Many writers out there dream of freelancing full time or on the side, but there are very few who are able to fully realize that dream, either because they are too scared to "take the plunge," or they really don't know how to get started.
Meet Jay E. Valusek.
I first came across Jay's writing on LinkedIn. He wrote a piece about why companies should never hire freelance writers. It was satirical and was actually making the case for why writers are kick-ass awesome (my words, not his). I loved it. Then, I started reading comments from other people - smart professionals, mind you - who were infuriated. "How could you write something so insensitive," they said. "Who do you think you are?" They didn't get the point and decided to take that out on the writer. That made me infuriated (more sad, really).
First, I commented to show my support, and then I immediately sent Jay a message to ask for a copy of the piece (you can email me if you'd like a copy, and I'll put you in touch with Jay). The rest is history.
Jay's story is one from which I know you can learn:
Jay has been a professional writer for 26 years and a successful freelance writer for 17. A former geologist with a master's degree in earth science, he writes high-tech marketing and executive communications "in plain English" for software and service companies in the oil and gas industry. Since becoming a writer, Jay has obsessively pursued a variety other creative, educational and existential endeavors. Having just turned "fifty-ten," he is currently exploring how to reverse the annoying aging process and return to his rather idyllic childhood.
Below is my interview with Jay about all things writing, freelancing and more.
How is freelance writing different than writing as part of a full-time gig? Do you like one more than the other? Why?
Jay Valusek: This may sound strange, but as a freelance writer you actually have to make a living writing. You have to write stuff that’s good enough to keep clients coming back. You can’t fake it, just putting in time, punching a clock. You have to write all day long.
So you had better love writing more than anything in the universe, or you’re hosed. As Annie Dillard once said, you have to enjoy mucking about in sentences all morning. There’s nothing else to do. No meetings. No office politics. No colleagues, in fact. Just you and your computer. Maybe a curious cat.
Of course, I’m talking about my own experience. I have no idea what it’s like to get a temporary contract, sit in a cubicle, and write for one client. I work at home all day, every day. I rarely meet anyone in person. I’m an introvert, so this lifestyle sort of works for me. But you’d better be prepared for a powerful and sometimes debilitating sense of isolation. I’ve been freelancing for 17 years now. At first I loved the solitude and the blessed lack of interruption when I placed my fingers on the keyboard. Then I got pretty damned lonely.
You have to find community, somewhere. Online doesn’t work for me. I need other humans.
The main thing I love about freelancing is being my own boss. If a client pitches something I really hate in my direction, I don’t actually have to catch it. I can pretend I’m too busy (often I really am), apologize, and move on. But frankly that’s dangerous. You have to keep regular clients, your “patrons,” happy. Turn them away too often, and you could lose them. Take too many crappy assignments, however, and you go quietly insane. It’s a balancing act. I still don’t know quite how to do it.
Unlike a full time job, where you fear you’ll never catch up, my biggest fear as a freelancer is running out of work, losing all my clients, ending up under an overpass living out of a discarded refrigerator carton, cooking my curious cat for supper. The anxiety can eat away the lining of your stomach, if you don’t have a strong sense of purpose.
Would I ever stop freelancing? Never. As long as I have a choice.
What is your advice for writers who are thinking about going the freelance route, but are too afraid to make the leap?
JV: Years ago, I seriously considered going into the Episcopal priesthood. That’s a sidebar I won’t write just now. But I’d like to share the advice that seasoned priests offered me. It seems fitting. “If there’s anything else you can do, do it. Otherwise, this work could kill you.” Take your fears seriously. There’s a reason you’re afraid, and there’s a reason you and I evolved to feel fear. The thing we fear could kill us. So take care, do anything else, if you can.
But if you can’t do anything else without going nuts or becoming clinically depressed, then, for God’s sake, don’t “leap” into freelancing. Take tiny, relatively safe steps. And cover your ass, whatever it takes. I didn’t go freelance until, first, I had nine years of solid experience writing and winning awards and building an impeccable reputation. Second, I didn’t leap. I left at the height of my career with a contract in hand, a safety net. I worked for my former employer, exclusively, for at least a year. Third, I specialized. I’m a former petroleum geologist. I have a master’s degree in earth science. I write for high-tech companies in the petroleum industry. I have no idea what I’d do in another industry.
Sure, I’m creative. But my clients rarely pay me to be creative. They pay for my apparent technical expertise (much of it learned on the go). So be prepared, also, to get typecast. Be prepared not to write all the cool, clever and creative things you’d like to write.
Did you always want to be a writer? How did you get "here?"
JV: I started writing in the fifth grade. “Rolf the Jungle Dog.” My sister, a world-class artist, illustrated it. But no, I didn’t always want to be a writer. I wanted to be a scientist. I wanted to be an artist. I wanted to be a poet. I wanted to be a priest or a monk. I wanted to be a teacher, I wanted to be a novelist. I wanted to be a rock star. I wanted to be a lot of things, but regardless of what I did, I always wrote.
Eventually I discovered that I was a writer. Because I couldn’t not write. Then, one day, I said it out loud (and heard myself say it): “I’d like to make a living as a writer someday...” I was a petroleum geologist at the time, getting ready to be laid off, reading books about writing while I sat rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. So I set about looking for a job writing something, anything. I started looking for ways to get published—which was a lot harder, before the Internet and social media and blogging. I slowly built a portfolio. I told friends what I was looking for. So yes, I networked. That was harder too, back in the day. Mostly, I kept writing. Relentlessly.
I wrote what I knew, as the old writing teachers used to say. Do they still say that? And what I knew mostly was my own life, my thoughts, my ideas. I journaled a lot. I slowly found the sound of my own voice, my own style. By the time a full-time job as a writer appeared, like magic, I was fairly self-confident. Then, within one year after I took the full time gig, I knew I wanted to go freelance. I loved the freelancers I met. I envied them. They told me I was good enough. Still, it took eight more years before I finally slipped out the door.
What is the single most important thing a disciplined writer can do to make his or her writing better?
JV: I have no idea. I’m not a disciplined writer. I can’t even tell you what good writing is. I do it all by feel. I don’t try to make my writing better. I try to write so authentically that I love what I write, even if you don’t. I need to hear the sound of my own voice, as I said, even if I’m ghostwriting for someone else. I write for me. I’m self absorbed, like many good writers. So sue me.
Well, okay, there is one thing I do, now that I think of it. I read my drafts out loud. I listen to them. I feel the words sliding off my tongue. I notice when they catch, or collide with one another, or make me wince. I forget about grammar and syntax. I write conversationally. I believe the written voice should sound like the author is talking to you. If it sounds false to the ear, I fix it. I have no other formula.
I have to admit, too, that in my entire career as a professional writer in the oil industry, I have never received feedback on my drafts that “made me a better writer.” They often improved the content of the draft. But I did not learn how to write better, sorry to say. I had to trust myself, and learn by doing. I never took any writing classes or belonged to any writing groups. Maybe you shouldn’t even listen to me.
Favorite writer, and why?
JV: I’d be hard pressed to name a favorite writer. I read widely and voraciously, but I read very little these days about writing. So I don’t think of authors as writers. They are teachers. I have favorite teachers…for a time. Until I feel the itch to learn something else. Then I move on to other books, other authors, other fields.
But I can tell you that when I started out as a professional writer (after I already had the job), I read a lot of what they called back in the eighties, “creative nonfiction.” My mentor and model, in that regard, was John McPhee of The New Yorker. He wrote a series of books on the geology of North America that made geologists drool. And he won all kinds of literary accolades. Tracy Kidder was another pioneer in the genre. I consciously imitated the style of creative nonfiction writers in my oilfield marketing communications. And I won a few awards myself. These writers made nonfiction—the stuff of freelance writing—as engaging as a novel. I didn’t get a lot of opportunity to do things like that, but they inspired me. Oh, and at least in the early days of creative nonfiction, they allowed themselves to enter the stories they told, unlike objective journalists. They made the story personal. They used the first person pronoun. I loved that. And I have occasionally done that in my work, for pay. Those are the pieces I’m most proud of. I’m not very objective, by nature, despite my background in science. As poet Mary Oliver says, I let “the soft animal” of my body love what it loves.
Are bloggers writers?
JV: I hesitate to comment on this question. I only started blogging a couple years ago, sporadically, and I still hate the term. Of course, blogging is “writing.” But many, if not most, bloggers are not what I would call writers. They just put words out there. Many are appallingly bad writers, in fact, even highly knowledgeable experts. No one vets a blog, that’s part of the problem. Sure, we all have opinions, but if we put them into words, I believe it’s our duty to humankind to write well.
Annie Dillard also said something like: Why write at all? Why choke the world on more words? Think of your readers as terminal patients, she said. What could you write that would not drive them mad? Then remember, we’re all terminal.
I’m dubious about trying to “brand” yourself by blogging endlessly about your supposed expertise. It suggests all people with expertise are writers. That’s ludicrous. So I guess I have a rather elitist view of blogging. Go ahead and write…as long as you’re a good writer too. If you’re not, well, do something else to brand yourself. Or hire a good writer to edit your blog! Don’t assault us with crap. Please.
I know, I know. You’re clicking on the comment button even as I speak.
Where do you think writing as a career is headed? What kind of jobs do you think will exist for writers in the future?
JV: I don’t think much about writing as a career. It’s more important to ask yourself: What do I know and care about? Write about that. Can you make a career out of it? In many cases, no. You’re better off studying, learning and mastering something you care about deeply, and writing about it. I’ll be honest with you, I care very little for many of the topics I write about for pay these days. I’ve changed and grown. I have too many interests. I enjoy thinking and writing about other things. But no one is paying me for that stuff yet. In that regard, I’m also a beginner. I’m only an experienced professional in a narrow niche that often bores me to tears. I have no idea what the future holds for writers. I only know the world will always need good writers. If it’s your calling, write. If you can make money doing it, more power to you.
You post your articles frequently to LinkedIn. What are some other ways that you network as a writer? What are the most important things you do to find and maintain relationships with clients?
JV: I’m lousy at networking. I don’t have a large number of clients. I give myself 100% to each and every client, project by project, year after year. I try to know them, as human beings. I do whatever they ask. I’m faithful as a dog. I have irreproachable integrity. They have kept coming back for 17 years. I do lose clients, now and again. And it’s difficult. I’m on LinkedIn now, just so I can stay in touch. But I have not had to market myself much, until recently. I still don’t know how to do it. I probably need to learn from the so-called Millennials. Every time I post on LinkedIn, I learn something new about the mysterious new world of social media. It’s fun and frustrating all at once.
Some of your LinkedIn posts ditch the prose and pick up a bit of poetry. Can you talk about the creative side of writing and how it either intersects with or informs your professional work?
JV: I’m convinced the best writers are either fanatical specialists in some field they love so passionately they simply radiate when they write, or they are such wide-ranging generalists they see connections between things the specialists never see, and bring that creative imagination to their professional work, either implicitly or explicitly.
What I mean is, I read poetry, sometimes I write poetry, and I often reflect deeply on poetry to stay in touch with the pulse of life that my technical work drains right out of me. I also read novels. I study the universe, and ponder the mysteries of biological evolution. I study psychology and Buddhism. Sometimes I teach meditation. I lead retreats now and then, believe it or not. I cultivate the heart, not just the mind. I went to grad school at 54 and got a master’s degree in adult education, just for fun. I love learning. As you might imagine, that comes in handy every time I tackle a new technical subject I know nothing, or little, about.
All these other fascinations and obsessions inform my work as a technical freelance writer. I believe I’m a better writer because I’m not narrowly technical.
I believe, to tell you the truth, that my art work back in high school, my three autobiographies, my interest in psychology, even my attempt to go into the priesthood make me a more sensitive, creative and nuanced writer of high-tech marketing communications. Why? Because I care so deeply and personally about the reader, I simply cannot stand to write badly, like so many technical writers in my industry. I feel for my readers because I’m an emotionally sensitive person. I get emotionally involved with my analytical work.
That’s why I often ditch the prose. We’re so damned driven in business, “success” is so important, we risk losing our humanity. But as a writer, ultimately I believe the most important product I have to offer my clients is my humanity. So I need to care for my “soul,” as it were, as a favor to my clients (and to their customers, who have to read my precious verbiage).
What book will you write someday?
JV: I have written and self-published three books. They are all autobiographies. Admittedly, I’m fascinated with myself. I don’t really write for anyone else. Very few people have ever read my books. But they’re like children, I love ‘em. The next book I write will, most likely, be another memoir. I suspect I write about myself because, as I said before, I need to hear the sound of my own voice. So much of my work appears under other people’s bylines. I need to know that I exist. But maybe others can learn something from my life, if I’m open and vulnerable enough to share it, without whitewashing myself. That’s what I try to do, to some extent, in everything I write. Even here. Is it working?