29 Oct 2002 (Revised 15 Dec 2002)
4,250 words

ASJA meeting:
Alternate income sources for writers
when your writing work disappears

NEW YORK -- Writers are moving into related work as the economy slows down, and the magazines and web sites close.

"In my field they've been falling like dominoes," said financial writer Bruce W. Fraser , as he moderated a panel on alternative sources of income for writers, at a meeting of the American Society of Journalists and Authors . "You better find another way of using your talents."

5 writers explained how they worked outside the traditional writing market, in the panel, "How to Find Hidden Sources of Income," at the Roger Smith Hotel on 29 October 2002, to a packed audience of about 70 writers.

  1. Blair Bolles explained how he did technical writing for $55 an hour over the last 6 years as he wrote his biography of Einstein and other science books. Technical writing requires the ability to learn more than specific technical knowledge.

  2. Sheila Buff, co-author of "Dr. Atkins' Age-Defying Diet" and 35 other books, described the Editorial Freelancers Association Job List and the strategies that freelancers use in shifting among skills like proofreading, editing and writing, and among content specialties like school books and medical writing.

  3. Stephanie Golden, medical writer and book author, described how she got into grant proposal writing, and the resources for writers who want to understand the world of foundations and non-profits.

  4. Kate Walter, journalist and essayist, described adjunct teaching at the City University of New York and New York University. Anyone with a master's degree and teaching experience can teach remedial English courses. Best benefits: health insurance at CUNY after 4 consecutive semesters, and free Lexis/Nexis. Worst problems: commuting time and big classes with lots of papers to correct.

  5. Beryl Goldberg, a photojournalist who has worked in 45 countries, told how she combined her primary skill of photography with writing, and how writers can do that in reverse.

But these are the success stories. Some stories are more like Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp. Moving into a different specialty takes a commitment of time and sometimes cash, the writers acknowledged. Technical writing, said Bolles, requires the "chutzpah" of telling people that you can do a job you know nothing about. "Unix? No problem." At least, that's the self-confidence you need to sell yourself into a new job. But sometimes it is a problem. The skills of writing, editing and proofreading are distinct, said Buff, and even she can't easily shift from one to the other. Some people pick up photography easily; some take a while to learn it, said Goldberg. Some writers break into a new field by working free, especially for worthwhile non-profits. Writers use social and professional contacts to leverage their basic analytical skills into a completely new field. If you don't have contacts, you can develop them.

There was an undercurrent of worry in the room. Formerly flush writers were shocked and embarassed to be asked for $4 for a glass of wine at the cash bar. Writers asked each other advice on health insurance. A writer with declining hearing couldn't afford a hearing aid. Optimism battled with discouragement. The optimists, said Bolles, will do better.

Technical writing

Bolles started in classical style with a historical example of technical writing, reading the instructions translated from a 4,000-year-old Sumerian Cuneiform tablet on how to prepare a medication from turtle shell.

That's what technical writing is, said Bolles. "It tells you how to do something." It starts with a verb: "Do this."

At the heart of it, technical writing is about procedures," said Bolles. "You write the procedures and everything else explains it."

It's "surprisingly interesting," said Bolles.

Bolles writes about computers. "The financial industry was my mainstay," he said. "They're always coming up with new programs. They need documentation." People are always leaving jobs. "When Joe falls dead on the job," somebody has to pick up the work after him.

"I write for people who are clerks and general users," said Bolles, "and also for other technical people."

Bolles writes user guides, help files, and the "wizards" that walk you through programs. He writes the standards for running a network. He writes "run books," which are user guides for computer departments, that tell you what to do if the program crashes.

Pays $40-55 an hour

"The main attraction," said Bolles, "is that it pays pretty well." In the IT (information technology) world, technical writers are lower down on the pay scale than programmers or other systems people, but "my rate is $55 an hour," he said. "A little more, a little less." He has heard people talk about technical writing fees of $80 or even more than $100 an hour, "but I've never known a technical writer to make that."

"Most of you with no experience can't make $55 an hour," especially now in the recession, said Bolles. He recently got an offer to write a run book for $35 an hour. "I was pretty startled," he said. Fortunately, another job came up. [But another technical writer complained that she's been unable to find work for months.]

Every technical writer has a rate, and employers will ask you your rate, said Bolles. "If you hesitate, that's a sign that you're not a professional and you're new at it." If you're just starting, "in this climate, make your rate $40."

"The main satisfaction is having an expertise," said Bolles. "You can go into somebody's office and have skills they need."

It doesn't get in the way of his serious writing, said Bolles. "I don't obsess about it in the shower." Shower time is free for Einstein.

Learn on the job

Technical writing doesn't require specific technical expertise, said Bolles. "Anyone who has been a journalist, anyone who has worked a beat," has used the methods that is required to learn what you need to learn on the job to do writing. The only tools you need are word processing, Powerpoint and Visio, and what you haven't used you can learn quickly.

"You have to have a certain kind of chutzpah," said Bolles, pronouncing the word with reasonable accuracy. "I have never seen this kind of program before but I can figure it out," he said confidently.

Some technical writers are engineers, and know all the technical stuff. But for the rest of us, "there are always people on the job who are happy to explain it to you," said Bolles. He's never had anybody say, "What? You're supposed to be a technical writer and you don't know that?"

You need the chutzpah, said Bolles, to be able to say, "I know all about that. Unix? No trouble for me." You can figure it out, he said, exuding confidence.

"I'm set in front of a piece of software and I have to figure it out. If you could take a Quicken program and figure it out, then you have the chutzpah to do it," said Bolles.

But Bolles later admitted that, in emphasizing self-confidence, he exaggerated how easy it is.

Technical writer Catherine Oliver later gave her comments about this story on the EFA e-mail list.

"In the interview," said Bolles, "you'll be told you'll have all these people to work with and they'll be helpful. Very often the guy who's supposed to be helping you is just too busy." On one job, the same programmer who wanted a technical writer was too busy to help because the program kept crashing.

"I've had jobs where I didn't have access to the software," said Bolles.

Breaking in

Bolles "fell into it" because he had a friend who was a technical writer, and she got him a job.

One of the "less haphazard" ways is to take adult education courses which are offered in most of the universities in the City, said Bolles. Rensselaer has a 2-year course, "which sounds like overkill to me." Although maybe if you studied technical writing at Rensselaer for 2 years, you would really know all about that, he reflected.

Technical writing jobs are almost always offered through agencies, said Bolles. The writer's client may be Pfizer or Deutschesbank, but their employer will be an agency. Agencies might take 15%, more or less, but he charges his rate and lets the agency take care of the rest. He might be getting $55 or $60 an hour, and the client might be paying $80.

There are ads for technical writers in the New York Times. Bolles has been posting his resume on Monster.com . "Whenever I update my resume I get a lot of emails."

[Editor's note: A useful resource in technical writing is the Society of Technical Communication, although one technical writer complained that the New York chapter has been meeting in New Jersey locations not accessable to mass transportation.]

EFA Job List

Sheila Buff, who runs the volunteer EFA job list, has now written over 35 books, including the notable "Complete Idiot's Guide to Birdwatching", and started as an editor and proofreader.

The EFA Job List, said Buff, is a listserv with 1,100 subscribers (or most of the EFA's 1,500 members). The fee for the Job List is $25 a year, in addition to the EFA's $115 annual dues. Unlike some other writers' organizations, the EFA doesn't take additional fees or commissions. The job offers go directly to the subscribers, who negotiate directly with the client.

The jobs reflect the EFA's origins in the book publishing industry, and its expansion into related fields like advertising and corporate writing. EFA members who go on to hire freelancers themselves often use the EFA job list.

The jobs are split roughly half editorial and half writing; and also split roughly half in-house and half at home. "There's no typical job," said Buff. They screen out obviously inappropriate jobs, such as unpublished authors who want someone to edit their novels in exchange for a share of royalties, and jobs that pay less than $15 an hour.

20% medical writing

At least 20% of the work, said Buff, is now medical writing, editing and proofreading, usually for continuing medical education providers medical PR firms, ad agencies, or directly for pharmaceutical companies. Most of the medical work comes through agencies, either contract employment agencies like the ones used for technical writers, or agencies that create finished CME programs for pharmaceutical companies. [Overview of medical writing]

Medical proofreading can pay up to $45 an hour, said Buff. That might be for proofreading a package insert, which is the official FDA-approved description of a drug's efficacy and safety. "It must be perfect."

"Simply because you can write about medicine, that doesn't mean you can edit or proofread it," said Buff.

"I used to be a good medical writer and editor," said Buff. But when her writing went above 50% of her time, she couldn't edit any more. "I lost it," she said. It takes a completely different mindset.

The EFA offers an introductory course in proofreading and copyediting, as well as a popular medical copy editing and proofreading courses, said Buff.

Many jobs require you to follow the American Medical Association Style Book (in which all numbers are written in numerals, the way I do it here, rather than spelled out.)

There are also some medical staff jobs at $80,000 and up, said Buff.

Besides medical, the jobs are "incredibly varied," said Buff. They can include reading page proofs ($20 an hour), indexing, copy editing, and substantive editing for an elementary school math textbook.

The value of the EFA Job List is that "you're getting 30 leads or more each month in your mailbox," said Buff. Even if most of the jobs are useless, 1 or 2 successful jobs will justify it.

EFA members are also having success at Monster.com and Hotjobs , said Buff.

Specialization vs. diversity

"The people who have a particular area of expertise generally do the best," said Buff. You combine areas of expertise, like medicine or textbooks, with a skill set, like editing or proofreading, in different permutations and combinations."

Sometimes you get locked into a specialty with a good client, said Buff. There's a "fine line" between being specialized and diverse.

"I did a lot of work for Grosset & Dunlap," said Buff. "Overnight, Grosset & Dunlop got bought by Putnam, and everybody I knew was gone." That's "the way of the world in publishing." It taught her a lesson: Never get caught being too dependent on a single client.

"Editorial work is very variable," said Buff. Pay scales vary widely -- even for the same work in the same company. One freelancer was working for an editor at a certain rate, but another editor, "sharing the same office," wouldn't hire him because he charges too much.

"If your skills are good you'll find work," said Buff. "But if you're not a good proofreader, don't think you can fall back on proofreading." As James Thurber said, "that could be like falling back on a full set of carpenter's tools."

"When they call the freelancer, the job is already overdue," said Buff. "Having steady clients is a big part of being a freelancer," and if you don't do a good job they won't call you back.

You can't assume that because you're a good writer, you can be a good editor or proofreader. The skill set is different. "It's not a progression."

Grant proposal writing

Medical writer Stephanie Golden wrote 7 non-fiction books, including a guide to obsessive-compulsive disorder for teenagers, a consumer guide to anesthesia co-authored with a doctor, and a scholarly book on homeless women. She edited newsletters, and wrote for medical web sites. "I've been a Jill of all trades," she said.

A job helping write a manual for a non-profit led Golden into writing for non-profits, which led her into grant proposal writing. In order to be successful there, you have to understand the culture of the world of non-profits and the foundations, government organizations and corporations that fund them, she said. Part of that culture is to volunteer.

Breaking in

Golden knew the director of a community arts organization, who needed help writing a program manual. Some further work was paid, some of it volunteered.

The development person quit, "just as I was looking to fill a hole," said Golden. The director offered to train Golden as her development person. She worked 1 day a week, sometimes 2 when things got busy.

Someone else in a health advocacy organization approached her for work. 1 job came through the ASJA.

Selling the program

The job of the grant writer is not just to write clearly, said Golden. "You have to sell the program in terms of the funder." You have to read the funder's guidelines, and write back your proposal in terms of the funder's guidelines. If the funder's mission is to promote civic responsibility in youth, you have to show the funder how your program will promote civic responsibility in youth. "You have to learn to persuade the funders."

Grant proposal writing therefore requires a lot of research (much of it done at the Foundation Center library, on 5th Ave. and 16th St.) or online.

"It requires a capacity for detail," said Golden. "You can't persuade someone to give you $25,000 unless you can tell them exactly what you're going to do with it."

Sometimes the people who are running the program are not good at that. "They're action people," said Golden. They can't write it. "They're busy running the program."

Government grants require the most paperwork, said Golden. "You have to break everything down into the people served." How many seniors? Sometimes you break it down by racial and ethnic group. A final report tells how they spent the money.

One client wanted the National Endowment for the Arts to pay for archiving 700 tapes. Golden said, "Can you really archive 700 tapes for that amount of money?" She said, "I can make it work." The NEA doesn't want to hear that, said Golden.

The mission

You have to learn the psychology of the foundations, said Golden. They have a goal, which they call their "mission."

You can read their guidelines, and think that your program is exactly what they're trying to do, said Golden. But if you talk to them, you'll find that they're funding after-school art programs, not in-school.

As a grant writer, you don't deal directly with the funder much, said Golden. "Funders like to deal with the top dog." But there aren't many funders, and you can learn about them.

Information resources

One resource is the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, which gives several courses . The one on "Proposal Writing" is "excellent," said Golden, although she noted that not everybody in the field would agree with their approach.

The Foundation Center web site has links to "enormous quantities of information," said Golden, including a "Virtual Classroom" which includes a "Proposal writing short course" right on the weg site. They offer live courses, mostly free, at their New York headquarters and elsewhere around the country. The Philanthropy News Digest section of their site has a "job corner".

[Editor's note: Another useful source of information about the nonprofit world is the New York Progressive Network To subscribe to their email NewsUpdate, send an email to . NewsUpdate has meetings (which I selectively include in my calendar) and job openings, including low- and middle-range jobs, many in communications. As the name implies, the NYPN is a coalition of progressive (politically left) organizations, like Physicians for a National Health Program.]

"There is a level at which fundraising rises to an art form," said Golden. "You have to strategize and figure out how you're going to approach these funders."

"There are some grant writers who are really development people," said Golden. "They're so familiar with the whole field that people want to hire them. Those are the people who make the big money."

$50-65 an hour

Golden started 3 years ago at $25 an hour, and now makes $45 at that client. For new clients she charges $55 an hour, and if she were approached by a larger organization with more money, she would ask for $65.

"I don't work for less than $50 an hour except for this client who trained me," said Golden.

"Now I have a track record because I've written proposals that got funded," said Golden.

Setting fees requires "self-confidence and a willingness to tell yourself that you won't work for less," said Golden.

Making connections

"Everybody knows somebody who has a connection with a non-profit," said Golden. A surprising number of people are on the boards of non-profits. She recently met a psychiatrist who turned out to be on the board of an organization for the homeless.

"You have to have something under your belt" before you can easily get this work, said Golden.

For her break-in job, "I knew somebody who knew me as a good writer and trained me," said Golden.

You might charge $20 an hour, said Golden, or do the first one free to get the experience.

"The gratification is not in the writing," said Golden. "The gratification is in the good work, because some of these organizations are doing some very good things."

Adjunct teaching

Kate Walter quit her job as a high school English teacher for freelance writing.

Now, after working as a journalist and essayist for daily newspapers, trade and consumer publications, she's back to teaching, part-time now, as an adjunct at the Borough of Manhattan Community College and New York University.

Walter divides her time 50-50 writing and freelancing, she said. The nice thing about adjunct teaching, which she's done for 10 years, is that you can do as much or as little as you want -- 3 hours a week or 12 hours a week.

The City University of New York, with 21 campuses, is "your best shot," said Walter.

Basic and advanced courses

The easiest work to get, said Walter, is the more basic courses -- English 101, remedial reading, English as a second language. CUNY undergraduates have to take placement entrance tests. The students that fail have to take remedial courses. "Last summer, BMCC was desperate to hire people in the English department," said Walter.

At NYU, Walter teaches Feature Writing and Personal Essay Writing. "I started teaching really basic writing," she said. "Journalism, feature writing is harder to get."

"The more basic the work, the more work there is," said Walter. Community colleges have more work than 4-year colleges. If you're teaching a course like the personal essay, there may not be enough enrollment to justify the course.

$50-65 per hour -- of class time

The pay is $50-65 an hour, maybe $70 an hour if you have a PhD, said Walter. (Unlike the public school system, you don't need certification.)

At CUNY, you need a master's, and they want teaching experience, said Walter. "They could care less" about your publications. Conversely, NYU and the New School are less interested in a master's and more interested in your work.

It's harder at the beginning. "I've been doing this a long time," said Walter. "It's 10 times more work the first time."

You only get paid for class time, not preparation or time marking papers. And that, along with commuting time, can determine whether the course is worthwhile economically, explained Walter.

There's a "big difference" between teaching 15 or 30 students if you have to read papers, said Walter. The amount of work also depends on how much you have to correct -- writing notes in the margin, or correcting grammar. In her 2 classes at NYU, she spends more than 1 hour a week per class reading papers. "I know people who like teaching basic English as a second language classes because they don't have to take home many papers," she said.

Be very careful about taking on a class where you have to correct too many papers, said Walter, repeating for emphasis.

Commuting can kill it

The commute "can make it or break it," said Walter. She had a teaching job at Hunter. She lives in the Village. "They were great students, but it didn't make sense for me."

Start looking in your neighborhood, Walter recommended, because commuting takes up so much time. For a writer in Park Slope, she suggested New York City Technical College, Kingsboro, and LaGuardia.

"Figure out what you want to teach, and find out what deparment is hiring people for it," said Walter. "Get your resume to that department head."

January is a good time to be looking for work for the Spring semester, said Walter -- not December, because it's a madhouse. Similarly, August is a good time to look for work for the Fall semester.

Health insurance and other benefits

One of the big benefits of teaching at CUNY, said Walter, is that after 4 consecutive semesters, of at least 6 hours per week, is free health insurance. "And it's good health insurance," she said, without deductibles, and with low copayments.

"I repeat for emphasis," said Walter. "They have health insurance."

NYU adjuncts just organized into a union, and that should improve working conditions dramatically. (Although they're slow to pay -- she started teaching at NYU in September and won't get her first check until 1 November.)

Walter catalogued the other benefits:

  • You get out of the house.

  • Access to Lexis/Nexis at CUNY.

  • "Every 2 weeks money appears in my bank account by direct deposit."

    [Editor's note: ESL classes have been celebrated in literature CHAPTER IV]

    Photography and writing

    Beryl Goldberg is a photographer and writer who is now primarily a photographer. She's been to more than 45 countries in the last 25 years. Her clients include international organizations like the United Nations, textbook and children's book publishers, and the New York Times.

    There's a marketing advantage to combining both. "If I write an article to go with my photographs, there ar more possibilities for selling it," said Goldberg.

    That goes along with the advantage of getting more insight. "I like taking pictures, but there are also times when I'm also interested in what the subject is," said Goldberg, who dropped out of her PhD program in political science when photojournalism became more interesting. Often she's the only person the client has reporting from that part of the world and she's the only one who can deliver the text and photos.

    Ability varies

    The ability of people to take photographs varies greatly, and the demands of publications varies greatly too. "There are people who can pick up a camera and take pretty good pictures," said Goldberg, who has taught photography courses, but most people would have to spend some time doing it. "You have to learn your camera." Some publications want fairly professional work, but others want anything that will illustrate the story. The digital world is changing things, "particularly in the way I work with publications." Digital cameras are popular for newspaper-quality work, but Goldberg has heard editors of magazines complaining about their poor quality.

    Rates also vary widely, just like story rates. Pay is $200-300 or more, depending on the publication and the page size in the publication. Some small non-profits pay $50 or even $25 for a picture, "but I almost never accept that," said Goldberg. There are directories for photographers that give rates.

    Joan Iaconetti also wrote about this meeting, for the ASJA newsletter. "Speaking as a travel photographer since 1986," she commented, "I must add that the ability to take salable, publishable images is not easily acquired and not inexpensive. If you already have talent in this area and own a professional-grade camera system, it can become a second career (with all the attendant promotional and paperwork tasks). It is not, however, a quick way to earn significant money; competition is fierce, and the economy has not left the photo markets unscathed."