Every freelance writer’s life is unique. While I try to sort mine out, I thought it would be helpful to hear from others who are successfully navigating life as a wandering wordsmith.
One such wanderer is magazine writer and editorial consultant Kenrya Rankin Naasel, who graciously agreed to sit down with me to talk about her life as a freelancer. Rankin Naasel’s work has been published in Reader’s Digest, Black Enterprise, Glamour, Ebony, Latina, ShopSmart, Redbook and Shape. She is also a regular political commentator for Loop21.com and author of Start it Up: The Complete Teen Business Guide to Turning Your Passions into Pay. Rankin Naasel uses her editing skills as the DC Editor of Uptown Magazine and as a contributing editor for Latina and ShopSmart magazines. She is also a producer for BET.com and a regular blogger for ShopSmartMag.org.
Rankin Naasel gave me some of her time on a recent Sunday morning as we met over coffee to discuss the anatomy of her freelance writer’s life. I picked her brain about her path to writing, her work routine and lessons she’s learned from years of writing for magazines. Her take on writing in the magazine industry was simultaneously a comfort and a kick in the pants. Rankin Naasel serves as just one example of how freelance writing can lead to a professionally active and personally fulfilling life. But for newbie writers like myself, it takes persistently knocking on the doors of editors who are reluctant to take a chance on writing unknowns. As Rankin Naasel recalls, she only took a chance on two unknown writers during her days as an editor because their writing was too compelling to pass up.
The lesson for new writers: be one of those whose writing is too compelling to pass up.
Below I narrate an edited version of my conversation with Rankin Naasel, co-starring her adorable, toddler-aged daughter.
CM: How did you come to writing?
KRN: I’ve always been a writer but I didn’t know it. Or I knew it but I forgot. When I was in the eighth grade, I took one of those what-should-you-do-with-your-life things, and it told me that I should be a public relations specialist. I looked it up and I was like, ‘yeah that sounds pretty cool. That’s what I’m going to do.’ I pretty much dedicated my high school career to preparing myself to be a public relations specialist. I had my first internship when I was in high school [and] I interned all through college.
But I got into my junior year and realized I was bored. I had burned out on PR already. It wasn’t creatively satisfying. I realized that what I really wanted to do was make stuff better, and the way that I could do that was by being an editor.
I went to Howard [University] for undergrad and they were having a job fair. There was a lady there from Time, Inc., and I went to sit at her table. She told me ‘you’ve got a catch 22—you don’t have enough experience to get into magazines and no one’s going to hire you because you don’t have any experience.’ I was working in student government at the time and I was so upset. I went to my office and cried. My adviser told me, ‘well there is this magazine program by the MPA (Magazine Publishers of America) and ASME (American Society of Magazine Editors) and we get to nominate one person to be in the program. We’d like to nominate you.’
I applied, got it and moved to New York the summer after my junior year. I interned at Reader’s Digest, and that was kind of my “in” into the industry.
[After following up with her colleagues from Reader’s Digest, the magazine offered Rankin Naasel a job upon her graduating from Howard University. After a little over three years, Rankin Naasel moved to another magazine where she worked as an editor until she was laid off in 2008.]
KRN: I got laid off on a Monday, and I had stayed in the office that Friday night finishing a story called, get this, “How to Recession Proof Your Job.” On [the following] Monday I had a message from my editor-in-chief…she laid me off and a bunch of other people…it very much blind-sided me.
I started freelancing because it was how I could make money. There was more writing work out there than editing work. I was blessed that my husband was working, so I had health insurance and I was able to actually take the time to develop my freelance career with a bit of a safety net. Something clicked after a year. My work picked up tremendously. All of a sudden, I was a writer after all those years of not being, in my mind, a writer.
And then I realized one day that I had always been a writer and didn’t know it. That epiphany kind of came [when] we were packing up to move here to Baltimore, so this was only a year ago. I found all these notebooks from when I was in the sixth grade, composition notebooks full of short stories. I used to write fiction—pages and pages of stories that all starred me and my best friends, my cousins and my sister.
So, that’s a very long way of saying that I was always a writer and just didn’t know it.
CM: Do you still see yourself as an editor?
KRN: I am still an editor. I do still have some editing clients. I edit curriculum for some clients and I do book editing for people on the side. Primarily, if you look at what I do every day, other than being a mother, I think writer best sums it up.
CM: What do you think the differences are between being a staff person and freelancer?
KRN: I hate having somebody over my shoulder. I am an independent worker. I can work well in teams as long as I have some autonomy within that team and it’s flexible. To me, there is nothing like being able to start work when I want to and end work when I want to. If I write a story, turn it in and I know that it’s the best that it could be and I’ve worked hard on it, I can let that go. I don’t have to deal with office politics. I don’t really pitch any more because I have a lot of established clients, so a lot of them just come to me with story ideas. I love that.
I enjoyed working at a magazine and I’m glad I had that experience. It makes me a better freelancer having been on the other side of things.
[In addition to understanding how editors think, Rankin Naasel stresses the role that working on staff plays in giving freelance writers connections. As Rankin Naasel explains, editors rarely have time to take a chance on an “unknown,” so having connections from the editing world has been a boon to Rankin Naasel’s success.]
KRN: I speak at colleges all the time and people always ask me ‘how do I become a freelancer?’ Honestly, you have to work somewhere first. A lot of them [students] have this idea that they’re going to be able to come out of college and have that be their career choice. It sounds like I’m an old lady, but you have to pay your dues.
Not only do you need the practice, but also you need to know people. So many of my clients are people that I worked for or with at some point. My biggest client is ShopSmart magazine. My editor there was my editor at Reader’s Digest; she’s the person who helped to mold me. When she moved, she brought me on as a freelancer. Now I’m a contributing editor, but that’s purely [based on] a relationship because she knows me [and] she knows the quality of my work. You have to work and establish yourself, most of the time, in order to get to that point. At least that was my path. But of course, everyone has their own path.
If I had not worked in the industry, I would’ve been pitching people [who] would have done the same thing that I did [as an editor]. I only used two unknown writers whose stuff grabbed me enough to take a chance. Because [as an editor] you’re working under crazy deadlines, and you don’t have time to try a new person who might not turn in any copy or turn in crappy copy and then you’re stuck.
CM: On that same vain of when you’re speaking to colleges and people just want to jump into the freelance world, I kind of find myself in a similar situation. Although I have worked, I worked in a different avenue. It was writing focused—I worked as a grant writer and a policy writer and researcher—but I found that it just wasn’t what I was passionate about. I kind of figured if I’m ever going to try something that’s completely crazy, this is the time to do it. A lot of people are trying freelance writing because you have blogs and it makes it seem so accessible–
KRN: –and cheap
CM: –and cheap, yeah. To someone like me or other people that are trying this life out for the first time, what would be your advice?
KRN: Are these people who have some experience, some connections, or…where is this person coming from?
CM: Well, for me, I have more experience in organizational communications.
KRN: As opposed to service stuff, which is what you’re doing for magazines.
KRN: Maybe the advice is start with what you know and branch out. Grant writing is lucrative, it’s a great field. To me, that sounds like a great place to start. It gives you the opportunity to support yourself while you’re pitching.
One of the things I always tell people to do is get an AvantGuild membership on Mediabistro because they have this awesome series called “How to Pitch.” It gives you such a great insight into what editors are looking for—what sections are actually possible, where they like to start you before they try you on the big pieces, what they are really looking for. I cannot recommend anything more because it gives you a leg up over all the random people who are just sending stuff in.
Then, I think it’s important to hone your skill. We can all stand to be better writers. The best way to do that is to write all the time. Not only does that help you to improve your skill, but it also gives you something to point to. People use blogs as clips at this point. If it’s great writing, it’s great writing. That’s the beautiful thing about it. It is a lot easier now to get started than it used to be.
I still do think that knowing people helps tremendously, for the reasons that I said before. It’s hard to take a chance on an unknown kid. Not being in New York makes it a little bit more difficult since most of the magazines are based there, so it’s harder to get to know those people by going to events. That said, another one of the things I recommend for people is to start with local magazines and newspapers. It’s a lot easier to meet those people. The pace is slower and the rates are not going to be the same, but it’s a great way to get more clips and to meet people locally that will help to give you some steady work hopefully.
CM: I want to ask you about your blog blackandgreenmama.com where you write about parenting and your daughter. Does being so personal and creative on your blog give you a freedom that you don’t have in other writing areas?
KRN: It does, and I think that’s actually one of the other benefits of diversifying. Beyond the money, it allows you to feed different parts of your soul. Even when I was at Reader’s Digest, I was looking for other ways to make money. I started designing websites. It was a skill that I had picked up my senior year of college. I liked that it was another way of expressing my creativity.
CM: I was interviewing a poet, and I asked him what advice he would give to another person who wanted to do what he was doing. He said try different types of art. I wonder if there are other kinds of art that you explore just to keep the creative juices flowing.
KRN: I really like photography. I think everybody thinks they’re a photographer, and I don’t fool myself into thinking that. But even if it’s just looking at other people’s stuff—that inspires me.
Reading. People always ask me how can you be a better writer and I say read. I love magazines. They make me happy. They’re my friends. Reading is one of the best inspirations for me.
CM: That’s interesting, your love of magazines, because I didn’t realize how great they were until a couple of years ago. They’re really, really good. What is it about magazines that you’ve fallen in love with?
KRN: Part of it might have been that they were always there for me. I was raised by my dad and one of the ways that I feel like he tried to keep a woman’s presence in the house was by subscribing to Essence for us. Our coffee table was always covered in magazines…they were always there. Now, they’re so useful. They cover so many things and they’re beautiful. Some of them have such amazing writing. I don’t know, they just make me happy.
CM: Does it make you nervous that you’re in an industry where every other week we hear about a magazine that’s only going online or shutting down?
KRN: No. When I was in that ASME program people would come and speak to us and say ‘Yeah, this is sucky time for magazines. You’re not going to be able to get a job.’ They’re always going to say that it’s dying, but I’m still getting work. I had more work this year than I had last year and more last year than I had the year before that. So no, it doesn’t bother me. I think you find the work that’s there for you.
If you diversify—do the magazine stuff, the online stuff, the advertising stuff, the grant writing stuff, the writing bios for clients, the editing curriculum—it allows you to ride out the bumps that come. Just like when you invest money, you don’t put it all in one stock, you diversify your portfolio so that if something tanks something else is rising and then it eventually all levels out.
[I couldn’t help but ask Rankin Naasel the question that I get the most from people: What do you do all day? Rankin Naasel describes a routine that sounds idyllic to me. Beginning with a cuddle session with her daughter at about 10 a.m., the two of them get dressed, have breakfast and Rankin Naasel works while “Babygirl” (as she’s referred to on Rankin Naasel’s blog) dances and sings to a “Yo Gabba Gabba” Internet radio station. With the flexibility she needs to attend to her daughter and clients, Rankin Naasel answers emails, conducts interviews, writes stories, proofs pages, answers daily phone calls from her best friend, and breaks for dinner and family time. Rankin Naasel puts in a full day with her daughter and, after her daughter falls asleep for the evening, a full night with her work, not quitting until around 2 a.m.]
KRN: I get the majority of my work done when the baby is asleep, which is a couple of times a day. I try to be really active with her all day. When she goes down, I go hard on whatever it was that was difficult to do, which a lot of times transcribing is hard to do with a baby. Then I usually go to bed around 2 a.m.
CM: You probably don’t have this problem, but for me there are days when I think, ‘I should probably go find someone to talk to. I don’t think I’ve had a conversation with someone in two days.’ But you don’t have that problem.
KRN: No, no, no, I’m talking to this little child all day long. Then my husband comes home. I do break at about 8 p.m. We have family time, that’s when the TV comes on. We watch something that’s not violent or crazy. Then my husband, sometimes he’ll stay up with me while I’m working late.
And my best friend, if she goes more than 24 hours without talking to me, calls me.
CM: What have you learned about being a freelancer that you didn’t know when you first started? Or maybe I’ll re-phrase, what’s one thing you wish you had known?
KRN: I wish that I had known that starting with my second year when I was actually making a decent amount of money I should have formed an LLC. I was listening to my accountant at the time and he told me that I wasn’t at the point yet where I needed to worry about doing that. Maybe he underestimated my earning potential, but I wish I had spoken to someone else about it.
CM: That’s a good tip.
KRN: As a freelancer period, get an accountant. They’re not that expensive and you can deduct the money that you pay for them on your next year’s taxes. It’s just a no brainer. You’ll save so much. It’s important to keep really good financial records and have an accountant who is on your side and who is going to help you maximize your earning potential.
CM: My last question is, what’s the dream for Kenrya Rankin Naasel?
KRN: My ultimate dream, honestly, is to raise [my daughter] and whatever other kids we have to be confident…and to know their place in the world and not let other people tell them what that place is. If I can do that, then I feel like I did everything.
Career wise, it’s always changing. I’m working on a project that might end up being that. I hope so.