Monday, March 5, 2018

Writers Share Insights On Making Money As Writers (And Don't Underestimate the Power of Fiverr.)

On Saturday the Duluth Public Library hosted an event for writers titled Writing for Money. Four local writers who make a living using their writing skills were assembled for a 90-minute panel discussion on a topic that eludes many beginning writers and stymies others. If you are a writer or writer-wannabe, you would have found this a valuable and informative way to spend your Saturday afternoon. It was seriously good, even inspiring.

The first 45 minutes consisted of each panelist sharing their writing journey for ten minutes. How they started, how they chose writing as a career and where it has taken them. After a short break there was a Q&A period as members from the audience submitted questions for the panel to answer.

Three of the panelists were young people who seemed to be in their stride, working hard because there was plenty to do. They were writing and getting paid for it, and still learning, with their lives ahead of them. The fourth panelist was Marie Zhuikov of the Lake Superior Writers, closer to the far shore of her career, yet still exploring new territories.

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Writing for Money was the second of three events designed to help writers move forward in their careers or with their dreams. The first focused on helping writers write for literary journals. Here are the stories each told about themselves in the first half of the program.

Maddie Cohen, a full-time freelance content writer, spoke first to the attentive group gathered in the Duluth Public Library's Green Room. Cohen began as a TV reporter in Montana. Building on a lead from Business Insider she decided to move in a new direction and now makes 4K to 7K a month.

The first step was surprising to me. She set up a profile on Fiverr, a website in which people offer to do various service for $5.00, like design a logo, write a jingle, do a voiceover or write a blog post. I'd been to this site before, but I hadn't realized the manner in which these five dollar gigs could be leveraged into full time assignments. Maddie is also fluent in French, so that this could be leveraged into translation work that paid some serious dollars.

Cohen shared how she once felt like getting a byline was what she wanted. Today she sees the value of corporate work and is eating it up. You can find her website here.

Gia Bellamy shared next. Her role, she said, is helping brands find their voice. In high school she found that she enjoyed taking essay-format tests because they permitted more nuanced answers as opposed to multiple choice quizzes and tests. She enjoyed essays so much that her motto became "Essay Questions Forever."

She went to St. Thomas University and began blogging at that time, with a focus on marketing and advertising. The blog helped her get an internship which led to a copywriting job. From there she went to work with a marketing team at another company, learning more skills and lessons along the way. When she moved back to Duluth she began working for Swim Creative. Now, she works from home, collaborating on teams from all over the hemisphere.

Chief lessons she's learned thus far in her writing career:
1. Do more.
2. Everything's a draft.
3. Kindness wins.

Marie Zhuikov is a writer who works at Wisconsin Sea Grant and has recently published a pair of Eco-Romance novels and was editor of the short story collection Going Coastal.

Like nearly every one of the panelists, Zhuikov began writing in high school. She also did lots of reading,  and was so into poetry that she would re-type the poems she liked and noted that she "has been sitting in front of typewriter" her whole life. As a teen she wrote on a teen page for the Duluth News Tribune. In college she started toward a biology major but switched to science journalism. Her dream at the time was to become Jacqui Cousteau.

After school she became an environmental reporter for the Minnesota Daily and also did freelance newsletter work, wrote for fitness magazines, and the Hennepin County Medical Center. She shared details from the long and winding road that led her back to the Northland. Her experiences were more numerous and varied, with writing the thread that stitched it all together. When she add up all the revenue generated from her writing experiences it was a substantial number, which she contrasted with the 6K she's made with her novels.

Investigative reporter Brooks Johnson writes for the Duluth News Tribune. He also produces a weekly business column. His story was as equally entertaining as the others. Johnson was nicknamed Tolkien in school because he was reading Tolkien all the time. A teacher complained to his parents that he was always reading and his parents asked, "Is that a problem?"

Johnson wrote poetry and wrote album reviews. He loved writing and decided to do it as a career. Beginning as a writer for the student newspaper his junior year, he's been writing ever since.

When he graduated college he wrote 29 letters to find a job before the 30th one landed him a position in Oregon. While writing for the paper he practiced different ways of telling a story. He enjoyed burying cultural references in his work. His next job was in Fargo, where he continued to learn from others and from experience. Finally he landed this position in Duluth. The best advice he got from an editor was this: "Tell me what you are going to tell me."

After the break the panelists answered questions from the audience, some directed to specific people and some directed to all.

To Maddie: WHAT DID YOU WRITE ABOUT CARDBOARD BOXES?
(In response to an anecdote she'd shared, she explained that it was a blog post about shipping.) I like writing about dull topics, making them humorous. (EdNote: Me, too)

DOES ONE NEED TO KNOW THE LANGUAGE OF FOREIGN SPEAKERS WHEN IMPROVING THEIR ENGLISH?
Maddie again: It helps.

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE WRITERS JUST STARTING OUT WHO DO NOT HAVE A DEGREE IN JOURNALISM?
Maddie: I didn't have a degree in journalism. I had a bachelors in another discipline, but in small markets you can knock on doors.
Marie: You can write a free blog and show off your work.
Brooks: Read, research… persistence, knocking on the door.

A QUESTION ABOUT PITCHING STORIES TO MAGAZINES
Marie: Get familiar with the magazine and see what they cover already. If you think it will fit, you say "here is my idea, here is how I would approach it and here is why I am the best person to write this story."
Maddie: Let the editor know your idea will be helpful to readers.

HOW WOULD I GET MY STORY OUT?
Maddie: Different routes. Pitch story. Or blog on LinkedIn Pulse.
I get some jobs via LinkedIn. Write it, blog it.
Gia mentioned Medium.com.
Maria: Writers Market

WHAT KIND OF WRITING DO YOU PREDOMINANTLY DO?
Maddie: Ghost blogging and ad copy. Almost easier to create from scratch than to edit messy stuff.
She told a story about an NFL player's wife wanted to be on reality TV and hired her to do a blog for her. "There is so much ghost writing. You never know what you are really reading."

WHAT IS WEIRDEST ASSIGNMENT YOU EVER TOOK?
Marie: How to prevent earwax buildup.
Brooks: Journalism first person things. "Go where you are afraid to go. Good stories there."

WHAT ARE SOME WEBSITES WRITERS CAN USE?
UpWork.com
Fiverr.com
Hubstaff Talent
LinkedIn Pulse
Don't ignore Networking.

HOW DO YOU KNOW HOW MUCH MONEY TO ASK FOR?
Maddie: I either work by the hour or per job. Know your worth and set your rates accordingly.
A freelancer who refers work to her makes 150K. Her first year she made 25K and now makes 60K.
Gia: Google it. There are resources to help you get a sense of your worth.

WHAT IS AN ECO-ROMANTIC NOVEL?
Marie: Take ecological problems and fictionalize them. Then add kissing.

DID YOU PLAN TO BE A BUSINESS WRITER?
Brooks: It's rewarding. The best editors have had a background in business.

WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN YOU GET REJECTED?
Brooks: Learning how to work with an editor is learning how to let go of your worst work. I pitch ideas to editors and they guide.
Marie: I've had more experience with rejection of short stories. Opportunity to work on the stories more. Learned to have a spreadsheet and keep submitting.
Gia: I pitch ideas all day and most get rejected.
Maddie: Rejection hurts but it doesn't mean your work isn't good. Isn't easy to get feedback from clients… A lot easier now that I am more confident.
In advertising/marketing, you are on a team so have to let go.

CLOSING ADVICE
Maddie: Jump into it and let it happen.
Don't hesitate to take weird projects until you get to pick and choose.
Gia: Look at everything as an opportunity to get better and grow.
Marie: Writing for news media is satisfying and pure, because you are trying to uncover truth. More money in PR, but important to do PR that fits with your values.
Brooks: Story telling is the heart of experience. There will always be a need for storytellers. Think about how you consume stories…

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If this blog post were a Yelp Review I would give the program Five Stars. Thank you to the Duluth Public Library and everyone involved who made this happen.

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