Professional Interview #1
by Ian Birnbaum
This week we have the special privilege of talking with Leah Shafer, who has worked as a professional, full-time freelance writer for the last three years. You can find her work in The Dallas Observer, Quick, Luxe, Modern Bride, American Way, The Meeting Professional, Rx.com and several other publications. Her corner of the web is over at LeahShafer.com.
It only took 15 minutes AND I got her to reveal her secret ambitions for world domination.
ME: How did you first get your start? I hear there was some drinking involved.
Leah: Well, actually, I lost my job and basically came home and cried for a week, and I only had two weeks’ severance pay. So I kind of thought I would try to augment my unemployment wages from the state by writing some freelance things. And by the time I ran out of my unemployment benefits I was writing quite a significant amount. I decided I would go ahead and take a stab at it.
One of the things that I have a lot of trouble with is finding time to write. Is that a problem of yours? Was it a problem at the beginning?
It’s always a problem. There’s a joke among my friends about how busy I am, that I am basically never not working. I’m thinking about something, brainstorming. I spend a great deal of time on the weekends and at night; if I’m watching TV I have my laptop on my lap and I’m frequently Googling.
So yes, it is a challenge to find the time, especially if you’re working a full time job and you can’t interview people because your day is already taken up. Email is a wonderful thing because you can just email questions to people.
How often do you send an unsolicited piece out to an editor? What is your advice on query letters?
Right now, my plate is really full with assignments; I have myself booked up until August in terms of my work. So currently, I don’t do very many unsolicited pieces – although I’m getting ready to go up to Vancouver next week for a piece I’m writing and I’m going to try to put together a couple of extra pieces on top of that – so I will be doing an unsolicited manuscript drop at several different travel editors around the country.
I always recommend that people do a full-on pitch. A lot of editors will look at it, and a well-written pitch can be sent to 15 people; each one that turns you down, you just move on to the next one.
So… about getting paid to write about your experiences while you take a free vacation: how do I get on that gravy train?
Basically, you start doing some travel articles for different newspapers. Then, over time, you try to pitch yourself and your ideas to travel magazines or “industry” magazines – like the people that I do most of my travel writing for is a meeting planner’s organization (because meeting planners travel all the time).
So you’ve just got think about who pays you to travel places and then you just get an assignment from your editor. Then you take that assignment and email it to the Convention or Visitor’s Bureau people and often those people will say “Come on up! Come to Toronto, come to Louisiana, come to Utah!” then they’ll put you up in a hotel.
It’s really exciting, but it’s also really, really hard. I have to say, travel writing is way less glamorous than I ever imagined.
What is your goal for the future? Is freelancing for TIME magazine as good as it gets, or do you ultimately have other plans?
I want to be QUEEN OF THE WORLD! I’m always aiming for larger circulation and higher pay. I mean, always. You know, the goal is to be able to make a whole lot of money without much effort. So I would love to get $4000 where they send me to Dubai where I’ll hang out by the pools all day.
Best single piece of advice that you could give someone hoping to start freelancing?
Get. A. Laptop. I’m totally serious; getting a laptop changed my life and made freelancing possible. I can take it on the road with me and as long as there’s an open Wi-Fi connection, I’m in touch with my editor and I’m in touch with my sources and I can write from the road.
If you could go back to the beginning of your freelancing career, say, the day before you started – what would you tell yourself about what the next three years were going to be like?
I don’t think I’d want to know – I’d be too scared. I think I’d probably tell myself to aim higher and spend less time on the small-time newspapers. Just pretty much, except for travel writing, ignore newspapers because they’re a huge amount of work for not much money. In the end it, unfortunately, becomes completely about the money.