Notes from a Writers’ Conference

by Abby on May 9, 2017

This past weekend I did something shockingly out of the ordinary: I went to a writers’ conference! In New York City! Without my family in tow! There was a time I considered myself a professional writer first, and a pretzel server/baseball uniform washer/carpool driver second. Those times have changed.

It took a whole lotta effort and planning to dust off the ol’ business cards, pull together a couple of decent outfits, and haul myself up to the Big Apple. Stepping off the train, I was greeted with putrid smells, unhinged taxi drivers, and pouring rain. Never change, New York.

New York City street; Snoopy mural

Although I am rarely sick, I ended up contracting an upper respiratory infection and completely losing my voice during the conference. The one time when it was necessary to speak to other people! There’s some kind of metaphor in there about my fear of networking, but I don’t care to explore it.

This concludes the whiny portion of this post. Because the rest of the trip was AWESOME! Another time I may go into more detail about visiting the Museum of Modern Art, catching up with a longtime friend and colleague, and our incredible dinner at a Greek restaurant. But for now I’m going to focus on the American Society for Journalists and Authors conference itself.

Gauguin painting in Museum of Modern Art, New York City

Just me and a Gauguin, NBD

One of the best parts for me was Saturday’s first keynote speaker, Jenny Blake, the author of a book called PIVOT: The Only Move That Matters Is Your Next One. She made an interesting point that I hadn’t considered: journalists are already experts at this – pivoting, being agile, fill-in-the-business-jargon-du-jour-here. Whatever you call it, we’ve already been doing it for years.

When print publications began to fold, we started blogging. When online markets didn’t pay (cough, HuffPo, cough!), we turned to content marketing. We’ve learned (or had to learn) to embrace social media, understand SEO, and figure out Facebook algorithms.

The other point Blake made that stuck with me is this: when faced with a plateau or a pivot-point – especially one we didn’t want or see coming – you can do one of two things. You can either dwell on how you got into this mess and woe-is-me all the way into the red. “Print is over! Journalism is dead! I picked the wrong profession! I’m going to die alone eating cat food in my car!”

Or, you can focus on what’s still working and do more of that. Hey, what do you know? I’m a skilled writer with decades of experience. I excel at translating complex ideas into readable, engaging stories with catchy headlines. I know (some) grammar, and I know how to proofread and fact-check. Guess what? Those things still matter! OK, except for maybe those last points. Sigh. Kidding/not kidding.

Personally, I find these little shifts in focus refreshing. And so I would also like to comment on another theme I noticed at the conference and gently suggest a shift. I lost count of how many speakers and panelists mentioned how journalists are not likely to get rich, we’re not in it for the money, and other remarks along those lines. Does anyone still think that?! Has anyone EVER??

And, look: it is a sad but true fact that $1/word is still (!) considered a decent rate for most consumer publications – just as it was when I last attended the conference over 10 years ago. (!!!)

But here’s the thing. We can either dwell on that, or we can look at what’s going right. For me, it’s that I work about half the hours I used to and make twice as much. Per-word rates don’t matter to me because I charge by the hour or project. I rarely write for consumer publications anymore. I can do everything from my laptop, so my productivity vs. my expenses is off the charts.

And the main reasons I got into this gig – freedom and flexibility – are more important than ever, now that I have kids and aging parents. So it’s not all bad news.

It was also refreshing to hear some of the younger editors from (paying!) online publications say they don’t care about the stuff that used to keep us freelancers up at night: your email greeting or signoff, whether you address them as “Ms.” or “Emily.” Most said writers are no longer expected to do hours of (unpaid) research and pre-interviews upfront before we have an assignment. They get it: time is money.*

And speaking of money again, I’ll just point out that everyone says the same thing about teachers as they do about journalists. Well, my parents were both teachers and now, in retirement, they’re living pretty darn large. They just got back from a trip to Europe and they don’t eat cat food or live in their cars (that I know of… they live out of state.) The point here is that it’s not always how much you make but what you do with it. #Frugal4Life

Conference chic outfit

My best attempt at “conference chic.” My pants cost $15!

I went to the conference to get some fresh ideas, to connect with other writers and, frankly, to get out of the house. Goals achieved. And if my croaky voice kept me from networking, eh, at least I got a good meal and a bed to myself for a night. There’s always email and Facebook, right?

*The basic freelancer rules still apply: be polite and professional. Do your research. Have a good, timely idea you can back up with reputable sources. Don’t take it personally if they pass on your pitch. Do not, under any circumstances, do what one writer did and reply to an editor’s rejection with “F*ck you very much!” Oh, yes he did.

Atlas statue at Rockefeller Center, NYC

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Kathleen Basi May 11, 2017 at 9:05 am

So glad you had a good experience! I’d think I was in Heaven if I got a dollar a word…

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Abby May 11, 2017 at 11:40 am

It’s still a good rate, depending on the assignment. But the fact that it hasn’t changed in over a decade is shocking!

Reply

增达网 May 14, 2017 at 4:19 am

受教了!呵呵!

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