My friend Sean was leaving Chicago soon and wanted to have coffee before he and his family moved back to his wife’s home town. We used to work together at the same entertainment publication; I stopped covering pop culture when my first kid was born, but he stayed and cultivated a prestigious magazine writing career, doing splashy stories for men’s magazines that took months to report, which is the kind of work that seems so sexy to me, yet I never seem to get. So I was surprised that Sean wanted my advice about how to gain traction in the more corporate (read: reliable and/or well-paying) side of writing.
As we sat down with our coffees, for some reason I felt nervous as I ran through some of my strategies for drumming up freelance projects and new clients, which include not-very-novel tricks like cold-calling, asking former clients if they have work, or asking current clients if they have any colleagues who need work. Sean didn’t react a lot during my spiel, so it was hard to tell whether any of this made sense or this was stuff he used to do but from which he had since evolved.
Finally, he said, “Aren’t you worried that you look, you know, lame telling people you need work?”
“No,” I laughed. “Nobody has ever refused to give me work because they were turned off by me telling them that I’m looking for work.” He looked unconvinced. “When editors are hiring,” I said, “Do they assign writers by thinking, ‘Who is aloof and hard to get ahold of and is never available?’” He acknowledged that this might be true.
This isn’t the first time I’ve had to tell a man that marketing yourself is a reasonable approach to advancing your career, whether it’s lame or not. I have had this same discussion with my husband, also a small business owner and creative professional. He operates on two distinct settings: working to death, or “I’ll never work again.” I encourage him to reach out to clients when he has a dry spell on the horizon to let them know he’s taking on new work—advice he rejects. Not only is he afraid of losing appeal as a contractor, he fears losing his client, which I find maddening. My husband worked in human resources in a former life: He knows how difficult it is to vet and hire a new employee. What HR professional would dismiss a candidate for a job on the basis that “she gets the job done, is easy to work with, is always there when I need her, but I read that as desperation. What a turnoff! Let’s out someone new instead, someone who seems cool.”
These conversations make me feel personally defensive of marketing myself directly to clients, even though every business needs to advertise and it’s a common-sense approach to getting more work. Worrying about whether it makes me look cool seems like a luxury I can’t afford. And neither can most women. We have to work doubly hard to compete in the job market and we know, inherently, that if we don’t put ourselves out there, no one’s going to come pluck us from obscurity and hand us a job.
So like every woman I know who has to pitch and sell and close new clients, I hustle. And here’s what that has entailed:
Over many years I grew a network of writers who gave me advice and pointed me to resources for freelance writers like Freelance Success, the American Society of Journalists and Authors and the Binders (all primarily run by women, of course). I also got to know Jennifer Goforth Gregory, a busy content marketing writer who teaches other writers what she’s learned over her career about how to drum up work. Cobbling together advice I’d gleaned from the experts I’d met over the years, I spent hours honing letters of introduction, looking up the right people to contact and sending countless emails that went into outer space or got a bland rejection. I entered contests with colleagues where you compete to land the most assignments and get points for pitches. This all seems simple but it took years of cultivation. And the payoff? In nine months I hustled up four new clients, eleven new projects and over five figures in invoices. I think that’s cool.
I tried to explain this all to Sean and look like a professional as I did it even though the steam of the coffee shop was fogging up my glasses.
You could argue that I should not feel compelled to explain to a man (who is also a possible competitor) why he shouldn’t worry that availability projects unpopularity. Why should I even care? If he chooses to protect his ego over his career, what’s it to me?
I know why I care. Because behind the myriad steps and lessons that it took for me to be confident enough to get myself work are all the women in my network who have helped me learn to do so. I think of the colleagues who helped me transition from begging potential clients to take a chance on me to telling them, “You should give me a lot of money; I’m great,” and really meaning it. When I ask Gregory why she spends so much time educating other writers, she tells me that there is an imaginary bucket in the middle of the world. “Sometimes you put things in the bucket which help people,” she says. “Sometimes you take things out of the bucket when you need something. You give without expecting, but when you need it, you take it. I feel better accepting help because I give it. I don’t give you a lead because you gave me one; I give you a lead because someone gave me one.”
And she’s right. The men in my life might not fully appreciate my advice to check their egos and attempts to reframe the hard work of selling themselves, but ultimately I’m not just giving them excellent advice for their benefit. Selling yourself is easier when you’ve cultivated a mentality mirrored and nurtured by colleagues who imply you’re legitimate by sharing their knowledge with you. The only thing that feels better than getting work advice is giving it, not just because your onetime colleague may be your future assigning editor. It’s because the world is a bucket. The women in the freelance workforce know the benefits of sharing advice and supporting each other—my hustle stands on that network.
Claire Zulkey is a freelance writer in Evanston, IL.