Q&A With Bob Levey
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2002; Noon EST
"Levey Live" appears Tuesdays at noon EST.
Your host is Washington Post columnist Bob Levey. This hour is your chance to talk directly to key Washington Post reporters and editors, local officials and people in the news.
Today, Bobs guest is John Scalzi, writer and founder of Scalzi Consulting, a writing and editing firm.
John Scalzi is one of the most successful freelance writers in America. He began freelancing for the Chicago Sun-Times and the San Diego Tribune in 1990, while still an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. After graduation, he became the youngest film critic in the country at the Fresno Bee in California, where he also wrote a weekly, nationally syndicated column.
In 1996, he became the first full-time writer and editor at America Online. After two years, he left to become a full-time freelance writer and content consultant. Since then, he has written dozens of articles on a huge array of topics, ranging from personal finance to humor and entertainment to parenting. His writing has been printed in publications as diverse as the Washington Post and the Official Playstation Magazine. He has written one book, The Rough Guide to Money Online, and has contributed to several more.
He runs Scalzi Consulting, a writing and editing firm, from his home in Ohio. He also has a home in Virginia.
The transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control
over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Good afternoon, John, and thanks very much for joining us today. Let's begin with a question about that magic stuff--money. Can you bargain with a free-lance employer for more dough? Or do you have to take whatever the rotten so-and-so offers you?
John Scalzi: Hi, Bob, and of course I'm thrilled to be here. My general thought about money is that negotiation depends on the circumstances. If you're starting out and you're offered a gig that pays poorly but offers pretty good exposure (thus allowing you to get more and better jobs) it might be worth it to suck it up and take the job. As you go along, building a portfolio and a reputation, you can start making the pitch for more money.
Also, of course, if you feel comfortable walking away from little pay, go ahead and do so, since working for less than you feel you deserve can affect the quality of your product (i.e., "why should I make an effort? I'm only getting paid x") and that's no good for anyone, least of you.
I am firm about one thing: NEVER work for no money. This is a job and a business as well as an enthusiasm, and since those who are asking you to work for free will profit from your work, working for no pay is nonsense.
John, what did your experience at America Online do for you and how would you characterize the corporate culture there? Have you ever thought of writing an "Inside AOL" expose?
John Scalzi: Ah, AOL. Believe it or not, I had (mostly) a very positive experience working for America Online -- when I joined in 1996, they were still on the upside of their growth surge, and much of the business plan there at the time seemed to be "let's throw all this stuff on the wall and let's see what sticks." (One of the things that didn't stick was me and the reason they hired me -- rather than generating much original content, they went ahead and ate Time Warner, which on balance probably wasn't a bad move, considering the massive collapse of the tech stocks, something which AOL's new business structure has shielded it from, somewhat).
What it did for me professionally was it allowed me to build up a pretty useful set of contacts, which I utilize to this day. Personally, it made me realize that some people work well in the corporate environment, and some don't, and it's good to know which you are. While I was depressed at having left AOl when I did, on retrospect, it was one of the best things to happen to me professionally. I absolutely don't regret working at AOL (I still do work for them on a consulting basis), but I'm happy not to be in a cubicle anymore.
Re: "Inside AOL" expose -- Others have done it to better effect, I suspect. beside, what I would want to talk about would be my exploits playing "Quake" over AOL's LAN with other then 20-something geeks, and I'm not sure anyone really wants to read about that.
How do your parents feel about the fact that you still don't have a job?
John Scalzi: As long as they get their hush money on a weekly basis, they're perfectly happy with it.
I'll tell you a funny story about being "unemployed" that doesn't involved my parent. When my wife and I moved into our home in Sterling, Va, we introduced ourselves to the neighbors, and when they asked what I did, I said I was a writer, which immediately translated as "bum." It wasn't until about six months later, when they saw a piece that I did in the Post, that they came up to me and said "wow, you really ARE a writer!" as opposed to merely a sponge off my wife. I thought it was pretty funny. That is the curse of the writer -- people don't actually think it's a job, even when it is (mostly).
My impression, gleaned from many hours in airport bookstores, is that there is a shocking, terrifying, ever-growing load of truly terrible writing being visited on the populace--and the dumb populace is buying it! Why? Doesn't cream rise? Or is Grisham fated to be compared to Hemingway forever?
John Scalzi: Bad writers have always been with us -- it's just that their work doesn't survive long, which is why we think earlier writing eras were entirely filled with brilliant writers, while today's era is filled with dreck. There will always be bad writers at the top of best-seller charts. The revenge of literature is simply that it lasts. This is cold comfort for the brilliant writer who gets his fame after death, but hey, genius ain't easy.
Warner Robins, GA:
I'm a longtime fan of your Web site, and your columns on freelancing have helped me to realize that writing for money isn't for me! My question is this: have you noticed a difference in your cash flow due to recent events and the downturning economy?
John Scalzi: Sure -- one of the Web sites I used to do, called Gamedad.com, was halted because the people who were paying me to do it decided not to anymore, and that was a sizable percentage of my income. However, a smart freelancer believes in multiple revenue streams -- getting money from more than one place -- so that when the hit gets taken, you can still keep moving. Also, I strongly believe that smart writers (and others) live below their means, so that when the decrease hits, you're not panicked about your financial situation. Finally, you keep moving and looking for work. That's what I do and as a result I've replaced much of the income I've lost from gamedad.com going into the dustbin of digital history.
A few years ago a panel of English scholars declared that it was henceforth acceptable to split one's infinitives.
Is it ever okay to split an infinitive?
John Scalzi: I don't see any reason not to.
Seriously, for tons of writing, an informal tone is fine, and in those cases, split all the infinitives you want to. When you're writing up your master's thesis. You your infinitives in place. Know your audience so you know what you can get away with.
What are the most important things a fledgling freelance writer should know?
John Scalzi: Three things:
1. Writing is work.
2. Did I mention writing is work?
3. Finally -- surprise! -- writing is work.
Writing isn't just sitting around having deep thoughts all day and then typing for fifteen minutes and then taking a long lunch. Most writers have to really work to find work, and then they have to work to keep work. It pays off in the long run, but in the short run it can be aggravating and frustrating. It's why there are so very few young, non-neurotic writers. So anyone who thinks he or she wants to write should not delude themselves into thinking it's any less work than other sorts of jobs. You need a strong work ethic to succeed and you need to be willing (as with most other jobs) to tolerate a certain amount of horsepuckey (I think I can say that here) to get to do what you really want to do, in terms of writing. So to sum up: It's work.
Also: The Writer's Market. It's your friend. Use it.
Which writer would you like to meet and chat with and why? (Anyone from beginning of time to present)
John Scalzi: I'd like to meet H.L. Mencken. He was crusty, he was cranky, he was a hell of a writer. I have often thought it would be interesting to sit in on the Algonquin round table, but I'm sure after a few minutes I'm sure it would start getting a little depressing -- all those bright witty people drinking themselves into a stupor and bagging on each other. Still, for those few minutes it would be fun.
John, do you think you'll always remain a non-fiction independent author/contributor, or will you eventually write fiction at some point?
John Scalzi: I have written fiction; In fact, back in 1998, I put up a novel on my Web site to see if anyone would read it and then pay me for the work (it was an experiment, and I actually made money on it, though not enough to recommend it to others). I also just wrapped up another novel and am currently editing it before shopping it around.
However, I suspect I will also primarily write non fiction, since I like the format and the subjects, and, also, it's easier to make a good living writing it.
Can you query any editor these days via e-mail? Or is a phone call or (gasp) a letter still effective?
John Scalzi: It's best to check. I query many editors by e-mail, but only when I know they accept them. The Writer's Market will tell you whether an editor prefers his or her queries by phone, fax, mail or e-mail -- the smart thing to do is give the editor a query in the format he or she prefers. No sense irritating them right off the bat.
New York, N.Y.:
I'm interested in getting started in some kind of "lifestyle" (humor, fashion, women's issues) freelance writing, but I have no idea where to begin. How do I make contact to submit pieces?
John Scalzi: Again: The best thing to do is grab a Writer's Market, find out which magazines and papers have a need for the stuff you want to write, and then query according to the specifications listed in the book. If you don't give an editor a query in the way he or she wants it, you immediately give that editor an excuse to throw your submission in the trash. Trust me, I was an editor.
You've said that if you're considering dumping your day job to free-lance fulltime, you should be consistently earning 30 percent MORE as a freelancer than you were as a full-timing drone. How many freelancers actually do that well?
John Scalzi: Well, I think it depends on how much you were making as a full-time drone.
Seriously, until you get into the upper tier, writing is not a very lucrative profession, and all free-lance writers need to accept that as a fact. You're compensated by the fact you're able to do the writing you love, and you're building that career over time, so you can get to that upper tier. It does take time, and you might not get there.
However, I think the day job is terribly maligned. A good day job pays your bills and keeps you fed while you build the foundation of your writing career. I *do* think it is possible to hold down a day job and still build up a solid body of writing work -- indeed, I like to point out Wallace Stevens as the patron saint of day job writers: By day, mild-mannered insurance exec. By night: Pulitzer Prize-winning poet.
Do you think it's better to have a
non-writing job and write on the side, or
have ANY job, full-time, in writing as long
as you're writing, even though it's
something you hate doing? The former
makes more sense to me.
John Scalzi: Why on earth would you want to do something you HATE all the time? Especially if it is writing, which is supposed to be something you love?
I'd rather have a non-writing job and write on the side than to have a full-time writing job I hated.
Any tricks to pass on to other writers for getting inspiration when they write? What's your opinion of writer's block?
John Scalzi: I don't have a very high opinion of writer's block, obviously.
Writing is a process and a practice as well as an inspiring thing. If you write consistently, you can probably learn to write even when you're not "inspired," so I recommend that -- develop a time and a place and a manner in which you write. It's like any skill, in that much of the act of the process is mechanical.
I'm fortunate in that when I don't feel especially inspired, I still have lots of work that doesn't require inspiration. Try to get some of that, so that even if you're not writing GREAT THINGS, you're still writing and making a little cash to boot.
I currently work in communications for a nonprofit but hope to pursue a career in freelance journalism in the near future. Can you offer some generic tips about getting started? Is it worthwhile to just write and submit articles, or better to pitch first, write second?
Also, if I were to start publishing some articles while still in my current job, should I be concerned about upsetting my boss? I'm nervous that he is going to feel like I'm not committed enough to this job, and am seeking out additional income and all that, or perhaps fishing for a new career. Any advice on handling this doubling-up of day job and freelancing?
John Scalzi: Second question first: Do your writing on your own time, that's one way to solve the problem. Take the time you'd spend watching TV, or some other non-critical activity, and use it to write instead. That way there's little conflict.
First Question Last: When you're starting off, why not do what's comfortable? If you prefer pitching a story first, do that, otherwise write something and then see who wants it. I've done both and have had success (and failure) both ways. Do what makes sense for you.
You've done very well at writing marketing materials. What's your advice to those who want to crack this piece of the free-lance world?
John Scalzi: Well, I'm for it, since marketing pays really well, relative to many other types of writing -- and it's can be a nice cushion that lets you do other, not-so-well-paying work that you enjoy.
The advice is the same here as anywhere. Be prepared to start small (local companies and businesses) and build a portfolio. Send samples to larger companies so they know you're out there and available. Scour the job boards on the Net to see who needs services. Apply, apply, apply. Keep doing this until something hits.
I used to free-lance a regular monthly column for a magazine. Things swam merrily along for two years. Then, without explanation, the editor stopped publishing my pieces and stopped returning my phone calls. Choose one: Lick wounds and go on? Keep calling him? Chalk it up to sunspots and find another magazine?
John Scalzi: I'd found out why, of course. But then I'd move on.
Nothing lasts forever in writing. Most of the writing gigs I get that seem to be "long term" actually seems to close out after two or three years, for whatever reason -- money runs out, editor leaves, sunspots (stupid sunspots!) or whatever. Be glad when you get something long-term, but don't expect it to live up to the title.
You do your free-lance work from a farm in Ohio. Doesn't this harm your ability to make and keep contacts? Shouldn't you be having long, languorous lunches with editors in Manhattan (as long as they pay)?
John Scalzi: There's this thing called "The Internet." You should try it sometime.
I honestly thought not being in a big city would present a problem when I moved here (I warned my wife to expect hard-scrabble living for a while), but it really didn't turn out that way at all. Communicating online has really made living anywhere possible, if your work is what your editors want. I do go to NY and other places from time to time on business and see people then. But almost all my work is from people who I have met and have primarily worked with online.
Sherman Oaks, CA:
Besides your site, of course, what writers
on the web would you recommend
reading? I like Lileks, Sassone, Po
Bronson, others. Who else?
John Scalzi: I like those and also Josh Marshall's Talking Points (he's a classmate from High School), Rick McGinnis, Rob Rummel-Hudson, Mike Reed, and several others. I hesitate to make the list too long simply because I'll inevitably leave people out. Point of fact is to say there's good writing going on out there, and for people who like to read, it's worth the time to look.
How does Scalzi work? In a straight-backed chair? In a pin-drop quiet room? Or on an overstuffed couch with 'N Sync blaring through his Walkman?
John Scalzi: N Sync? I'd rather eat a fish hook popsicle.
I prefer quiet, but I have a 3 year old, so I don't get much of that. Otherwise, in chair, in front of a computer, usually somewhat casually dressed. In fact, right at this moment I'm in a bathrobe. I bet that'll give some of you nightmares for days.
Every free-lance writer will suffer rejection. Most will suffer a lot of it. How do you suggest that freelancers develop the thick skin they'll need?
John Scalzi: Remember that most editors were dropped on their heads as children. Frequently.
Rejection of work really isn't personal. Look, when I was the editor of a humor area on AOL, I had 1,000 submissions for 20 open slots for material each month. I didn't have *time* to reject people personally. So when your stuff is rejected, don't feel like some editor is cackling while he's stuffing your life's work into a trash bin. It's just business. Really, that's all it is.
Will you ever have a "straight job" again?
John Scalzi: What, and leave all this?
I've been offered full-time jobs since I became free-lance, and I've turned them down for several reasons: I liked being a stay-at-home dad, I liked setting my own schedule, I liked being able to avoid meetings, and so on. I certainly wouldn't say no the right "straight job," so anytime the Post wants to give me a column, count me in. However, by and large, the free-lance life has afforded me a life I well and truly enjoy. When you find yourself in that position, it's not something you're willing to let go of easily. I think others who eventually come over to the free-lance side of things will understand what I mean. At least, that's what I would hope for them.
Many thanks and best of luck to that free-lance king, John Scalzi. Be sure to join us next Tuesday, March 5, when "Levey Live" takes a look at efforts to revitalize Washington's tourist business in the wake of Sept. 11. Our guest will be Kathryn S. Smith, a historian and the executive director of the DC Heritage Tourism Coalition. That show will begin, as always, at noon Eastern time.
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