NICK TAYLOR: Iím going to start with the most obvious question, which is: Why freelance? Letís start with Susan.
SUSAN DOMINUS: I started as an editor. Everybody told me that freelancing was too hard to do and too insecure and so I was an editor until I was 30. When Electric Nerve Magazine folded, it seemed like a pretty good time to make the jump. I had been freelancing, I had been writing a little bit while I was on staff at Nerve. I had done record cover stories for the Times Magazine. That gave me a little bit of credibility so I could launch a writing career. And I got very lucky because I had good relationships at two magazines, New York Magazine and Glamour, where Iíd been an editor. I was fortunate enough to get contracts with them, union contracts, as soon as I left my staff job. It was something I always wanted to do and it worked out well. I figured Iíd kind of give it a shot. And I love it. I love working at home. I love not having any one boss.
WILLIAM GEORGIADES: My experience is more of a push and pull thing. I was very lucky when I moved to New York to get a job as an assistant, a glorified secretary, for a magazine. I spent about three years there, processing things and looking at freelance life from a cubicle. It was extremely attractive to me that you could make a living as a writer and avoid clerical work. I donít know that I could have made the decision myself but I was very fortunate, as we had a change; a dozen people were fired from Esquire Magazine one day. I was one of those people and then it really was a sink or swim situation. I had to either figure out how to do it or leave New York. That was really what got me started as a freelancer. Iíve been offered a few jobs since. I donít think Iíve said no to a single staff job that Iíve been offeredóI think there were three. As Iíve said, over the past 10 years, itís just a lot more enjoyable for me to be a writer than to be an editor, as editing tends to be rewriting other peopleís work. I prefer writing my own.
MERYL GORDON: Apparently thereís a theme. I can be the third person to say I lost my job too and thatís how I became a freelancer. I had worked for a number of years as a newspaper reporter in Cincinnati, in Rochester, and then in Washington, D.C. I was an economics and business writer for a number of years. After I came to New York, because my husband was transferred here, I spent a year writing for Gannett News Service, then I went to work for a TV show. When the show was canceled we all lost our jobs and I began job hunting. At that point, I had spent seven years writing about business and economics, which wasnít necessarily the thing that I was most in love with. As I began searching for jobs I discovered that I started to get a batch of assignments, and they were about a wide range of topics. The assignments were coming fast and furious and the job offers were not. I did not expect to be doing this 20 years later.
At one point I went to work for a magazine called New York Woman as an editor and I discovered that in some ways Iíd really lost what I thought was an in-the-office personality; I discovered that I really loved being independent, I really loved working my 80 hours not theirs, and also that Iím a writer. There have been lots of ups and downs over the years. The upside has been having a contract with New York Magazine, which Iíve had for a couple of years, though I also write for other magazines. When you have just one regular gig it makes your life infinitely easier. There have been other periods where, you know, you earn a thousand dollars one month, fourteen thousand dollars the next month. Itís a little hard to juggle the paying of bills. But essentially itís really fun.
MICHAEL GREENBERG: One doesnít set out to become a freelancer. Itís like the criminals say after theyíve been arrested, I really didnít mean to do it. I never worked for a publisher or a magazine, nor did I want to. My aspiration was to be a novelist. So my approach to making a living was to do whatever required the least mental effort so that the ďprofounderĒ part of my mind might be free for writing. Little did I know that I could not make a living as a novelist. I had children young, so I just followed Daniel Defoeís advice: You have to write with both hands. Freelancers are always moaning about the deadline, but I find the deadline to be the fire under the behind that you need. So freelancing took over and I was lucky enough to get a column with the Times Literary Supplement of London and from that flows other work.
TAYLOR: You write about freelancing for the Times Literary Supplement, yes?
GREENBERG: Yes. The name of the column is ďFreelance.Ē Itís supposed to be about the writerís life. Itís in a European tradition in Europe, Feuilleton the French call it. The essay about life as livedómemoir, literary matters, curious events, observations, journalism, the peccadilloes of your neighbor, all rolled into a single free-roaming story. It has a certain flavor. Itís a wonderful form.
TAYLOR: Let me go down the panel again with one question. So you lose a job and you become a freelancer. What is the first thing you should do when you become a freelancer?
DOMINUS: Iíd been an editor, so the first thing I did was let all my editor friends know that I was going to be freelancing. I also think itís important to figure out your office space. You should be able to work everywhere, but actually it is kind of important to have a space of quiet and a place to leave all your things. Figure out pretty quickly if you can work at home or not. Some people love it, some people really canít stand it. If youíre going to start freelancing, it also helps to make sure you have a little bit of a nest egg. One of the nice things about getting fired from a job before going freelance is you might have a couple of monthsí salary to fall back on. But if youíre planning on leaving on your own, one of the things you learn quickly is, even if you write quickly the check often comes slowly. Astonishingly slowly.
GEORGIADES: I would echo all of that. I sort of back into things generally, so I would say the practical thing that I did was to turn off the television, because, obviously, after I was fired from the job it seemed to be the thing to do. So turn that thing off. And generally to treat it as a job and not as a casual thing, which Iím sort of semi-successful at. But the terror of being fired from a job that I enjoyed propelled me into acting a little bit more professionally than I often am. I was fortunate to get space at the Writersí Room, which is on lower Broadway. So I got this office space and I started writing extremely polite notes to editors. I find being very polite in the beginning is very helpful. I havenít kept up with that but it helps.
Panelists (l to r): Nick Taylor, Meryl Gordon, Susan Dominus, Wiliam Georgiades, Michael Greenberg Photos by John Halpern Photography
GORDON: I felt like I had to learn to write in a very different way because I had always written for newspapers, which is much more of ďJust the facts, Maíam.Ē For many of the early assignments, people would kick them back and say, ďWhat do you think?Ē I thought, You want to know what I think? When I started doing this I wrote for anybody who would take me. I wrote for Working Mother Magazine: I have no children; I know nothing about parenting. I wrote for a magazine called Channels, which Norman Lear owned, which was a cable TV magazine. Literally, I would write for anybody who would pay me. At that point it was a buck a word or whatever. Iíd take the assignments. It was a way of learning, it was a way of meeting people. You figure out what kind of stories youíre good at. I discovered those womenís magazine stories which begin, you know, ďJane (not her real name)....Ē I canít do them. Theyíre high concept, you know, but I realized ultimately I really wasnít good with those fuzzy things.
One of the useful things about the year I spent as an editor was realizing from ideas that other people pitched, what works and what didnít. If a story idea comes up and I canít think of the first five people I would call then itís not right for me. If you say yesóand Iím sure everybody at this table at some point has said yes to something that they didnít feel quite right about but seemed like it might be neatóyouíre so sorry because what you get paid on a lot of these pieces is in fact no reflection of how much time you put in. And you can put in an enormous amount of time on something that goes absolutely nowhere.
The other thing I had to learn is how to write a pitch letter. Initially, I didnít quite know how to write a pitch letter or how to come up with ideas that other people would be interested in. When you see that Julia Roberts is in a new play on Broadway, thatís not an idea. Thatís an idea any magazine can come up with without your help. What they want from outsiders is something new, something different, that they havenít heard about, they havenít thought about, they havenít done.
In 1991, my husband had a fellowship in Japan, and I was out of the country for six months. When I came back, I could not get an assignment. But I knew someone who knew someone at The New York Times and I came up with some wacky ideas. One of them was, where do psychoanalysts buy their couches? There is a place in Brooklyn and I went there and it was very funny. And the magazine had me go back to stores with shrinks and describe, This is the nervous couch, this is the upset couch, and they paid me maybe $400 for two weeksí work, but it was the Times. A few weeks later I was thinking, There are all these new stores in my neighborhood with these weird names, so I rode the bus all over Manhattan and did a piece on funny store names. So a lot of figuring out how to do this is figuring out what you know, and what interests you. What do you know that somebody else doesnít know?
GREENBERG: I agree completely. You really have to know who you are when youíre writing a piece. When you take a piece and youíre not sure of what the voice is, what the vocabulary is, you regret it and you work too hard on it. Recently I did a travel piece for a magazine. Iím not a travel writer, however, and I donít know how to conjure that. Iíd never written travel, I donít know how to do that ďCome hither, buy-meĒ ambience. I worked like hell on the piece. I thought, Oh, this is easy, Iíve read travel magazines. But I really didnít know who I was while writing this piece.
Secondly, I write a column, so the trick, of course, was to also turn the experience into a column. In my column I do know who I am. And not surprisingly, the column was much better than the piece. It got me in trouble with the editors because it was wrong of me to discuss the subject of the piece prior to its appearance in the travel magazine. But I was also somewhat flattered when the editor called me up and said, ďDid you think I wasnít going to see this, Michael?Ē The answer was, Yeah, I didnít think you were going to see it. But I worked like hell on this piece and itís a simple travel piece. So itís true, you have to know who you are. That said, you canít turn things down when youíre a freelancer. So itís a difficult proposition, I think. Iíve done just the most wild kind of writing, way out of my area of expertise. Iíve never played golf but I wrote a two-hour voiceover for a TV program called The Game That Defined a Century: Golf. You do it. And itís fun actually, when you get into it. But you find yourself having to reinvent the wheel.
TAYLOR: Iíd like to talk about lining up assignments and how you go through the thought process of thinking up the idea of, Where do psychiatrists get their couches? How do you brainstorm with yourself or with others to find assignments you can sell and that you would enjoy working on? Susan?
DOMINUS: I can testify that Iím a terrible idea generator, so Iím quite eager to hear what these guys have to say. But I do think that the best stories are the ones that you come up with yourself, because you feel most passionately about them. Unfortunately, I find them hard to generate. It sort of has to hit me over the head. Itís the kind of things that your friends start talking about and that they seem really impassioned about and that you find yourself repeating to other people. ďThis creepy thing happened, my friend told me about it.Ē Thatís the kind of thing for which you actually see a little lightbulb going off over your head. Oh, that could be a story.
What drives me crazy is when I have some kind of strong reaction to something and donít react. I went to a very early preview of Sarah Silvermanís movie Jesus Is Magic, and I was talking to everybody about Sarah Silverman, what an intriguing woman she was, a new kind of comedian and whereíd she come from? Why didnít I pitch this as a profile? I donít know. I had months before the movie was going to come out and sure enough there was a profile in The New Yorker of her two months later and I just hit myself. The fact that I couldnít stop talking about her should have been my cue that that was a great story.
But my favorite story was about a young single woman in New York who was a kind of Carrie Bradshaw, who decided to go to Russia to adopt a ten-year-old handicapped orphan, which completely turned her life around. One of my good friends and I were talking about kids and she told me about this woman. I couldnít stop asking questions about her and I wanted to know everything about her. And then I realized I could go with her. I could write about this. It was an incredibly liberating experience and I was really passionate about it. So thatís my best advice.
Itís hard to sit down and brainstorm, although you do need to read the paper with a pen in your handówrite things down, cut things out. If things are going to hit you over the head, youíve got to read everything and be reading with that in mind. Youíre not reading the paper over coffee, you know, taking your old sweet time. No, youíre looking for story ideas. And youíll find that you read the paper or flip through the Economist very differently when youíre constantly trying to think of story ideas compared to when youíre just reading it to pass time.
GEORGIADES: There was a magazine for a while called Gear, which no longer exists and they called me up and were very kind to me, very flattering, said some lovely things about past work Iíd done, and then they asked me to send in some ideas. I think this went on for months and then they said, ďYouíre OK at writing, but you have the worst ideas of anybody Iíve ever dealt with.Ē I think I ended up with two little stories in there, two little celebrity profiles that they came up with. I think the best stuff that Iíve ever worked on has been the idea of the editor. Iíve been very fortunate to have some editors who have been very kind, who come up with ideas. And those are the stories that tend to be guaranteed to end up in the publication.
Juan Morales was an editor of a magazine called Detour and he had me spend a week at Madison Square Garden at the Sweet Sixteen of top female tennis players, which was kind of a lovely assignment as assignments go. And then Iíve also had a few sort of steady gigs like Film View and things of that nature. What Iíve found is that my ideas are about as good as anybodyís ideas, theyíre OK, but itís the matter of getting someone to listen to them which I expect to be questioned a little bit later on, which is the real trick. I can have all the best ideas in the world, but itís a matter of getting someone to pay attention to me, and that can be frustrating.
TAYLOR: You said earlier that you were doing a lot of book reviewing now. Does that follow the same process? Do you choose the book you want to review or do you get assignments for that?
GEORGIADES: I generally get excited about certain books and suggest them to the editor, and then he lets me do about half of them usually.
TAYLOR: Meryl, give us a little more insight into your brainstorming process.
GORDON: I would say at this point about 70 percent of the story ideas come from magazines and 30 percent are mine. At the same time, the ones you come up with yourself often are the things you really care about. One of the things about managing your time as a freelancer is either thereís too much work or thereís not enough. You feel youíre taking on too much and the storyís falling apart, or you suddenly realize youíre left with huge holes in your life. So Iíve learned to say yes to both things and try to juggle. In terms of story ideas, you try to look at the paper and other media with a slightly different eye. I saw a cover story once in Time magazine about adoptions and there was some line about how Texas was one of the easier states in the country in which to adopt. I thought that was interesting. The laws there were so liberal to adopting parents that all over the country people were putting ads in newspapersóďLoving parents search for child.Ē And if a woman answered that ad, the couple would literally ship her to Texas so she could have the baby there, and they could adopt it. I found a couple of sort of adoption factories in which women who had flown in from all over the country were being put up in these apartment complexes. It was a great story, but it came about from noticing one interesting fact about Texas having so many adoptions.
I went to a magazine called More to meet with the editors and I was making a joke about how I could never write fashion. Ha ha ha, I still have clothes in my closet from when I was 12 years old. They said, ďYou do?Ē They convinced me to do a story on my closet. It was a funny story about what clothes I had saved and why. I had the dress I had lost my virginity in. (Iíve had it dry-cleaned though.) My father was really upset about the story, but you know, I said, Hey, $3,000 for writing captions. And they took a picture of meóit was my only supermodel experienceóin a black silk slip peeking out a doorway as if I was trying to decide what to wear. That was one of the easier things Iíve done in terms of work.
But I wanted to say a little bit about pitching stories. When youíre starting out, all of life is a writing test. [Writing to an editor,] youíve got to say something in the first three lines that conveys that you can write, youíre fun, youíre interesting. I mean, if youíre not really into it by sentence one, sentence two, no editor will be. So there really is a lot of time invested in trying to get the assignment initially.
GREENBERG: Iím constantly desperate and hungry for story ideas and itís really changed the way I live. I walk around looking for them. Itís amazing how many stories there are right under your nose when you start thinking about them, looking that way. It requires a quarter turn of the brain, and voila, there they are. Pitching them is painful. I did some screenwriting for a while, where pitching is horrendous and humiliating and you have a few minutes to do it and itís all verbal. I actually find the query letter with a story idea to be a protected and kind of a nice way to go to an editor because you can control the situation, you can present the story the way you see it, and you do it in the solitude of your roomówhich is presumably why youíre a writer, because thatís where you feel most comfortable.
TAYLOR: Would any of you propose a tried and true clincher in a pitch or in a query letter?
DOMINUS: The only thing I would advise is donít pitch the editor in chief, donít pitch the managing editor, do not even pitch the senior editor; cultivate a relationship with the associate editor. Thatís whoís looking for new writers. Because theyíre junior, theyíre friendly, so you can call them. And also they answer their own phones. So you would want to call an associate editor and introduce yourself in a very charming manner. And maybe the associate editor has written something in the magazine and you notice it and you compliment it. And then you follow up with a letter to the associate editor, because itís so much easier to build that relationship. Also that associate editor will go on to be a senior editor somewhere else and maybe an editor in chief. But they are so far and away the most likely person to respond and to relate to you, because theyíre not so far from what youíre doing.
GEORGIADES: This is one talent I just havenít developed at all. I really donít get this part. The bit that I get wrong over and over again is Iíll come up with one idea and then theyíll think I have another dozen that are just as good. And so Iíll overwhelm editors. Basically I overwhelm them, I send them 15 ideas, this one terrific one, but theyíre wading through 14. Theyíre looking at the first two, they just shrug. So I should really listen to what people have to say about this.
GORDON: My system is so basic youíre going to think itís incredibly dumb, but itís: Read the magazine youíre writing for. You have no idea how often people will come in and pitch stories the magazine ran two months ago, three weeks ago, whatever it is, and thereís a certain level of, Jesus, they donít even read the magazine. Let me say that I recently pitched a piece to New York that they did six months ago, which I had forgotten they did. So Iím guilty too. Itís a lot easier right now because you can probably go on Google and make sure they didnít do it. But itís one of these things that make a difference.
GREENBERG: I think thatís true. I think also you want to give a sense, very briefly, of why you like the magazine and why you think youíd fit there. Such and such a story on the autistic family was really fantastic. I loved the way you handled it. I was wondering, etc., etc. It gives the sense that youíre on the same wavelength as the magazine, even though perhaps you loathe the magazine. But youíre a freelancer. So youíre presumably always for sale.
TAYLOR: Letís talk for a minute about the other aspects of freelance life, like remembering to pay your quarterly tax returns or getting health insurance. Just talk about the nuts and bolts of organizing your lives.
DOMINUS: I can tell you what I think I should do; itís not what I actually do. I do pay quarterly taxes. You know that a certain percentage of every check is going to end up going toward your quarterly tax, so, ideally, every time you deposit a check you will put x percent into your tax account, a special account that you reserve just for that purpose. So that then when that hideous quarterly payment comes around, itís painless because youíve already taken the money out, you havenít spent it, you havenít gotten ahead of yourself. Mostly I do sort of a rough estimate in my mind, and after all these years Iím finally no longer horrified when it comes along. Whatís painful about this is you think you should be happy, you have more work than you ever dreamt you would have, but what it means is at the end of the year you obviously underpaid your taxes in a way that you werenít quite able to maybe imagine. You think, Thatís great, I did more work this year than I thought I was going to do. But no, you owe a lot of taxes and that can be kind of painful. So if youíre going to be a freelancer, overestimate what you think youíre going to earn. Youíll get it back at the end.
GORDON: I pay quarterly. The one great upside about freelancing is everything in your life is deductible. Home officeódeductible. Cable televisionódeductible. Plays, movies. Iím not religious about keeping a weekly diary of where Iíve been, what I do. I have these envelopes full of stuff. The upside is every now and then when Iíve looked at what other people are making in staff jobs and realized out-of-pocket costs of dry cleaning and lunch, Iím sort of ahead.
TAYLOR: Weíre going to talk about getting paid. But letís talk about the outflow for the moment.
GREENBERG: The outflow, yeah. Hats off to the Authors Guild for offering group insurance to writers. Health insurance, for anyone who is not with a corporation of some kind, is just horrendous. The one thing that makes me wish I werenít a freelancer is the health insurance problem. Itís just so damn expensive and it feels so worthless and unnecessary. Itís really a freelancerís bugaboo, and not just for writers. But perhaps one day weíll answer this question.
TAYLOR: Letís talk about getting paid. I just happened to be poking around the Internet and I looked at what Wikipedia had to say about freelance, and of course it had this surprising revelation: Payment for freelance work varies widely. Iím sure thatís a surprise to all of you, but I guess what I want to ask is, how hard is it to make what you consider a fair living?
DOMINUS: Thatís different than actually getting them to send you a check.
TAYLOR: Well, we can talk about that too. Iíve had to camp on doorsteps and I guess perhaps all of you have.
DOMINUS: If weíre going to talk about how to get paid, once again I would say, cultivate a relationship with someone low on the totem pole because that is the person who is actually doing the paperwork. So befriend your editorís editorial assistant. The reason I know this is because I was an editorial assistant and I was not as good about getting those writers paid as I should have been. And of course Iíve been repaid for that many times over, or punished for it. I actually am on really great terms now with Faye, whoís the accounts payable person at the Sunday Telegraph Magazine. I donít bother my editor when I havenít been paid. I have a very friendly relationship with Faye. ďSorry to bother you, could you let me know when?Ē And itís much more direct that way. As for making a living, I think Iíve been lucky because right off the bat I started out with two contracts, which meant that I had guaranteed income every month. At the end of the year, I would sort of do a balance and make sure I had done the appropriate amount of work. I was able to make a living from the get-go, but sometimes I think Iíve never had as good a year as that again.
A lot of people balance the literary writing they doóthe book reviews, the essaysówith assignments from a womenís magazine, which can pay very well.
GEORGIADES: I think having a couple of steady outlets, which Iíve been fortunate to have, is always good. As people were saying at the very beginning, never say no to work. I donít really say no to much and I find that the steady small paying jobs, the $200 column in the New York Sun, for instance, those things do pile up and are very helpful to the bottom line. I write for the Style Magazine of the Sunday Times in London and I have a very fabulous editor. I wish I could emulate her life somewhat. And I always feel when Iím approaching the more fabulous editors in my orbit that Iím sullying their fare whenever I talk about money. We had an exchange recently where she had me write a column, and she said, ďIíll put the payment through right away.Ē Two months have gone by and the check hasnít appeared, but I know from past experience that if I bring it up with her itís impolite, essentially. But also that there are other departments at the Sunday Times that I can speak to.
GORDON: Magazines assign by the piece, but they also assign by the word. The pay can range from a dollar a word to four dollars a word. I wish the four-dollars-a-word pieces would come more often but they donít. Magazines will often under-assign. Theyíll assign a piece thatís, say, two thousand words. But then theyíll just keep asking for more material and the story will get longer and larger, and you have to fight sometimes to get the extra money. When I started out, magazines ran longer stories, and you could actually earn more money. Even though rates have gone up a bit for me, since the word counts have gone down itís really hard to get ahead.
GREENBERG: I think itís a miracle that anyone can make a living doing this. I never expected to make a living as a writer because I thought that it was just impossible. On the other hand, I never had a backup profession either, so I guess I was in for the long haul. The only reason I can barely make a living is because the English pound is so artificially pumped up and I write for a British publication. As for getting paid, I find that itís the same thing as movie writing: They love you until youíve given them what they want. And theyíre constantly in touch with you. Once youíve handed in your piece, however, silence. Youíre trying to find out, are they going to take it, are they going to spike it? Now they have what they want from you, and I find this to be a difficult and ugly situation almost alwaysóunless youíre very friendly with the editor and the editorís protecting a certain relationship with you beyond the professional. Collecting in a timely way is a problem, because your bills are coming but the check is two months, three months late. The two-month wait is common. So you really have to be very wily and used to times when youíre broke. And thatís the deal.
TAYLOR: Yeah, and thatís not a lot of fun. Magazine work can be frustrating, editors can be capricious, pieces can be killed. Let me ask each of you what would you do to change the rules?
DOMINUS: If I could rewrite all the rules?
DOMINUS: A standard kill fee is 25 percent. Freelancing for magazines is precarious enough that I just wonít do something for a 25 percent kill fee. I say Iíll do it if you give me a 50 percent kill fee. And thank God I have, because a couple of times thatís exactly what happened. So thatís the first thing I would doóraise the kill fee.
I also think if youíre writing a piece for a magazine and they are promising you a 25 percent kill fee, they might as well pay you the 25 percent up frontójust in case, God forbid, it did not work out. For some reason they canít do that. They guarantee you the money anyway. Instead, youíre in an all or nothing kind of cycle, where youíve got nothing for two months and suddenly $12,000 comes in but you eat cat food for two weeks. Thereís no reason magazines couldnít do that and I think they should.
GEORGIADES: When I was an assistant at Esquire I would see these big-shot writers, and they would hand sloppy copy in three weeks late and then scream at me to get their check. I would think to myself, If I ever get the opportunity that they have Iím going to turn in such clean copy that no editor will need to red mark it. I wonít ask for payment and Iíll turn it in early. The minute I started doing this regularly, well, I could see where the habits begin. But that said, having freelanced and complained about it I found that the rules are the same for editors as they are for writers. Iíve been a dishwasher and a construction worker and done all sorts of things for money and Iíve complained bitterly about every job that Iíve ever had in my life. This is no different. Itís just the most luxurious and pleasant work that Iíve ever had in my life. I would change the personalities of editors.
DOMINUS: All editors.
GEORGIADES: Not all editors. Well, most of them. Auberon Waugh, whoís no longer with us, wrote a wonderful book called Will This Do? He wrote about the relationship between freelancers and editors. He said that if youíre not tweaking an editor youíre just not doing your job; youíve given up. I recommend that book to anybody whoís interested in writing or writers.
GORDON: The topic of kill fees is always loaded because thereís nothing worse than working incredibly hard and having your work not turn out. I think one of the issues is that magazines will change their minds and it wonít seem quite right to them. So I have also become much tougher. If itís a new magazine, and itís a celebrity profile, you know theyíll run it. If itís a piece thatís a little more iffy, I actually will refuse to take a kill fee because I donít want to take the risk at this point in my life. Mike also referred to something that is interesting. You know, you turn in the story. You do the victory dance in the house. And then you wait. And I think thatís one of the harder things. Iíve learned to get used to some of the rhythms of editors. But Iíve had editors at magazines, at New York Magazine, who called me within two hours. Youíre just so happy. And then Iíve had magazines where Iíve literally sat for months, and then they want a complete and total rewrite. And youíre thinking, what were you doing the last month?
DOMINUS: And they want it in four days.
GORDON: They want it in four days. So I think the uncertainty is one of the hardest parts of doing this. But at the same time, there is the chance to learn all of these new things. I spent three months last winter following around Kofi Annan. It was in the middle of the scandal with his son. He spent an enormous amount of time with me. Last week I went with Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins to their sonís basketball game, which was a hoot. Itís wonderful to get this interesting array of worlds and opportunities.
GREENBERG: Thatís right. Suddenly youíre engaged in life in a way that you werenít before. And thatís the beauty of it. Thatís why people put up with the difficulty of it. The wait is the most excruciating thing. If I could demand anything, it would be an immediate response from my editors, even if it is just, ďReceived it, wonít be able to look at it for two weeks.Ē I would so appreciate that. And that said, I do like almost all the editors Iíve worked with, with a few exceptions, and itís very important to trust them and their eye. Very often theyíre right. They know. And a good editor is as rare and valuableóprobably more valuableóthan a good writer. Definitely as rare.
GORDON: Itís difficult because you work in a void when youíre a freelancer. That void is what youíre constantly contending with and trying to give shape to. And the recipient of your work is the person that has the power to give that shape. Please, let me know.
TAYLOR: Iíve talked to freelance writers who were very proud about working all day in their bathrobes or in sweat clothes, and Iíve talked to other freelance writers who put on a jacket and tie as if theyíre going to an office and they do indeed go to an office. So Iíd like to ask each of you what you wear when youíre writing.
DOMINUS: What usually happens is I go to the gym in my building and I work out and then I come up and I think, Iíll just answer a couple of e-mails before I jump in the shower. And then at three oíclock Iím still wearing my nasty workout clothing. So that is, I would say, what Iím usually wearing.
GEORGIADES: I think this is my uniform. Iím wearing it right now.
GORDON: I had just come from doing a lot of Wall Street and business stuff, Iíd been wearing a lot of suits and pumps and stockings. So when I first began freelancing I went so far the other way I was wearing mismatched socks. I was wearing sweats. And I suddenly realized that that wasnít terribly attractive. I didnít feel great about it. I donít think my husband really appreciated it. Iím often in jeans or khakis. I try to look slightly nice. And then, you know, youíve got to be ready. You never want to say to someone, Iím so sorry I was late for that 11 oíclock appointment but I was getting dressed. But you are half the time.
GREENBERG: Most of you know the John Cheever story. He used to dress up in a suit as if he were going to the office, leave his house in Ossining with a briefcase. Heíd walk to the station, heíd watch everyone get on the commuter train, and then heíd go back home and start writing. But one does become a bit of a slob while working at home. People in your building think youíre completely insane. What is this person doing home? They become suspicious of you.
TAYLOR: People think youíre really quite louche if youíre around the house all day. Some years ago my wife and I had a foster child. And he and his friends, suddenly after several weeks of just being in the house, decided that they wanted to become writers. And I knew that it was because I didnít work. I didnít go to work, I was there all the time.
Letís open the floor to questions.
Q: Have you had the experience of submitting an idea, and later having it turn up in the magazine, written by a staff person? Has that ever happened to any of you and what would you do about it?
DOMINUS: I had maybe one when I was just starting out. I pitched an idea to New York Magazine, and for some reason they said, Actually, weíd rather have someone on staff here write it. Iíd never written anything before, they had no reason to think that I could write or I couldnít. They did give me fifty bucks for the idea. So it actually wasnít bad. And it was really the only time.
GEORGIADES: Itís happened to me. It burned me up at the time. I consider it to be the price of admission. Itís very frustrating, but there you are. It does happen.
Q: Do you write on spec?
GEORGIADES: When Iím passionate about a subject I do write on spec. I imagine Iím probably the only person on this panel who does.
GORDON: Iíve written personal essays on spec. Personal essays are really hard to place, and you canít really pitch it to someone. They need to see it and read it. I havenít done a lot of them, and have had only mixed success in placing them. Early on I had pitched an idea to somebody and then I saw the idea in print. But I think often enough, the ideas you come with, like Julia Roberts on Broadway, arenít great ideas that a writer could claim were specific to her.
GREENBERG: I write on spec, although I try not to anymore. But I did for a long time write a great deal on specómainly because I was writing fiction. I once had a story stolen from me by an editor at the Partisan Review, of all places. This was way back when I was just beginning as a writer. They refused to send me the story back. And they refused to reject it. And then one of the editors came out with a novel that was exactly the story. With character names and long passages lifted verbatim. I was stunned. I didnít do a thing about it. But Iíve been dutifully paranoid ever since.
Q: When I came to the States about 10 years ago and I didnít have any track record here, I contacted a magazine with an essay idea. I spoke to the editor in chief and he said he had never written on spec in his life before and heíd been a journalist for 20 years. But he said, Go ahead, write it. I got it into the magazine. If you take the time to actually write something on spec, and get it to the right person, youíre in. Itís better than a thousand pitches. So I would say to people, If you want to take the time to write a spec piece, do it.
TAYLOR: I guess one would have to say that if you invest enough time and research to make the pitch, often you can just write the piece because youíve already done the research. Does that ever happen? The panelists can elaborate on this if they wish.
GREENBERG: I think the more you know about a piece, the better.
Q: Iíve found that if I know an editor personally itís much easier to get into a magazine. Cold calling hasnít worked. But I wonder if there are any places where you can meet editors face-to-face and get that kind of personal relationship going.
DOMINUS: Women of the World To Be run something called Mediabistro, and put up these parties once a month for people in journalism. The website is Mediabistro.com and Iím sure theyíll have a listing. At least when I used to go, editors did go. I havenít been in a long time and Iím imagining itís probably more junior editors, but theyíre the ones who are looking for new writers. So thatís definitely worth hitting.
GREENBERG: This is one of the reasons that workshops are so popular. Not because anyone thinks heís going to learn how to write, which in my opinion is unteachable anyway. But because you network. To entice people to come, workshops hold out the carrot of agents and editors who are going to be there. One can make contacts that way although I never have. But itís one of the reasons they exist. The other thing is you have to rely on your writer friendsóas I have in my lifeóto say, You really have to meet this editor. Writers arenít the most generous people in the world, but you know, friends are important.
TAYLOR: Editors often move from magazine to magazine. Do you tend to follow the ones that you like working with?
GORDON: Absolutely. I think one of the reasons my career has done so well over the years is because people have gone from place to place to place. So that when someone leaves a magazine, at first thereís this clutchy feeling of, Oh my God, Iíve lost my editor. But the odds are extremely good that theyíll wind up somewhere else. A slightly old story, but a number of years ago there was a magazine named Seven Days, which was edited by Adam Moss, now the editor of New York Magazine. I had been doing a story on Dan Rather for them. There were all these rumors that the magazine was in trouble. I called them Friday, they really wanted my story. Monday morning I called, and I said, Iím done. They said, so are we, which was a rather dramatic thing, and I was very anxious about it. I was lucky in that situation because I got paid. At the same time all those editors were job hunting. And it was a funny story. So they told the funny story. And the next thing you know, I sold the piece to another magazine. So I was paid twice for this piece.
Q: Michael, you had mentioned that you feel that you get recognized for your writing style. But Meryl, in the beginning, you said that you did politics, media and food. So I wonder whatís the balance between style and your subject of expertise and how do you walk between those two?
GREENBERG: Yeah, itís the paradox of the freelancerís life because as a freelancer youíre not really an expert on anything by definition. Youíre a quick study. I think that your voice and your sensibility, the way you look at the world comes out, even in the most incidental piece for the least demanding publication. It always comes out in one way or another. Itís recognizable, one hopes.
TAYLOR: Perhaps the question also had to do with how you choose. Do you choose pieces based on their contentsí appeal to you and your ability to apply your style, or do you just sometimes go based on content alone, just because you have the assignment, even if it doesnít appeal to you stylistically?
GORDON: My impression is weíre all generalists. There are some people who become known as, They write about law, they only write about food, they have a certain expertise. I think thereís a real upside to that when a magazine is looking for a story on that topic. They will think of you because you are their expert. One of the reasons I write about food is a guy I knew went to work for New York Magazine before I did. And the first piece he called me about was the making of a celebrity restaurant. It was Robert De Niroís first restaurant downtown. Once I had done a food-related story, suddenly I was a food expert, so Iíve written about a dozen of those type of pieces.
My style isnít always the same. You realize certain stories urge you to use the anecdote lead, with others you do the straight lead. I think we all have our little writing tricks. Some people write with metaphors; you have your style. But I think thereís a certain effort to vary it from time to time, so that your voice stands out but people donít say, My God, did she use that same sequence or kind of thing the last seventeen times she put something together?
GEORGIADES: I position myself to be up for most of the soft kind of journalism thatís available. When I was writing for the New York Sun, I was writing restaurant reviews, travel stories, film reviews, book reviews, and interviews. And I think I probably spread myself a little bit thin so that when they would think of one of those topics, they wouldnít think of me because I was chomping at the bit to do all of them. So Iíve had to scale back a little on my enthusiasm for everything.
DOMINUS: I feel like Iíve been a little bit buffered by my editors, who have an idea of what Iím good at. Itís much easier to take an assignment with an editor who comes to you than to generate your own ideas. On the other hand, somebody might think youíre good at something, but itís not the only thing you want to be writing about.
Q: If you do have a particular area of expertise, what would be the most successful way of establishing yourself with editors as an expert? If you are a specialist, but youíre not doing freelance writing as a specialist, what would be the most successful way to get yourself known to editors?
GORDON: Books are sexy to editors. They think, Oh my God, this person can write if theyíve been published. If you actually have a book out, I think you have a huge leg up. Also, people like having ďexperts,Ē so if youíre a psychologist or youíre in Wall Street, thatís sexy because you know things that other people donít know. So itís really a matter of trying to convey, in a pitch letter, what you bring to it. Also, itís getting clips any way you can. I mean, I have a friend who started writing movie reviews for her local community newspaper, so she had clips to show.
Q: Iím trying to figure out how I do those first three lines that capture somebody. The pitch is really what gets me, when Iím not totally sure where itís going
DOMINUS: You can have a great idea, but if they donít know how youíre going to handle it, what theyíll say is, great idea, but itís really all in the execution, and who knows. So the pitch letter has to sound like the actual article. If you could actually write the first two paragraphs of the piece in your pitch letter, it would help. Say you have a great idea about X, Y and Z. You knowósort of a snappy starter. And then launch into the piece, so they see that you know how to write like a magazine writer, that you have the specificity to carry it off. And then theyíll look at your clips. You can write a beautifully written pitch that isnít written like a magazine article, and it wonít get you anywhere. You need to have magazine-style writing, scene setting, anecdote-starting, in the pitch. Then they can imagine this story. It doesnít have to be the actual lead that you would end up using, but fake it until you can get there. When I was an editor that was extremely helpful for me.
Q: Iíd like to ask Meryl and Michael to comment on their published writing and screenwriting. Is the process the same, where you query someone and make a five-minute pitch, sink or swim?
GREENBERG: Itís very different. The pitches Iíve done for screenwriting have been with ideas that Iíd already developed with a director. He wanted the writer by his side, as a sort of a sidekick. The writer in television, which Iíve written very rarely for, has more status and more power than in film, where the writer is basically a sidekick to the real creative power, who is the director. Or so they would like us to
GORDON: I wrote a screenplay for 20th Century Fox that was just a total fluke. I pitched an idea with the help of a friend, and they bought it on spec. Literally, I had to go out and buy a ďhow to write a screenplayĒ book. I got the contract first. So I was very lucky. But they didnít make it into a movie. I was hoping to launch a second career as a screenwriter, but I found it incredibly hard, possibly because it wasnít my world. I had an agent, but I was so low on the food chain that I couldnít really get in the door. That said, that one check was, you know, much higher than anything Iíve made as a freelance writer.
Q: So you really canít say, hereís a script Iíve done.
GREENBERG: Itís an arcane and byzantine pecking order that no oneís quite figured out. But speaking of writing on spec, to be a screenwriter you have to have spec screenplays in your drawer that you know are not going to get made but that show what you can do as a screenwriter. The lady in the front row asked about things being stolen. Well, that is an epidemic in the film world. And the reason people want to do print writingóI mean the reason I do, and I assume all of us hereóis because we have complete control. Itís paid a little less, a lot less sometimes, but you have the control and the satisfaction of it being your work and your work alone.
Q: Two of you have written for British publications. Can you tell me how you make those contacts and how you develop them?
GEORGIADES: Sure. Thatís the one area where being sociable has been helpful to me. When I was running the magazine Blackbook in New York, I hired a lot of British writers for particular stories, especially ones based over there. I developed a rapport with these writers, and I donít mean to demean New York publishing at all, but I have found that in London, thereís a tendency to be extremely encouraging to each other and, if you donít feel youíre right for a particular story, to mention somebody else. Anyway, Iíve gotten a lot of work from London just by word of mouth. I would say Iíve tried almost not at all to get work in London, but Iíve gotten a lot more there. Here itís been like pushing a rock up a hill.
GREENBERG: Itís true. One of the things is itís more of a writersí market in England. The British read more and they have a tremendous number of dailies. And newspaper writers, even freelance writers, are quite well paid compared to here. If you do a profile for the Guardian, an eighteen-hundred word profile, itís very common to get two thousand pounds for it.
Q: Do you think thatís better than we get in the States?
GREENBERG: I do, yeah, certainly for literary work, and work with a deeper content. Literary writing is paid better over there. And by the way, if anyone is interested in literary writing, one way to get attention is the anniversary, the hundredth year of the birth or death, you can always sell a piece on that. I do a lot of writing for London papers and like writing for them. I find the English to be very good editors as well.
Q: How do you know what a publication pays? And how do you know whether you can move up?
GORDON: That is such a loaded question and I wish I knew the answer. At New York Magazine none of us talks to each other about what we earn because it would be sort of considered rude.
DOMINUS: Having been an editor was very helpful because when I was negotiating my contract I had a sense of what they were paying.
AUDIENCE: In addition to the Authors Guild, I belong to the American Society of Journalists and Authors and in their monthly newsletter, thereís a confidential section where people report on assignments theyíve gotten and how much theyíve been paid for them. Itís sort of hit and miss, but you do get a sense of what various magazines are paying.
Q: Are agents of any use out there?
GEORGIADES: No. I had an agent take me out to lunch once and he said itís not worth his time to pick up the phone and call up magazines because the percentage of magazine commissions just wasnít worth the effort. But then he bought me lunch, soó
GREENBERG: Most agents stipulate that they wonít handle magazine work when they sign you up. When youíre in the higher echelons itís very good to have an agent, because you can double your fee. I know itís gauche to talk about what youíre paid, but itís difficult to make a living and you do have to worry about this. And you are wondering what the next guy is getting.
TAYLOR: Some agencies assign younger staff members to try and sell magazine articles for their book authors just to keep their names out there. I want to ask one more question. Would you recommend this life to your children?
GREENBERG: Iíd recommend it to anyone but my children.
GORDON: I find it almost impossible to answer just because itís really fun, but at this point in my life, not having a pension plan and all that stuff, it makes me think maybe 10 years ago I might have gone in a different artistic direction.
GEORGIADES: Iíll find out when I have some.
DOMINUS: I love it so much. Thatís why itís worth all of the difficulties. I love not having a boss, and I love traveling, and all of those things make it worth it. But I guess it depends. Theyíd have to really love it a lot. But no, I wouldnít encourage it.
TAYLOR: Love it a lot, thatís the answer. Susan Dominus, William Georgiades, Meryl Gordon and Michael Greenberg, thank you so much for joining us.