When you’ve spent years writing and researching essays while reading some of the world’s best literature, for an English major, the post-graduation moment is a double-whammy of relief and weightlessness. No longer pressed for grades and working to other people’s deadlines, the freedom to write about your passions is a special kind of liberation; though many folks will blog, journal, or consider self-publishing, for those of us who aren’t independently wealthy, garnering a livable income has to be priority.
While working a day job, I studied the steps it would take to build my portfolio of published work. The number of times I was encouraged to submit work for free, or to apply as an intern with the hopes of eventual paid employment at a magazine or newspaper, was infuriating. I wouldn’t work at a grocery store checkout counter for less than minimum wage, and I certainly wouldn’t devalue my intellectual labor either. So I practiced writing queries, and boldly sent them. The worst thing that could happen, I figured, was rejection. Over time I knew I would at least learn to, in Beckett’s immortal words, “Fail Better.”
Being myself was key. My first letter to a locally-based, niche publication was met with support and enthusiasm. The editor wanted to meet me in person, and discuss my interest in joining the paper’s roster of freelancers. I showed them how willing I was to take advice and rewrite, and how seriously I took their need for accurate and well-researched work. My first assignment was to make the results of a dry government statistical report relevant and interesting to readers – a type of interpretation that requires both accuracy and creativity.
This approach has developed my eye for a story where others simply see numbers, and has helped secure numerous assignments.
P. Comeau is a rebellious freelancer based in the rural upper Appalachians.