win this contest?” Tess asked me one morning. “What if I work so hard on it and I don’t win, then what happens?”

“Are you writing the story just to win the contest?” I asked.

She thought for a moment or two. “I’m writing it faster because of the deadline, but I’d probably write it anyway. I like the story, and I’m having fun.”

And that, my friends, is exactly what I wanted to hear.

 
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Why I Will NOT Write for Free

Posted by Claire Vath on Dec 3, 2013 in Musings, Success Guide, Writer Rants

A year ago, I walked into a meeting and was introduced to a longtime editor. “I’m an admirer of your writing,” she said.

I turned to see who it was she was complimenting.

“Me?” I asked, flushing. There was no one else there.

“Yes, you,” she said, smiling. “I love your work.”

It’s something I’ve been doing professionally for a decade now—and something I’ve been doing informally my whole life—but when people ask what I do, I sort of laugh when I say, “Well, I guess I’m a writer. I write, at least.” Because, even to my ears, it doesn’t sound real.  So when someone gives anything close to recognition, it’s just … odd.

Apparently other people think it’s not quite a real thing either. In a meeting a few months back, a client leaned back in his chair and asked, as though he were joking: “So if you do a lot of work for us, do you give us a discount on your hourly rate?”

It ain’t manual labor, folks, but writing is hard work. (A point which Mollie Bryan made a few weeks back.)

You’d pay me if I sat at a desk all day inputting numbers into a database. Right? Or if I answered phones all day and made copies. Or wasted time playing Solitaire at an office desk. (Does anyone actually play Solitaire anymore??) Or if I cleaned your house or mowed your lawn or cooked your meals.

But yet … some people balk when you ask for money in exchange for words.

My job as a writer is to come up with smoothly flowing sentences and correctly spelled words so you come across as competent.

Nine-point-eight times out of 10, writing is far from inspired. I’m not exuberantly scratching out with my quill pen some existential work that will transform mankind with the gravitas of my words. Mostly, I’m drinking too much coffee and sleepily squinting as I slog through a story that doesn’t particularly interest me while trying to make it sound interesting to a reader. Or I’m crafting interview questions designed to draw out from an interviewee a really great quote that will neatly fit my ideal of what a story should be.

And then there’s the mental toll—mulling those sentences and leads over and over again while I can’t sleep at night, while I’m taking a shower or doing the laundry. It takes time, effort, careful culling and editing to craft a story, a press release, an e-mail.  I may not be doing manual labor, but for every physical hour I spend typing up a blog post or your newsletter or web copy, I’m spending at least twice that working it out in my head, editing and re-editing for you.

To ask me to discount that is frankly insulting.

So when that prospective client asked me about my “writer’s discount,” I gasped but recovered quickly.

If I’d had my wits about me, I’d have said: “So, do you take a pay cut if you work more than 40 hours a week?”  (Judging by his shiny Lexus that was parked just outside, I’d be willing to bet not.)

Or: “My job as your writer is to make you sound less like the idiot you apparently are.”

Instead, “Do you know how expensive diapers are?” in a saccharine-y sweet voice that showed I was also pretending to joke, was my response.  (Judging by my post-college compact car stuffed with diapers and car seats, I was not joking.)

I got the job.

And, a few weeks later, an e-mail. That same client sent me his self-written press release as background for an article I was supposed to write.

The press release copy was rife with misspellings that could have easily been caught … with spell check.

“Did you mail that out yet?” I wrote him back.

His reply: “Yeah, LOL. Did you see any boo boos? :-)”

… I’m worth much more than my hourly rate.

 

 
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Yes, You Can Make Money at This Job….

Posted by Deborah Huso on Feb 8, 2012 in Success Guide, Writer Rants

Reprinted from the Dec. 2010 issue of The ASJA Monthly.

When I first moved to the small mountain community where I currently reside, my neighbors were exceedingly curious about my source of income. Young and single at the time, as far as they could tell, I stayed home all day, never went to work, yet somehow continued to pay the mortgage. Finally, at a Ruritan Club meeting, a local teacher gathered enough gumption to ask me the question we freelance writers often dread: “So what do you do for a living?”

“I’m a writer,” I replied.

She smiled, “Yes, but what do you do for a living?”

I have often wondered if that general notion that one cannot seriously be a writer is not an unconscious force behind the troubles freelancers frequently have with getting paid, particularly with getting paid on time.  How many times when checks from publishers have failed to arrive promptly have I been tempted to pick up the phone, call my editor, and ask her how she would feel if her employer decided not to pay her one month?  Countless times.

But after a decade of earning my bread as a writer, I’ve learned a few things about getting paid, one of which involves never losing my cool and telling that editor what I really think of her persistent “misplacement” of my invoice.

As a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors’ grievance committee, I am all too well aware of the most common payment issues affecting freelance writers—the publications that withhold payment till “acceptance” and then draw out the process of acceptance by six months (and sometimes even years); the magazines that happily accept your assigned article and then ask you to, “oh by the way,” sign their newly developed work-for-hire contract before they can process your check; and then the ones who are in tight financial circumstances and try to get off without paying you…ever.

Whether you’re a writer or entrepreneur of any stripe, some of this probably sounds familiar.

Over my career, I’ve experienced all three scenarios and then some.  The good news, however, is that I have never not been paid.  Perhaps you are shaking your head in disbelief at this point.  But it’s true, and the secret is actually quite simple: I’ve always acted like a businessperson.  No matter how passionate you are about the work you do, whether it’s writing or custom embroidery, you can’t lose yourself in the joy of the work to the degree that you set yourself up for grief in your pocketbook.

The concept of “how to get paid on time” begins long before you submit your invoice to your editor or client. It starts with knowing the financial stability (and payment history) of a market before you sign that contract and then negotiating clear payment terms as well as kill fee clauses that won’t leave you in the lurch if things go horribly wrong. And if things do go wrong and that check hasn’t arrived within 30 days of your article or project submittal, follow up promptly, not six months later.  The longer you wait to pursue payment, the less professional you look as a writer, the more likely the publication will try to take advantage of you, and the more certain they will feel you won’t pursue legal action against them.

Nine out of ten times I’ve experienced an overdue invoice, a quick reminder to my editor at the 31-day mark has done the trick. How much grief can be avoided just by running a tight ship.  And if that simple action fails, prompt escalation of the matter will often work wonders.  Sometimes something as simple as carbon copying my lawyer on a request for payment will turn the situation around in a week or less.  How, you may ask?  It’s simple: if you take yourself seriously as a businessperson, so will your editors, publishers, and clients.

I didn’t become a writer because I like doing accounting. Bookkeeping is my least favorite part of the job.  But doing it well has kept me afloat when plenty of other freelancers have found themselves sinking.

A case in point: two years ago a freelance photographer with whom I worked on a project for a high profile regional magazine called me up in a state of concern. The publication was long overdue on paying both of us.  For me, it was a contract dispute.  The new editor of the magazine was trying to force me to sign a work-for-hire contract ipso facto and withholding payment until I’d done so.  I rarely give away all the rights to my work, and I wasn’t about to start for a relatively small fee of $1,000.  Knowing the magazine had planned my article for the next issue and that the press deadline was less than a month away, I chose to hold my ground, telling the editor I felt I could easily withdraw my article and sell it elsewhere.  The photographer didn’t feel so lucky and when I advised him of my strategy, he said, “That’s great if you can afford to hold on like that.”

Since both of us had been due payment almost nine months earlier, I replied,
“I can’t afford not to.”

And it’s true.  Too often we writers, fearful of where that next paycheck is coming from, allow ourselves to be abused for the sake of money that might come at some indefinite future point.  How much better it is, however, to work for markets that value their contributors, pay them well and in timely fashion, and continue to provide more work. Why continue to give your precious efforts to a market that doesn’t honor them?  It doesn’t make economic sense.

I don’t know if that freelance photographer ever got his due.  I hope he did because his beautiful photography was published two months later alongside my article, and it was done without me having to sign a work-for-hire contract and within two weeks of me sending a polite but firm letter to the magazine’s publisher. Needless to say, it’s not a market with which I choose to work anymore.

I devote my time to markets that respect me as a professional and pay their bills on time.  How did I find these wonderful publishers and clients?  By process of elimination, of course.  It’s an ongoing process, however.  Stop paying me on time and treating me with the respect due to a professional who acts like a professional, and I’ll stop writing for you.  Simple, yes, but it’s something we writers need to remember the next time we’re inclined to take an assignment with that major national magazine just because we want the byline…without doing our homework on the magazine’s financial health, payment history, and treatment of freelancers.

Of course, it’s also important to return the favor to the people for whom we work: meet deadline with clean and accurate copy, be courteous and professional, and do it all with relentless consistency.  Do those things, and the best editors of the best paying publications will beat a path to your door…guaranteed.  And they’ll remember just how much they liked you (and want to earn your continued contributions) when that bill comes, too.          

 
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The Writing Life

Posted by Deborah Huso on Oct 24, 2011 in Mothers and Daughters, Success Guide, Writer Rants

The author at work in the "summer office"

More than a decade ago, when I was just beginning to launch my career as a full-time freelance writer, I remember driving through Goshen Pass in western Virginia, pulling off the road periodically to frame scarlet sugar maples and golden poplars in my camera lens for a fall getaway article I was writing.  Still giddy at the idea I was actually pursuing this crazy dream of mine to live by the written word, I turned to my travel companion, a friend who had accompanied me on so many of these writing journeys, and said, “You know what?  I’m a writer.  I’m actually a writer.”

He regarded me with understandable puzzlement and said, “Well, of course, you’re a writer.”

“No, really,” I insisted, as if daylight had suddenly shattered through the sodden tree limbs overhanging Route 42, “I’m a writer.  I’m actually making a living by writing.”

Of course, this was not news to my friend.  But somehow it was news to me.  Through late nights at the computer and endless prospecting for freelance work, I had somehow been so caught up in the business of making a living by my craft that I had failed to notice the point at which I actually became a professional writer.

But then the question remains, what exactly is a writer?  And have I, for the past 30 years, been selling myself short because I was not, for nearly 20 of those years, earning a living wage as a writer?  How many writers, after all, can earn a consistent living wage by their craft? After all, it took me two decades to figure it out.

You see, I was not suddenly a writer while photographing autumn foliage in Goshen Pass.  Nor was I suddenly a writer when I published my first newspaper article or my first short story.  If we want to talk about writing and what it means to be a writer, well then, I have to go back much farther, to a period that doesn’t appear on my resume.  Because I have been a writer almost since I could hold a pen, quite literally.

I wrote my first short story when I was six years old.  I was no child prodigy.  I had been reading biographies of famous Americans written for young children and had loved them so much I wanted to write my own.  So I wrote a story (though I probably considered the effort great enough at the time to be called a book) about a pioneer girl named Ellen Kay Brown.  And I illustrated it, too, with pencil sketches of girls in bonnets and fathers with grisly beards.

I handed the notebook-paper story to my mother, a high school English teacher, for my first critical review.  She didn’t paste it to the refrigerator with a magnet or smile and exclaim how proud she was of my effort.  She took it in her hands quite seriously, as she would a research paper on Hamlet or Macbeth, and, red pen in hand, proceeded to critique my first attempt at literature, circling my childish “enuff” and changing it to “enough,” capitalizing proper nouns, inserting punctuation.

Was this some cruelty on her part?  I never for once thought so, but perhaps some more indulging parent might.  This was par for the course in a household where books lined shelves in rooms upstairs and down and where anyone of blood relation would know the difference between “can” and “may” as well as “lie” and “lay.”

I took my little manuscript back, absorbing her red corrections, recording their sense for the next effort, and thus began a ritual between us that lasted until I left home for college.  I wrote; she critiqued quietly with her red pen.  By the time I graduated from high school, I was one of only a select few in the world who knew, as if by second nature, when and when not to use commas as well as how to give stylistic flair to an exam essay (though my mother claims no responsibility for the latter skill).

Today my mother keeps all these carefully reviewed manuscripts—penciled short stories, illustrated poems, carefully typed essays—in a cabinet in the library.  They are small treasures to her, the woman who said, when I declared at six years of age that I was going to be a writer, “It’s never wise to count your chickens before they hatch.”

But I’ve always been counting chickens, hatched and unhatched, and I’ve never assumed anything other than success.  That has been my way.  It would have to be my way.  Only a dreamer could ever believe it possible to make a career out of language.

But still the question—when did I become a writer?  My first sense that I might be one actually came when I was a senior in college and my mentor and three-time history professor said upon reading my senior thesis, “There’s nothing I can tell you about writing.  I wouldn’t know how to critique you.”  My mother never said this, but on the infrequent occasions when I showed her a college or graduate research paper, she would read it, first page to last, hand it back, and say only, “Looks fine to me.”  Flipping through the paper, I scanned the pages for the familiar red ink—nothing.  Full circle at last, I thought.

Yet no writer who is a good writer ever thinks his or her work is good enough.  I read articles I wrote only months ago and think today they look horrible.  I have become my mother minus the red pen.  All things can be improved upon.

Yet all writers know this, and all writers know, deep down, that it is not so much the paycheck that justifies them as authors.  It is the constant development, the constant effort.  I have been a writer since I was six.  An editor might be intrigued to know that I have more than three decades of experience.  But would that intrigue persist if she knew the whole truth?

Probably not.

And that is the sad reality of the writing life.  Until you have a paycheck from a publisher, and preferably several, you are not a writer.  Your skill level, your decades of practice, your passion are irrelevant . . .  at least to most editors.

Did you ever notice that the editor who constantly sent you rejections of your pitches suddenly changed his tune when one of his colleagues took a chance and published your work . . . with success?   Yes, once you have a few publishing credits behind you, the rejections trickle to a minimum.  Which makes you wonder—does good writing count for anything?  Or are editors, like movie producers, tied to the tried and true?

Well, yes and no.  Good writing does count for something.  After all, it’s easier to publish good writing than bad.  But getting good writing noticed, in the end, is a matter of luck.  For myself, I ran into an overwhelmed newspaper editor willing to take a chance on me and the editor of a start-up lifestyle magazine with a dearth of authors.  After that, everything began to fall into place.  Just ask Nicholas Sparks how he became a best-selling author overnight.  His answer, like that of so many other wildly successful writers, will make you dream like the daily players of the lottery and gnash your teeth at the same time.

It is luck.

But it’s also persistence.  Beat the statistics by flooding the market.

I guess my mother, my original editor, knew a thing or two.  I kept passing her the notebook paper, and one day it came back without red ink.  Was it talent, or did I beat the odds?  Perhaps a little of both . . . but maybe it’s time I started playing the lottery.

 
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And We Have Copyright Law Because…?

Posted by Deborah Huso on Jan 3, 2011 in Writer Rants

So we all know The Huffington Post is able to turn a profit because it doesn’t pay its contributors.  Now Forbes is looking to do the same…on a whole new scale.  Not only does the company have plans to use the works of thousands of unpaid bloggers to build the content for its site, but it then plans to turn around and sell the works for which it has not paid.  Yes, you read that correctly.

Now imagine for a moment how successful a typical company would be if it failed to pay its employees.  How many would give it their all?  I daresay very few.  Why does the media world think it can operate by different rules?  Probably because there are countless writers out there willing to work for nothing, a concept I’ve personally never been able to grasp.  But then I have bills to pay.

In one of his latest blog posts for BNET, “Forbes.com: Don’t Steal Our Content. We Took It Fair and Square,” a post for which I’m certain he received compensation, Erik Sherman writes, “Forbes can take any free blog material and use it in any of its magazines or give permission to any other publisher that has licensed the Forbes name.  It can sell rights to others to use the blog posts and also sell reprints.  These rights last forever and extend to all wireless and mobile.  And the writers get nothing.”

Now in case you are not familiar with U.S. Copyright Law, let me give you a quick civic lesson: the fundamental ideals behind copyright law are to give creators rights and control over their work, the ability to earn income from it, the idea being that if we creators have an economic incentive to create, then we’ll create more, thereby promoting knowledge in the universe.

Take the creator’s right to earn his bread by his work away, and what do you have?  Well, you certainly don’t have a full-time professional writer.  I can tell you that.  And why do you want one?  Well, it’s pretty simple.  I certainly don’t want Joe Neighbor giving me the scoop on what’s happening in Afghanistan anymore than I want the ghostwriter for GM’s CEO writing content for Forbes.com. Journalism is supposed to be objective…and factual.

Sure, there are some conscientious writers contributing to these “salary-free” sites, but they are few and far between. Most of us can’t afford to be conscientious for free.  Like normal people who get paid to go to work every day, writers have families and mortgages, too.

This is not to say I’m arguing here for the poor, unpaid writer to get paid.  If you’re writing for free for Forbes.com or anyone else for that matter with the idea you’re going to get your big break one day, I’ve got news for you: you’ll likely wait till you starve to death.  What concerns me and what has consistently concerned me on these pages is the continuing “dumbing down” of the universe.

Would you want an unpaid mechanic working on the airplane on which you’re about to fly cross-country? Would you want an unpaid surgeon putting a pacemaker in your dad’s chest?  So why are you reading “news coverage” provided by unpaid journalists?  Is truth cheap?  Somehow, I don’t think so. But bunk sure is.

 
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A Professional Journalist’s Guide to Public Relations

Posted by Deborah Huso on Nov 6, 2010 in Writer Rants

Having worked for many years as a public relations consultant myself (until the 11 p.m. calls from newspaper reporters and consistently overdue payments of too many clients eventually inspired me to give up the ghost), I’m all too well aware of the hazards of the business, how the slightest misstep can blacklist you and your client…for life.  And having worked both sides of this media table, I find myself not infrequently amazed at the number of untrained people out there calling themselves “publicists.”  It is no wonder the profession has the reputation of being the purview of former cheerleaders who have consumed too many energy drinks.

But lest I offend the couple dozen public relations professionals who regularly and promptly supply me with expert sources in deadline pinches (you know who you are–God bless you!), let me say there are plenty of PR folks who know exactly what they’re doing–those who are able to walk the fine line between promoting their clients and understanding that journalists do not exist for the purpose of providing upbeat editorial coverage of hair tonic and exercise videos.  Nor do they berate me by e-mail for failing to interview their company CEO when he failed to call before my deadline or tell me how unreasonable I am to expect them to locate the world’s foremost brain surgeon in two hours.  Trust me, my editors would not understand or empathize if I attempted to explain it was 2 a.m. in Australia, and Dr. So-and-So just isn’t awake right now.

So for those of you who are scratching your heads and wondering just how to do this tricky job of PR, here are some tips:

  1. When I call you for an interview source and tell you I’m on two-hour deadline, please don’t whine about how impossible it is for you to work within that ridiculous timeline. How do you think I feel?  Either say you can help or you can’t, and IF you say you CAN, then please do it.  Don’t string me along for 118 minutes only to finally tell me getting an interview with your client is hopeless.
  2. Understand you are not the only boxer in the ring. Chances are good, you’re not the only person I’m calling for comment on whether or not eating a can of tuna a day is bad for your health. Realize the fastest pigeon wins the race, and if two other doctors call me back before yours does, bow out gracefully, and ask me to call you again sometime. Chances are, I will. Throw a raging fit, and you’ll never hear from me again.
  3. Once your happy client has been featured in an article of mine, please don’t pelt me daily with irrelevant pitches by e-mail. Nothing will inspire me to associate your name with the “delete” button faster.
  4. Don’t even think of calling me on the phone unless you are responding to a direct request from me for a source. The last thing I need when I’m on two-hour deadline is to hear your pitch on “the secret life of the penis” for 15 minutes.  I don’t care if you are Dr. Oz or his best friend.  I just really don’t have time.  If you think what you have to say is really and truly that important and within my realm of typical editorial coverage, send me an e-mail, and if you don’t hear back from me, you can probably assume your hunch was wrong.
  5. Understand relationships are everything. Establish a good one with me, and I’ll think of you every time I need an expert.
  6. Do not ever call my home phone number. If you have the misfortune of getting me on the phone, you will not only be blacklisted for life, but you’ll probably experience a side of my personality I reserve exclusively for telemarketers, excessively nosy neighbors, and meddling relatives.

Please note that the above rules apply in almost any media coverage situation with almost any journalist. If you abide by them (and can simultaneously accomplish the not especially easy task of getting your client to abide by them as well), you’ll find yourself outpacing your peers in the field by leaps and bounds. So next time you get a grumpy reporter on the phone, ask yourself (before you take offense), if you’ve followed these six rules. Chances are, you haven’t.

 
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Why I Don’t Believe Anything I Read…Or See on TV

Posted by Deborah Huso on Nov 3, 2010 in Writer Rants

Perhaps this headline strikes you as a little odd coming from someone who earns her bread as a journalist.  But it’s precisely because I’m a journalist that I feel as I do. I’m always certain nothing good is coming when a friend or relative claims earnestly, “But I saw it on CNN!”  As if that makes it true.

Sloppy journalism is an unfortunate norm, driven by a number of factors–the desire to be the first to get a news story on the air or on the web, the sheer insanity of deadlines that require one to report on complex topics with very little preparation or research beforehand, the dumbing down of the media world in an age when any Tom Fool can get on the Internet and claim fiction as fact….  The list goes on.

And while I’ve long been aware of just how unreliable most information the media puts out there is, every so often it hits home really hard.  Earlier today, a public relations contact of mine gleefully pointed out to me that a recent article of mine had been quoted and used as a source in an article in TIME magazine. Now the uninitiated may all think TIME magazine like BBC News is above reproach. I beg to differ.  The fact that they used something I wrote as a source is proof positive that they’re as guilty of sloppy journalism as anyone.

Why?

Because the article in question was one I wrote on a two-hour deadline, following a poor night of sleep, a major scrambling for interviews with experts, all while multi-tasking on two other projects at the same time. I’m not saying my article is inaccurate, but I will say I was mortified to see it used as a source by someone else. Suddenly, the work of a single, over-worked, tired out, frazzled journalist is becoming the law of the land.  Do you see where I’m going with this?

On any given day, I conduct half a dozen or more interviews and write three to four articles, and that’s just between the hours of 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. Even the finest multi-tasker has statistics stacked against her.  With that much content pouring out of my office each day, something somewhere is going to be wrong.

How often have I interviewed experts on breaking news stories only to have them rant about how that reporter they talked to at some competing news organization got it all wrong? It happens a lot, more than I care to think about. Many times when I’ve been asked to dig deeper into some amazing new story about how much healthier it is to eat a Big Mac than a boiled egg, I find it’s all hype.  It’s not true.  And there’s no story.  But some reporter somewhere (either because his editor told him to or because he failed to do his homework) is out there claiming there is a story, and it’s all over the evening news, the Internet, and the front page of the next morning’s paper. These things frighten me.

They frighten me because, as a journalist, I know to take everything I hear, read, or see with a grain of salt. I know journalists are human, that they’re not only subject to make mistakes but that some of them will even make mistakes on purpose just for the sake of being the one to break a big story (whether it’s true or not). But does the average consumer of information know just how fallible journalists are?  Or just how disturbingly sensationalist the media has become in the way it reports and presents the news? Probably not.

But you’ve been warned. The brave new world of journalism is not, in many instances, journalism at all.  When news can be accessed 24/7, the news provider who gets the worm (i.e. the hits)  is not the one who does the best reporting, but the one who writes the most intriguing headline (true or not) before someone else does.

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