That’s the quick backstory behind “The Writer’s Co-op,” a podcast and membership program hosted by Seattle freelancers Wudan Yan and Jenni Gritters. When they launched their venture in March 2020, they had no idea how relevant it would become. The world soon shut down in the face of the COVID pandemic. And newsroom jobs, already under assault, experienced record-high losses, and newsroom layoffs reached a record high, sending more than 16,000 journalists into freelancing or other fields.
Yan and Gritters coach freelance writers on topics ranging from creating a budget to juggling multiple assignments. They are personal proof of their advice: They each made six figures last year as a result of their business-minded approach to journalism.
In “Business Planning for Narrative Writers,” they shared tips at the 2021 Power of Narrative conference hosted by Boston University. Some highlights from their breakout session:
Develop a business mindset
The market doesn’t determine your rates — you do, say Yan and Gritters. Producing quality journalism, including long-term narrative projects, doesn’t have to be at odds with earning good money. Often, however, freelancers have not established firm rates for their work, and instead accept wildly different pay based on the whims of publications.
Their advice: Freelancers should define how much they need to earn annually, including retirement contributions, and divide that number among the number of weeks they plan to work throughout the year (being sure to factor in vacation time). That number divided by 12 provides the monthly income goal. Continue dividing to determine a weekly rate, day rate, and hourly rate.
As part of that math, it’s important to be clear how long it takes to produce a story. “If an assignment comes in and a publication can only pay $1,000, I know that’s three days of my time,” Yan says. “If it’s more money, then I can spend more time on it. That’s how I make those decisions for myself, that gives me more power when I go to negotiate, and that impacts who I pitch.”
Diversify your work
Both Yan and Gritters write for magazines and newspapers, but they also produce branded content. Journalistic work brings in the majority of their annual incomes, but it helps to have a diverse skill set. “Jenni and I both got into freelancing in the digital era and we know how precarious things can be,” Yan says. “So I’ve always been somebody with one foot in and one foot out. That’s the way that I might have to continue to operate unless things change drastically.”
This mix of assignments also can be a mental plus, says Gritters: “I can’t do full-time feature writing or my brain explodes. It’s too much creative vulnerability and bandwidth. Some of this brand work is lower investment, lower vulnerability, higher pay. The mix of that feels a lot safer to me.”
How can a writer avoid conflicts of interest when straddling the worlds of journalism and marketing? Split up different topics for different types of writing. Gritters tends to write about psychology in her journalism and about the outdoors and sustainability when doing brand marketing.
Change your language
Gritters and Yan often use the words “client,” “rates,” and “project fees” — not words common to journalism. “We usually say ‘my editor,’ which I think conveys a sense of deference,” Yan says. Using the term client “levels the playing field a little bit on a business-to-business level.”
Gritters agrees: “There’s a power dynamic that exists for freelancers that is part of why we get taken advantage of. Changing the language can be really empowering for people.”
Make negotiations a standard practice
When Gritters worked as an editor for Upworthy, she noticed that men almost always negotiated higher pay rates for assignments. “For minority groups and women, the power dynamic makes it challenging. You feel like maybe if you negotiate they’re going to take the assignment away from you. But it’s a business transaction,” Gritters says.
Two things make this easier:
First, know what’s possible for the publication you’re working with. “If you’re trying to negotiate with a place that doesn’t have the budget to pay you more than $200, don’t even pitch there,” Gritters says. “Look for the places that can pay what you deserve. Direct your ideas to the right publications.”
Second, it’s easier to negotiate when you know your rate and required conditions, rather than simply negotiating blindly. Yan once asked for an additional $450 — her day rate — from a publication that was asking her to spend a full day reporting in the field.
Gritters adds: “If the scope of the story grows, you can ask for more and can measure it. It is a conversation with your editor to say, ‘I am a person who runs a business and needs to get paid, so if I’m spending 15 extra hours, what can we do about that?'”
Copy other freelancers
Not sure how to find publications that pay well? Look to other freelancers, who often post end-of-year rate transparency threads on Twitter. Pay attention to other writers’ portfolios and where they are writing. “Copy other people’s careers — there’s no shame in that,” Yan says. “The work that you’re producing is different, so you’re just being resourceful to learn who actually pays well.”
You can watch the full recording of Gritters and Yan’s session here:
Sarah Kess is the coordinator of the department of journalism at Boston University, where she teaches trauma journalism and helps direct the Power of Narrative conference.