Friday, February 27, 2009

Freelance Serenity: Acceptance

At a recent writer's group, a colleague and I were chatting about the kind of work we dream of doing: The kind of long-form, narrative journalism that takes 30,000 words to unfold. The kind that allows you to develop mysteries, characters and ideas before revealing the nugget of fact.

And then I came back to my office and dug into the two edits I was working on. One had been going on since December. The other, for a month. They were unusually long and arduous edits, from editors I knew and trusted and therefore didn't mind.

But it taught me a lesson that I will bring to future stories--or reminded me of it:

Our job as freelancers isn't to do the kind of story we want to do. It's to do the story our clients want.

It seems obvious, but how many times have you tried to structure a story as a medical mystery when your client wanted a by-the-book overview of a subject? How many times have you tried to shoehorn in a delicate turn of phrase when your client wanted pithy, pithy, pithy?

Admit it: We've all done it.

It's not that developing your craft and giving your editor a more complex or interesting story than they asked for is a bad impulse--sometimes it turns out wonderfully. And it's a credit to those of us who love journalism that we're willing to take risks.

But there's a difference between taking risks and letting our ego get in the way of our jobs. It's ego vs. service. And guess what? To get paid--and to maintain serenity--service has to win.

Next time you're sitting in front of your computer, ruing the most recent bulleted service piece you're writing, or irritated at an editor for asking for a different type of story, reflect:
  • What type of story does this client usually want from me? If it's always a service feature, don't give them a feature without any helpful hints.
  • Why am I resisting doing it their way? Is it because your approach will better elucidate the story's point, or is it because you haven't been able to find an appropriate outlet for your more creative writing style?
  • Who am I serving? The first answer to come to your mind will probably be an indignant, "Well, my client, of course!" But look again. If you're trying to make up for feeling stuck in an outworn niche or for the fact that you haven't gone after your dream markets--or haven't had success with them--you're serving your own professional ambitions and ego, not your client.
The key here is to get to get to know yourself. If it really is to give your editor the story better than she asked for it, you can go to bat with your editor.

But you may find that you really want to write medical-mystery stories, or that you want to take a class in literary journalism. Once you have that self-knowledge, you can put it into action, instead of fobbing of your ambitions on your hapless client.

Then you can go about showing up for the work you have as it is, instead of trying to force it to be something it's not--and getting frustrated with clients.

Doing so doesn't have to limit your career either: In fact, realizing where you want to spend your energy and the types of stories you want to do can lead to avenues you might not have pursued otherwise. For instance, now I know: I need to pitch a reslant of a story to a totally different market, with a totally different approach--a completely new story, really--and see what happens.

Energy: Unblocked
Serenity: Maintained
Client: Served
What do you do to make sure you're serving your client's needs instead of your own?
Photo by striatic.

1 comment:

Erik Sherman said...

Another way this can come out is to put your writing before the actual need of the story itself. When the story is most important, the writer's choices on language, approach, and structure will be smarter, and if something doesn't work, letting go of it becomes easier.