How to Make a Living as a Freelance Writer with Ellen Freeman
This episode features Ellen Freeman, a freelance writer and editor based in Mexico City. We cover topics such as advice to writers who are just starting out, the process of pitching, financial challenges of being a freelance writer, what makes a good story, and much more.
Ellen Freeman is a writer and editor who graduated from Haverford College with a B.A. in Comparative Literature (Arabic & English) in 2011. Her writing has been published in Lenny Letter, Refinery29, Roads & Kingdoms, i-D, Travel Portland, Racked, Mental Floss, Ozy, October, Apartment Therapy, The Matador Network, The Fashion Spot, the Portland Mercury, and other online and print publications.
"Don’t let ideas die just because they’ve been rejected once. If it’s an evergreen story, keep pitching it because eventually, someone’s going to want it."
She’s the Deputy Editor of Broccoli, a magazine for cannabis lovers, made by and for women. Together with Sharada Tolton, she created Muff, a zine about the *new* New Age.
- Ellen Freeman’s Website
- Ellen Freeman’s Instagram
- Broccoli Magazine
- Muff Zine
- Study Hall Newsletter
- Binders Full of Writing Jobs Facebook Group
- Who Pays Writers?
- Longform Podcast
- The Briefcase Technique
- The Changing Times Newspaper
- Midori.so Coworking
- James Altucher
- Seth Godin
- Stephanie Madewell
- Anja Charbonneau
- Episode Introduction [00:51]
- Advice for Writers Who Are Just Starting Out [02:12]
- Making a Living as a Freelance Writer [05:54]
- How to Pitch Stories to Editors [12:04]
- Short Episode Break – Support the Podcast [19:41]
- Ellen’s Work Routines [20:31]
- Idea Generation [25:33]
- Writing Advice [27:39]
- Authentic Networking [29:38]
- What Makes a Good Story [35:55]
- Advice for Being a Better Writer and Creative Professional [38:30]
- Episode Outro [40:30]
Ellen: People were talking about asking for more money and I was shocked. I was like, “You can’t ask for more money.” I started doing it and I’ve only ever once not gotten the more money than I’ve asked for.
This is the Creative Voyage podcast, a long form interview show with the mission of helping creative professionals to level up. I’m your host, Mario Depicolzuane. I’m a creative professional myself, active in the fields of graphic design, art direction, and creative consulting, working with companies such as Kinfolk, Menu, and SONOS.
Through Season One of this podcast, I present in-depth interviews with some of the world’s most inspiring creative professionals, revealing the stories that shaped their lives and careers, plus actionable strategies to help take your mindset and skills to the next level. I invite you to join me on this journey.
Mario: In this episode I talk to a freelance writer and editor.
Ellen: My name is Ellen Freeman. I’m originally from Portland, Oregon but for the last year, I’ve been in living in Mexico City. I write for various online and print publications. I’m also the deputy editor of Broccoli, a new magazine about cannabis culture, by and for women, and a magazine with my friend who’s a illustrator and graphic designer Sharada Tolton called Muff and it’s about the new, New Age.
Mario: Ellen’s writing has been published in Refinery29, Lenny Letter, Roads & Kingdoms, i-D, Travel Portland, Wrecked, and other online and print publications. She writes extensively about culture, bringing layers of understanding to phenomena which can seem foreign or unusual to outsiders. I love how she instills personality in her writing voice, which can be particularly witnessed in her current engagements such as with Broccoli magazine and Muff zine.
Mario: In this episode, we’re going to listen to the highlights of the conversation I had with Ellen in August of 2018. We cover topics such as advice to writers who are just starting out, the process of pitching, financial challenges of being a freelance writer, what makes a good story, and much more.
I began my conversation with Ellen talking about how she started writing professionally and things she might have done differently in hindsight. Those first lessons are often hard-earned and extremely valuable, so I asked Ellen about the advice she would give herself where she was just starting out.
Ellen: I started being paid to write in 2010 while I was still in college. I was writing a lot of things that I didn’t care about at all, like a lot of celebrity fashion roundups and shopping tips and sponsored content for brands that like I don’t really support. That’s a rabbit hole that you can really get sucked into as a writer trying to make a living I think, writing content that you don’t really have any passion for. And I think being choosier about projects or going for the things that I really wanted to do rather than like the low hanging fruit would be the advice I would give myself.
Mario: At the time, you were just starting out so you perhaps just taking the opportunities that you can get to also support yourself?
Ellen: Yeah. Exactly.
Mario: It’s probably like a hard balance at the beginning.
Ellen: I think so, but I think it’s something that you could convince yourself of for a long time and potentially your whole career. Because what I told myself was like, “Well, I don’t really care about this but I’m writing so I’m keeping my craft fresh.” But actually I was so tired at the end of the day of writing about things that I didn’t care about that I didn’t actually want to do any writing that I cared about. So I don’t think that that’s a viable excuse.
Mario: You shared advice you would give to yourself. I’m curious, what advice would you give to a young person who is entering into a writing, how to start and what to do in their first couple of years of their career?
Ellen: Yeah. I had to laugh when I read this question because I was like, I think I need the advice. I don’t know if I’m in a position to be giving the advice. I guess it’s just the same advice that I would give to myself, which is to read a lot and to be really familiar with the media world because there are just so many publications out there. And I think it definitely gives you an advantage if you know who the others are, what the voice of this publication is, or what kind of stories they do because then you know where to pitch and how to pitch. I definitely don’t feel like I read enough, yeah, that’s advice that I need to take for myself.
Ellen: But another piece of advice I would give is that there are a lot of resources out there that I didn’t know about until this past year when I started freelancing full time. There are a lot of newsletters that successful freelancers put out sharing their tips. There’s this list that I’m a part of called Study Hall, but you pay a really small fee, I think it’s like a dollar a month and then you can post questions and people answer them and there are thousands of members from all different levels of journalism and publishing. They maintain an editor database with editor emails and how much they usually pay and what kind of stories they’re looking for. That’s been amazingly helpful for me.
Ellen: They’re also, for women specifically a lot of groups on Facebook called Binders, which is like a joke off of Trump’s binders-full-of-women statement. They’re so specific. There’s Binders Full of Travel Writers, Binders Full of Entry Level Writers, Binders Full of Cannabis Writers, and they post calls for pitches and jobs there and people will ask questions or help connect you with other people. That’s been also really helpful for me. I found a lot of jobs through both of those.
Even though Ellen has worked as a successful freelance writer for years now, I assume that as most of us, she still experiences difficulties. I wanted to hear what they’re, in her opinion, the biggest challenges of being a writer today and equally things that she’s perhaps struggled with. Most of our discussion revolved around the topic of money and the financial difficulties of being a writer. So I asked Ellen to share how she manages that.
Ellen: A big part of it was moving to Mexico where my expenses are much, much lower. Since I lived in Japan for three years where my housing was subsidized by the government and I was making a pretty good salary, I have a lot of savings from that time. Then I save a lot by living in Mexico where my rent for a two-bedroom is about $700 split with my partner. So save a lot of money here. I know that if I was living in the US I would certainly have to be taking projects that I don’t really care about or have some other kind of side cyber day job. So yeah, I think location is really important. I mean it’s hard because I love the idea of being a staff writer someday, having a separate position in a magazine or a podcast or a publication of some kind, but it seems like you really have to live in New York or LA and that’s not where I am right now.
Ellen: I also teach English lessons on Skype, to Japanese students learning English and that almost pays my rent. It’s about maximum 10 hours a week, but usually not even approaching that. Six hours a week. While I would not advise other writers to have a side gig because I think it’s really easy for that to keep you from actually writing, that has really worked out for me because it gives me just a little bit of something to fall back on to know that there’s at least some money coming in. But I think that that could be, for a lot of writers, that’s an anchor client. So like someone who they write a certain number of stories for every month, who they have an ongoing relationship with. So for me that’s the magazine, Broccoli, that I write for and that I help edit.
Ellen: If that were a full time job, it would be my absolute dream job, but it’s not because we only publish three times a year. So that’s something that I can kind of structure my months around and know that I’ll be getting a certain amount of income every four months. But having something like that, just one or two jobs that are steady, recurring gigs is like kind of the, I feel like the freelancer’s dream. But if you don’t have those, then the ups and downs of how much money you’re gonna make from month to month because it can be so different, and also often you don’t get paid until two months after something is published. So that kind of instability is a big challenge.
Mario: Would you be willing to expand on how your earnings distributed? You obviously need to have different sources and you’re doing different projects. Some are for print publications, some are for websites.
Ellen: It’s hard to say. So the teaching English pretty much covers my rent but that is pretty recent. That’s like the last few months. Before that, the magazine was covering my rent. Then the rest are just one-off little jobs. So stories that I pitch to different publications. I don’t have any other ongoing things. And those, sometimes I’ll have one in a month and sometimes they’ll have three or four in a month. Those are between $200 and $700 each, if that’s helpful for people to know. So those are really like the variable. The other two are constant and then it’s just, it’s really like how much I push myself to pitch and to follow up and to keep pitching ideas.
Mario: Think that’s helpful. I appreciate you being open about financial side. Well, I think people are going to find that useful.
Ellen: Yeah. I think a lot of people just don’t know how to set their rate and I definitely don’t either, but talking to friends who are maybe more established is helpful. There are some online resources for that too. There’s a website called Who Pays Writers. It’s crowdsourced and people will put in what they’ve made from different publications and that’s super helpful.
Ellen: I just wanted to add that I am extremely privileged to be able to live in Mexico City and have a visa through my partner’s work that allows me to work here and to be earning dollars that goes so far here just because of the immense inequality between the US and our neighbor. I didn’t want to sound like, “Yeah, just move to Mexico. Everything’s cheap.” It’s a very complicated decision to make to move anywhere for your career, but to move here and know that I’m going to be inhabiting this position of privilege and thinking about how can I use that? I just didn’t ... I didn’t want to make it seem like I was just like, “Yeah, you can move to Mexico and you’ll be so rich.” But that has been a big factor in my ability to be a freelance writer.
Ellen: I’ve listened to the Longform podcast, which I love and they interview a lot of writers and journalists and they often ask them like, “How do you make it work?” I’ve heard a lot of writers who’s like, “Well I’m married to someone who works in finance”, or like they talk about these circumstances that their life that seem outside of their ability as a writer and editor, but that are actually a big part of what makes that possible. It doesn’t cancel out their innate talent. It’s just one of the factors that goes into that.
Mario: What I got from your answer regarding of Mexico and living there, the underlying principle is more of finding a way to keep your costs down and lower. They can often be done even if you’re living in like a major European city.
A crucial part of being a freelance writer or any freelancer is to be proactive about finding suitable work, which for writers often means pitching stories. Here Ellen shares her process and experience with pitching.
Ellen: I’ve never been approached by someone to do a story without pitching them. So it’s always pitching, but I know for a lot of people who are probably further along in their career, publications do you reach out and ask them. We do that at Broccoli sometimes. So for me it’s usually, I get an idea and ... it’s actually changed. In the recent past. I try to do a lot more pre-reporting and pre-interviews now, before pitching a story. I’ve just found that when I can include a quote from the person who I want to profile, for example, that I got myself or some kind of juicy tidbit that maybe they haven’t put up on their website yet, or if I can just show a publication that I have already invested time in this, that I’m not just ... it’s not an idea off the top of my head, that I already have a connection to the sources that I’ll be using, I think that that really goes a long way. So in the last few months I started almost always doing that when I pitch a story and that really helps.
Mario: This reminds me of a sales and pitching tactic called “the briefcase technique”. Have you heard about it?
Mario: So the technique was popularized by Ramit Sethi, an author and consultant. He calls it “the briefcase technique” and it can be used to get advantage in job interviews also with potential clients or another form of negotiation. The basic idea is that before the initial meeting with your prospect, you pre-front some work, learn about their business, develop some initial ideas on how you could work together, even put together a quote with general menu options of working with you and that it can pilot in a neatly printed document.
Mario: During the meeting, after you’ve built some rapport and they have answered enough of your questions, you mention that you’ve done some research before the meeting and that you have some thoughts you’d like to share and that you’ve prepared a document. Then in a classic scenario of that tactic, you pull it out of your briefcase and share it with your prospect. In that way, you’re revealing how much research you’ve done by explaining the things that you’ve learned about their business, how they could improve it, and why you are the person for the job. When done with respect and confidence, it sets you apart from the rest of the pile for sure.
Mario: When I’ve learned about the technique and then I’ve used it for the first time, I just got a job on the spot. It was like a project and then that happened with the next potential project as well.
Mario: Yeah. It doesn’t work always, but it was a real game-changer for my freelance career and the way I sell my services. While most people come barely prepared or even entirely unprepared for a meeting and just wing it, you show a level of dedication and professionalism by doing this and if the fit is right for a client, you shift the conversation from should they work with you or not to, what should they work with you on.
Ellen: Right. I think it’s just like showing that you’re legit and you’ve already started to work on it and you’re going to follow it through.
Mario: I think there is probably a strategic pitfall to that when you’re maybe more advanced in your career because you don’t want to like preload a lot of work or give your expertise for free or like diagnose in a way before you even had a conversation because then you can even end up looking a bit amateurish in a way. But I think it’s really helpful when you need to prove yourself and you’re more in that position when you’re trying to come to the level of professional or an expert, so you need those opportunities.
Ellen: Yeah. I’ve struggled with this real resistance to doing anything for free. I think that’s what kept me from doing pre-reporting at first because I was like, “Well, I’m not getting paid to do this”, and I didn’t really see until I started doing it and it started working, that it’s an investment. It’s just time you’re investing and hopefully it’ll pay off and it almost always does.
Mario: Is there anything else when it comes to pitching? How does the whole process usually work? Does it take a longer time before, I don’t know, you pitch a story then you get the reply…
Ellen: It takes forever. It’s definitely the most frustrating part of freelancing. It feels so good when an editor responds to you. But having now been on the other side of the email thread with Broccoli, I know how many emails editors get and I totally get that they can’t respond to each one with a detailed explanation of why the pitch isn’t going to work or what would be to change about it. So I totally get it, but the silence can be very frustrating.
Ellen: So how it usually works is I send an email and you wait and you wonder and you kind of forget about it. I used to follow up after two weeks and I started following up after one week just as I’m tired of waiting. The followup is really important. I’ve had a lot of editors email me back and say, “Sorry this got lost in the shuffle, but yes I am interested.” That can be annoying because it’s like, “Well if it’s such a great idea, how did you miss it the first time?” but they’re busy. They do a lot of email.
Ellen: So the follow up is really important. Yeah. From that point on all is good, but often, they’ll respond and say ... if they just say like, “We’re going to pass, but keep pitching,” that’s hard because you don’t really know why they passed. So it’s really wonderful if there any editors out there listening to this, it’s really wonderful to know at least one reason why the idea is not going to work. Often it’s totally logistical. It has to do with timing or something else. They’re already doing a Mexico story in this issue or they’re out of budget. There’s so many reasons that a piece won’t work for a magazine at a certain time that aren’t that you’re a terrible writer and they hate you and don’t ever email them again, which is obviously my go-to explanation.
Ellen: So usually when a pitch gets rejected, I tried to rework it and I always find some dumb thing that I said in the original email. So rework it. I’ll shine it up and I’ll send it to someone else. I think that that’s another piece of advice I would give is to not let ideas die just because they’ve been rejected once. I mean sometimes things are time-sensitive. If it’s an evergreen story, to just keep pitching it because I think eventually someone’s going to want it.
Mario: Yeah. When it comes to the budget, how does that thing work?
Ellen: Yeah, I usually don’t propose a budget. It’s always in my experience that they’ll say, “This is how much we pay you. Does that work for you?” For a long, long time I was afraid of contradicting them in any way so they would give you the deadline and the budget and I’d be like, “Great. No questions asked.” Recently, I ... I forget where I got this tip, but it was definitely from one of the groups like online groups that I belong to. People were talking about asking for more money and I was shocked. I was like, “You can’t ask for more money.”
Ellen: I started doing it and I’ve only ever once not gotten the more money than I’ve asked for. I think that editors have a tight budget and they have to start as low as they think that they can go, but often they have wiggle room. I don’t know. In some ways I feel like it kind of shows that you’re serious by saying, “You know, I usually do stories like this for 500. Do you have any flexibility?” And I’ve been really surprised most editors will consider giving you more. But I mean, ideally I wish that they would just offer you the maximum amount that they could possibly pay but they’re running a business. So it makes sense they don’t.
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Many of my friends and colleagues are freelancers and I’ve been working as one for years now, so I’m aware that the routines of freelancers can vary significantly, which I find interesting. I was curious to hear what makes Ellen’s workdays, how she manages her time and if there are any hurdles she encounters in that domain.
Ellen: It’s so variable. So Broccoli comes out three times a year and there will be months when we’re super busy and emailing back and forth and talking on the phone all the time and then there’ll be months where it’s totally quiet because we’re in between issues. So I’m sometimes a lot busier and then I’m sometimes ... I mean the thing about being a freelancer is that no one’s going to call you and make you come to work. If you don’t go chasing down the work, there’s not gonna be any.
Ellen: I get work done a lot better in the morning. So I try to get started pretty soon after getting up. I also get work done a lot better outside of the house. So I go to cafes a lot. I don’t belong to a co-working space, but I actually just wrote an essay about. So I went to Tokyo in the spring to work on a newspaper with a friend who has this really cool project called The Changing Times. She makes a newspaper from a different place each month.
Mario: That’s a really cool concept.
Ellen: Yeah. It’s a paper about place, so it’s not really about the news. She just drops into a place and starts talking to as many people as she can and finding out what conversations people are having in that place. So she knew that I had lived in Japan. She asked me to do the Tokyo issue with her. So we went to Tokyo and we collaborated with this network of co-working spaces called Midori.so and they put us up in one of their co-working spaces. So we were actually sleeping in the middle of the office and I had this experience of absolutely no work-life separation because we were at work all day and all night.
Ellen: At first it felt weird because it was a public place and there are other people there, but I eventually realized that it really wasn’t that different from my normal life. It was just I was living in my working space instead of working in my living space, which is what I do now. So the challenge of freelancing is that you can work at any time and so for me it’s hard to ... It’s like a working hard or hardly working kind of thing. It’s hard to not constantly be looking at my email or not ... like even if there’s not always work to be done because frankly I don’t work that many hours in the day, it’s this kind of nagging feeling that I could be working and that’s nights, weekends, you know. So I think that having something to divide your space and time, whether that’s, I don’t know, a desk at a co-working space or certain hours that you don’t work or don’t check your email, could be really helpful in creating a routine. As it is now, I feel like I’m working all the time but I kind of know that like I’m never working.
Mario: I’ve been struggling with the same thing over the last few years and I always have different phases and sometimes I’m much better sometimes I’m not. But yeah, I think it’s a big struggle to find that balance. It’s not like a work-life balance, it’s more like work-life integration or something, which I think it’s fine if you manage to have those pockets when you disconnect completely.
Ellen: Yeah. Definitely. My partner uses this program called KanbanFlow. He’s a teacher and he’s figured out how many hours he needs to do outside of the classroom to stay on top of all of his work. But he’s also the personality type that could just keep working all night into night if he had unlimited time. So he uses this timer to say like, “Okay, I’ve done my four hours and now I can walk away from this and feel good about it.” So I think that that’s something that could be helpful.
Ellen: I think for me it would be the opposite. It would be like I have to make myself sit down and work for four hours because I do a lot of future tripping where I’m like, “Oh, I have all these things done by next Friday and there’s no possible way I’m going to get them done.” And I’ll walk around thinking that and feeling bad for like three days and then I’ll sit down and my partner will be like, “So how was it?” Like, “Oh, I got it all done.” Actually starting and sitting down and doing it is the hardest part. Then if I could sustain that, I think I would get a lot more done. But then I’ll finish and I’ll be like, “Great, I’m done” then walk away.
Mario: Yeah. Do you have any strategy or tactic to just push yourself to start?
Ellen: Working in the morning for sure. Because if I put it off until later in the day, I’ll have so many excuses, you know, “I’m too tired” or “I need to ... my brain’s not working as well anymore and I can start it tomorrow.” So I have to just do things in the morning and work for a while.
Mario: Because it’s the same for me, especially those things which are the hardest.
Ellen: Yeah, but I think that’s a piece of advice too, is to find out when you work best and work then.
When talking about writing, we’re destined to would come to the concept of writer’s block. As defined on Wikipedia, the condition rages in difficulty from coming up with original ideas to being unable to produce a piece of work for years. However, as some authors such as James Altucher or Seth Godin would argue that’s often an excuse, a form of hiding and it comes down to not showing willingness to focus on the work itself versus the outcome. Here are Ellen’s thoughts on that.
Ellen: A big part for me as a writer is generating ideas, things I want to write about. I think that that’s a muscle that you have to work out. I mean maybe for some people it comes naturally, but like I’ll be talking to someone who’s a writer and they’ll tell me something that they’re writing about and I’ll think, “Oh, I’ve thought of that a million times. Why didn’t I ever think of making a story out of that?” So taking the passing the thoughts or the story that someone mentions to you at a party or something you read about but that wasn’t fully explored and then getting that to the pitch phase, is something that I’m always working on.
Ellen: A while ago I started giving myself or trying to make myself come up with one story idea a day, even if I thought that it wasn’t sellable at all and would never go anywhere or was like totally ... would involve like parachuting into Afghanistan, like something that would never come about, but I try to keep a spreadsheet of those and that has been a really good exercise. I’ve definitely dropped off and I’m not doing one a day anymore. But when I would get to the end of the day and I realized I hadn’t written anything down and I would think about like, “Well, what stories did I hear today? Or what interesting thing do I want to know more about that I came across today?”, there’s always something. I think in the back of writers’ minds is the fear that someday you’re just going to run out of stories to tell. That helped me to see that it’s not that you’re going to run out of stories to tell. It’s that you’re gonna forget that things could be interesting to other people or that it’s a story that you could tell. So always trying to not just let it be, you know, in one ear, out the other.
I believe writing is important for most of us. It’s an increasingly necessary skill needed to participate in a global market and culture in a way that matters. For example, writing is an integral part of my current job and I’m a graphic designer and an art director, not a copywriter or an editor. Therefore I’ve used this opportunity to ask Ellen if she give any advice for us non-writers on how to improve our writing skills.
Ellen: I’m not sure because I mean writing is obviously something that I have to work at but it also has come naturally to me, but you can definitely tell the difference between people who are writers and not writers. So I think that it might seem obvious, but just proofreading. I feel like I get a lot of emails that I’m like, “It’s very obvious that the person wrote it and hit send and didn’t reread it to see if there were mistakes or something that wasn’t clear.” Other than that, I would just say clarity. I feel like writing is, you know, we use it to communicate and it can be poetry and there’s a place for that, but for things like pitches in emails and things like just being as clear as possible, erring on the side of clarity.
Ellen: I also think that in terms of writing more creatively, the editor at Broccoli, Stephanie Madewell is amazing. She’s an amazing editor. She’s so good at finding a balance between letting the writer’s voice shine through, but also making sure that the story that we had in mind is being told. Something that I’ve learned from her is she’s really good at anticipating the questions that a reader might have or the objections that a reader might have when reading a piece. So I think that even from like a purely utilitarian standpoint with pitching and stuff, just thinking about what will the reader be left asking or what they might ... what their comeback might be to this and anticipating that a little bit can help improve writing.
For us creatives, a significant segment of our work comes down to our style, our voice, our point of view. Also, it’s about the projects that we’re working on and perhaps more importantly, the people that we’re collaborating with. All those and many other factors determine if our work is going to be authentic or not. I’ve talked to Ellen about that intersection and how that played out on her current engagement with Broccoli magazine.
Ellen: Everything that I’ve written for Broccoli has been so much fun to work on because I think for most of my writing career I’ve been adopting this voice that I think that the publication wants me to have or like that I think the reader expects or ... Yeah, just this voice that’s like half me but also not me, like glossy magazine voice.
Ellen: When I started writing for Broccoli, I mean it’s a magazine about cannabis, so it’s pretty untrodden ground. They have just given me full license to really let my freak flag fly and that’s been so wonderful. Everything I’ve written for them, even if it’s an advertorial that we’re doing with a client, I felt really good about because I don’t feel like I’m faking it.
Mario: What would you say is the difference? What are some of those elements which make your voice your own?
Ellen: It’s really hard to say. I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s just like a sum of jokes and references and like weird words, but yeah. I don’t know if I could identify my own voice, but I think that one of the differences was that most of the writing that I’ve done, I haven’t had any kind of personal relationship with the people who I’m working for. Been all through email and I’ve never met them, I never will meet them and it’s kind of like ... I’m sure they’re all extremely nice and interesting people, but it’s on email so it’s like cold and distant and professional. I had met and hung out with the founder of Broccoli a few times personally and we just had like a very similar sense of humor. So I think having that personal connection is something that is kind of lost in this generation of writing because so much of it is remote and based online.
Ellen: I mean I have no personal experience of this, but what I imagine of like the bureau or the newsroom, this like romanticized idea of like the writer’s room. I had never really had that experience before, but working on this magazine, it’s very much like bouncing ideas off of each other and building on each other’s ideas. I think that completely changed the experience for me. Feeling like I could just be myself and not try to be this professional voice with a capital V.
Mario: How have you met Anja, the founder of Broccoli? Did you know her before you started working with her or ... ?
Ellen: Yeah, I met her through a mutual friend. The friend was visiting Portland and so she was visiting everyone she knew in Portland, so we all ended up hanging out and doing karaoke together. Then I didn’t see her again for a while, but I had a cherry blossom viewing party, a Hanami, which is a traditional Japanese thing you do in the spring and you go and you sit outside under the cherry blossoms and have a picnic. It’s really fun and there are cherry blossom trees in Portland. So I had a Hanami but it wasn’t really nice enough whether for a picnic and I don’t know, I have really bad luck with parties. I feel like if I want to get 10 people to a party I have to invite like 50. So I invited like 12 girls to this party and Enya was the only one who showed up. So we ended up just getting to talk and she told me about this idea she had to make a weed magazine for women and yeah, a few months later she asked about wanting to work on it. It’s a silver lining. So when no one shows up to your party ...
Mario: So the message is just throw parties.
Ellen: Yeah, just throw parties.
Mario: And invite the cool people I guess.
Ellen: No, but I mean I think that speaks to another point, which is I’ve always been really skeptical because I think my idea of networking has been professional mixers or like having a business card or something which I don’t have. But when I think back on how I’ve made the connections that I have and gotten past the just like email@example.com email addresses that I’m sure just lead down into dark tunnels, has been from knowing people. They don’t have to be like your best friend but it’s like your friend’s boyfriend’s sister who happens to work in PR and knows that Refinery29 is looking for writers. Or like meeting someone through a friend and then they’re the only one who shows up at your party. Or just like talking to people who are in similar fields and talking about what they’re doing and what projects they’re working on and do they need any help or they have a friend who’s doing this project. That has been so key to what I’ve done, even without even realizing it. And I’ve been networking this whole time. So even though I feel like I have like an anti-networking stance, in reality I’ve benefited a lot from it.
Mario: Yeah, it’s true. So much comes down to building authentic connections because so many people think it’s more like blasting yourself to as many people as possible.
Ellen: Right. You gotta get your name out there.
Mario: Yeah and just handing business cards in the events or stuff like that but it’s much more finding interesting people. Often if you are a creative professional, you are in creative circles so often those people will be doing something creative and will probably need something similar or will know somebody.
Ellen: Totally. Yeah.
Mario: And it can be much more real and authentic.
Ellen: Yeah. And for me, simply introducing myself as a writer has changed everything because I used to be like, “Well, I like writing” or like, “I do this, but I also like writing.” Giving yourself that name and saying like, “No, this is what I do and this is what I care about” sounds really cheesy but when you tell someone you’re a writer, they’re not like, “Prove it.” They believe you. And so then if they have like a need for a writer or they know someone who has a need for a writer, then they think of you. Took me a really long time to figure out that you don’t have to like earn some kind of certificate to be a writer as long as you’re actually writing.
Mario: Yeah. But you do actually have to be writing, yeah.
Ellen: You do actually have to be writing. Exactly.
Mario: Or you don’t have to. Maybe you can also just say you’re a writer, but people would probably figure it out down the line.
Ellen often writes about culture. Indeed some of the titles for her stories sound intriguing to say the least. For example, Do It Yourself Ramen Bath, Men Help Working Women Cry in Japan or Wizard Apprentice on Simulation, but intrigue is not the only element of successful writing. So I was curious to hear what for Ellen makes a good story.
Ellen: For me, it has to be something that hasn’t been talked about that much. That’s usually the first thing. If I google it and I can’t really find anything, then I know that it’s something I really want to pursue.
Ellen: I think being able to have moments in the story, even if I’m not physically there, if the person who I’m interviewing for example can place me in a moment with a setting with sensory things going on, that’s really important to me in my stories, to not just have it be like a bunch of quotes and then analyzation in between.
Ellen: Having access to sources is really important too. I mean there are plenty of stories that I would love to tell, but what keeps me from doing it that I don’t know how I would get access to those people to tell the story. Especially writing about culture. You want people to be able to tell their own stories. Often as the writer then you’re kind of their still like facilitator to get it in front of people’s eyes, so that does require access to people who want to tell their story.
Ellen: What I discovered living in Japan, writing about Japan and Japanese culture, just like there’s so many obviously stereotypes, the thing that was always so interesting for me writing about Japanese culture was that, there would be something that would seem so wacky on the surface, but if you looked at where it was coming from, it would be like, “Okay, so we as humans had this problem and this group decided to solve it with A and this group decided to solve it would B”. But both options point back to our commonality, like a common problem that we all have. We just came up with different ways to solve it.
Ellen: My editors would often put on these salacious headlines like, “You’ll freak out when you hear this crazy thing that Japanese people do.” But like if people actually read the article, it was never in that tone. It was like, “This is why it’s done this way in Japan. And when you think about it, it really makes sense.”
Ellen: I guess what I’m trying to say is that I like writing about culture that on the surface seems foreign or different because cheesy as it sounds, it always leads back to finding the universality.
We’ve come to the last topic I’ve discussed with Ellen and as with other guests, I’ve asked her to highlight three parting pieces of advice based on what she experienced and learned so far on her professional journey. Here’s Ellen’s practical answer.
Ellen: Okay. I’m gonna cheat a little bit because my answer is going to be spreadsheets, spreadsheets, spreadsheets. So I think spreadsheets are very important. It’s something that I’ve only recently started doing, but I have a spreadsheet for the story ideas that I come up with. I have a spreadsheet for the pitches that I’ve sent that has a column for what was the pitch? Who did I send it to? When? When did I follow up? What did they say? So I can see exactly how much I’ve pitched in the last year, I can see how many have been rejected and accepted. I can see the pitches that are still floating in the ether and try to revive them. That’s my most important spreadsheet.
Ellen: I’ve a spreadsheet about getting paid where it has like a story that’s been accepted, how much they’ve told me they’re going to pay me to publish it and then whether or not I’ve been paid. That might seem silly because you would expect people to just pay you but sometimes it takes so long that you forget and they forget it. You have to kind of track that down.
Ellen: I have a spreadsheet for editors contacts. So in every one of these groups that I’m a part of they’ll publish either calls for pitches or just some editor posting on Twitter like, “Hey pitch me.” Editors emails can be really, really hard to find. Like they already get so many emails that they kind of bury them and they don’t release them to the public that often. So I have this spreadsheet where I write out their name, their email address, where they work for, if they said what they’re looking for, what they’re looking for and whether or not I have any kind of like mutual connection to them. That’s a very important spreadsheet. That’s also helpful for when I have an idea, I can get that spreadsheet out and look at it and say, “Okay, who might this be good for?” So spreadsheets.
I hope you guys enjoyed my conversation with Ellen Freeman. I think she shared a lot of useful information for anybody out there interested in writing and editing, freelancing and being a creative professional.
I want to thank Ellen for coming onto the show. She’s a wonderful writer and I appreciate her insights and her honesty.
Links to Ellen’s work, her Instagram as well as to some other things mentioned during our conversation can be found in the show notes at creative.voyage/podcast. You can follow @creative.voyage on Instagram. You can also email me directly on firstname.lastname@example.org. If you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe, and until next time, my friends, take care.
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