I’ve shared a lot on this blog about how I got started as a freelance writer. But here’s one thing I’ve never gotten around to mentioning.
Probably because it’s sort of embarrassing. I kind of blocked it out of mind.
It’s the story of how my very first assigned article got killed — and why that did not turn out to be the end of my freelance writing dreams.
Here’s how it went down…
First, I won an essay contest held by the L.A. Weekly. I was one of about ten winners, they published my essay, paid me $200, and my lifelong dream of being a songwriter changed forever.
I had found the kind of writing that paid you money. Not only if you became a huge star, but paid everyday people money, right away.
I was thrilled.
Then I did something crazy. With absolutely no journalism or reporting experience, I pitched the paper an article idea.
My first article and why it died
I was involved in activism around a particular hot-button political issue in L.A. at the time, and I wanted to know if they would like an article about one of the groups I was working against.
Being an alternative paper, they said yes. A daily newspaper never would have let me write about an issue I clearly had an opinion on! But in the end, that doomed the assignment anyway.
Takeaway: Never take a reported article assignment on an issue where you’ve formed a passionate opinion. It will not end well.
I also was too green to know I needed to write to length. Think they asked for 750 words or so, and I turned in 1,500.
The research went on and on like I was stuck in a quicksand swamp. I spend weeks looking into the ties between this group’s leaders and jailed terrorists. I uncovered their sketchy past careers. I went down a dozen offshoot trails to fascinating (to me, anyway) side points.
I completely lost track of the original assignment — to simply profile this group, who they were, why they had come to town, and what they were doing here.
In the end, I turned in a big mess. It was more like throwing in the towel than handing in an article.
The editor was apologetic, and said he knew there were probably some truths in there somewhere…but it was clear I had too much of an ax to grind against this organization. My piece was poorly organized, clearly biased, and beyond salvation.
As I recall, they gave me $50 or so as a kill fee and sent me on my way.
How I reacted
Looking back now, I realize this should probably have spelled the end of my prose-writing career. You’d think I would have slunk back to being a starving singer-songwriter.
But instead, I displayed a character trait that would serve me well all the rest of my writing life: I was naively upbeat about the whole thing. I was simply too ignorant of the business world to realize I was a failure.
It honestly didn’t occur to me that this was a sign I wasn’t cut out for article writing. I simply forgot to implode and feel bad about myself and curl up in a ball and give up and die.
I thought of it as an aberration. OK, I made a mistake.
I knew I was still a good writer. After all, I had won that essay contest!
That one article didn’t work out…and it felt like I’d burned a bridge to the paper that had liked and published my writing. That was definitely not good. And I never got up the nerve to pitch them again.
I didn’t know it then, but this was a major turning point that would determine the course of the whole rest of my professional life.
The hopeful thought I had: There certainly must be other places I could write for, right?
What I did next that made the difference
My eye traveled across the free-paper boxes outside my local mini-mart to the other alternative paper, the L.A. Reader.
I pitched them something. Something simpler. I think it might have been coverage of a city council meeting.
They said yes. I wrote something short and sweet, maybe 350 words. They bought it.
And I wrote for them for years. I wrote about communities and controversies and issues and did book reviews and whatever they wanted.
One of the editors there became a great mentor to me, and patiently taught me how to report and write a story.
Eventually, he let me write a 3,000-word cover feature. Ironically, it touched on that very same political group I had gotten the article killed on back at the Weekly. But by now, I knew how to keep my point of view out of it, gather my facts, and just tell a great story.
And it was optioned for a movie, for $10,000. Which at the time to me was an absolute fortune.
It didn’t end up getting made…most optioned pieces don’t.
But I built a thriving freelance career, found other clients including the Los Angeles Times. A few years later, I used those clips to bluff my way into a good-paying staff-writing job at a high-toned business trade publication based on Park Avenue in New York, despite my lack of a college degree. All of which led to my most recent freelance stint, starting in 2005.
What you need to succeed
My whole writing career that followed — all the awards and great magazines and fun businesses I’ve written for since — would never have happened if I hadn’t had the guts to try again after that one screwup.
Freelance writing is not a game for the easily discouraged.
Know that we all make mistakes and have assignments go pear-shaped on us, as the Brits like to say.
The soft-hearted and sensitive will give up. You have to toughen up and be ready to take your punches and keep right on going.
If you can keep going, there’s no telling how your writing journey could turn out.
Ever have an assignment go south on you? Leave a comment and tell us how you kept going.