Robert Earle Howells has been a freelancer for most of his 33 years as a writer and editor. He has been a correspondent for Outside, editor at large of National Geographic Adventure, and the 2009 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of the Year silver award winner. Bob’s blog, Surefire Writing, is devoted to the art of making a living as a freelancer. His ebook, Write Where the Money Is, spells out the lessons he has learned in his long career.
How did you get your start as a freelance writer?
The key was buying a little truck camper. See, I was a restless, idealistic, adventure-loving 28-year-old magazine editor who saw the other side of the desk as a lot more appealing than the one I was stuck behind. I loaded my camper with camping gear, a bike, boots, and a manual typewriter, quit my job, and declared myself a freelance writer. I spent the next six months on the road. Writing and photography paid for the whole experience.
How did you end up with a specialty in travel writing?
Travel was my passion, so it only made sense to me to pursue it. Actually, intense curiosity was my passion, and still is. Travel writing was a way to indulge that curiosity. I was always less interested in places per se than in backstories, history, legends, and people.
To give your question a more practical answer, I wanted to write travel, so I pitched outdoor travel magazines. Outside in particular. Writing about gear was my entrée. There weren’t many writers who understood and could write interestingly about bicycles, binoculars, running shoes, and so on. I showed editors I could, and constantly reminded them that I could also write about other things. Eventually I got my chance.
How important is a niche for a freelancer?
A niche is a convenience, not an absolute necessity. Being associated with a niche and being obviously an expert helps you land assignments. But who wants to get stuck in a single niche? Who is that mono-dimensional? I encourage writers to ply a niche to get an income-stream flowing, but always to stretch and look beyond that niche. Not only to other niches, but to completely different types of writing. In the last few months I’ve written a musical comedy, a corporate annual report, my blog, and several travel articles. We stay fresh by stretching, growing, and challenging ourselves.
How does article writing differ from book writing? Are there similarities?
By articles, I’ll assume you mean magazine-type articles, feature stories, and service stories, and not SEO articles for sites like ezinearticles.
Length is the obvious difference. I think the challenge of meeting word-count strictures in magazine writing helps me hone and focus my writing. I get to the point. I don’t waste words on blather. I learn to define what’s most important, deal with it, make it entertaining, and get out.
Similarities… I think the best book writing incorporates the qualities of magazine writing—sharp, focused, entertaining—on a chapter-to-chapter or episode-to-episode basis. If a book writer revels too much in the luxury of having 40,000 words or so to play with, he risks getting flabby. But if his training is magazine writing, or he has a magazine writer’s instincts, he’ll see his book as 20 2,000-word stories or whatever. Then the fun is in linking the episodes, carrying themes, personalities, and ideas throughout the book.
For books, do you favor self-publishing or traditional publishing? Why?
I’m big on self-publishing—ebooks, that is—but it’s not for everyone. Personally I like sidestepping all the agent-editor-publisher folderol. Too many gatekeepers and money-siphoners. But until recently, I made my living exclusively through satisfying fussy editors. I have that advantage. I see a lot of ebooks written by writers without that training, and it shows.
The other thing I like about self-publishing is the opportunity to be my own marketing manager. In traditional publishing, I had one book that was very successful and two that never paid back my advances. The latter two were never marketed. But marketing is clearly not for every writer. It requires a lot of skills that may not come naturally.
What are the top 3 mistakes writers make when trying to launch a freelance career?
First, not studying where the market is. If a writer wants to write for a living and has no other means of income, he or she needs to think in terms of markets, not in terms of “Gee, I’d love to be writer,” or “I’m going to write this because I believe in it.”
Second, too many focus on books. For all the reasons I’ve already stated, I think writers should start out focusing on writing for magazines or high-quality websites. Traditional books are such a long shot for a beginning writer. You can’t take hope to the bank.
In the past I’d say another big mistake would be getting discouraged, dispirited, giving up too soon. But there’s a facile antidote to that today—that is, this proliferation of content mills. Writers who channel all their time into writing for nickels and dimes for these sites are making a big mistake. It’s fine to write a few pieces to get the juices flowing. But these sites can trap writers into a low-paying prison, and they don’t offer challenge or feedback. You can write crap, get paid crap, and think you’re a professional writer. Then it comes time to pay your bills. Uh-oh.
How essential is a business mind-set for a writer?
It’s huge—if you’re writing for a living. If you have the luxury of another source of income, you’re absolved of this. But most of us have to think of ourselves as businesses or we’re doomed. That means being realistic about what’s worth our time and what isn’t. But it’s not just a business mind-set we need to tap into; it’s an entrepreneurial mind-set. I’ve learned a ton from Internet marketers who set their sights on productive ways to make money, and go for it. I’m still learning.
Additional advice for writers?
Be a sponge. Soak up great writing. Read great books, fiction or nonfiction, magazines like the New Yorker, and read poetry. Notice and absorb what moves you, what entertains you.
Just the other day I was reading Seamus Heaney. For all his insight and brilliance, it was the sounds of the words that moved me most. The music of nouns. The world is beautiful and charged with meaning, and there are infinite stories to tell. But mainly it’s nouns—stuff, real things—that’s how we get to mystery and meaning. If you can’t see and name what you see, you can’t write.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started writing?
Everything I’ve just said. But that’s fine. I’ve enjoyed the journey. I still have so much to learn, so I’ll continue to enjoy the journey and be happy that I know that there’s so much I don’t know.
Tags: 2009 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of the Year Freelance Writing National Geographic Otside Robert Earle Howells Stelth Writing Secrets Surefire Writing Write Where the Money Is