When freelancers need more than a "work like hell" biz plan

With the early registration deadline for the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists’ congress in Canada only days away, now is the best time to decide if you’re attending. Of course, you can register after the early bird deadline, but it will cost an additional $200.

Freelance writers have a particular concern. The cost of the congress — whether it’s the Canadian guild meeting, or the international meeting — is always top of mind. The congress cost is a big expense, and when I have to pay the entire cost myself, it certainly makes me stop and look at my financial situation before dishing out any money.
As well, I live in eastern Canada, so airfare is another consideration. It usually costs me extra to fly anywhere.
But when I look at the benefit of attending either the national or international congress, I ask myself one question: Why I would I NOT attend? It’s money very well spent; in fact, the expense is an investment in my career.
Why’s that?
Well, at IFAJ 2011 in Guelph, Ont. in September — or any of the other IFAJ congresses — there will be about 300 agricultural communicators and journalists, from all around the world. By attending, I’ll have the chance to meet each one of them. We’ll dine together, sit beside each other on the bus, muck through barns in our disposable protective footware, share a table at professional development sessions, tour food processors wearing silly hair nets, toast each other over drinks, sing together and share laughs. The congresses are held in relaxed, casual settings and are the perfect forum to get to know other like-minded professionals. The experiences we share at these congresses solidify our profession.

It’s easy to look around the congresses and see the teambuilding going on. But there’s also a lot of business activity happening that we don’t see. Our national guilds (and IFAJ) include public relations professionals, journalists, communicators, broadcasters, editors, publishers — anyone involved in ag communications. Many of the people in a position to assign work or hire contract writers are often circulating among us.
All the contract work I do today is because of just one connection I made at one of our national guild meetings. That work now puts me in a situation where I subcontract to freelance writers. I know of several others within our national guild who are in the same position. It’s not unusual for me to receive phone calls from others in our guild who are looking for a freelance writer or someone to do some public relations writing for them. Last year at the IFAJ congress in Belgium, I overheard a conversation between a publisher and a foreign freelance journalist. The journalist was considering immigrating to the country where the publisher works. “Give me a call,” the publisher said, “I’m always looking for good writers.”

And even if I don’t get a call immediately after the congress for a chance at freelance work, I could very well receive a call sometime in the future, or could myself been looking for a freelancer in the months ahead. You never know for sure when it’s going to benefit you, but I feel it’s our job as freelancers to work at these gatherings to make sure we are a part of every opportunity.

The cost of a congress is a concern, and I agree that it holds merit. But think of the alternative. Lower cost accommodations, such as a university residence, could be considered. But that has its own set of complications. The congress time would be restricted to June, July or early August, a time when many people are on vacation with their families. And in many parts of the world, those months tend to bring warmer temperatures. Many university residences aren’t air conditioned. And it’s common for residences to request off season visitors bring their own linens. Is that any way to welcome visitors to our country?

The early registration cost for the IFAJ 2011 congress is $1,090, double occupancy. Sharing a room with someone you don’t know can often be a gamble, but if we’re looking at this to save money, it’s the best place to start. That price includes your hotel fee for six nights, all meals, bus transportation to farms and tickets to a dinner theatre event hotel fees. It’s certainly not a bare bones congress, but it isn’t lavish either. The hotel is modest — exactly what is to be expected of a conference of professionals.

And maybe that’s the key. As freelancers, we need to recognize the fact that we’re professionals. We’re entrepreneurs and we need to operate our businesses that way — including writing business plans, setting goals and budgeting for professional development and career boosting opportunities. I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t always worked this way. For many of my 20 years as a freelancer, my business plan was “work like hell.” But over time, I grew tired of working just to keep my head above water. I felt the need to have career goals and feel a sense of professional accomplishment. It’s a never-ending evolution.

Every handshake at an IFAJ or guild congress is an opportunity for future work. It pays to be open to every chance we have to develop and grow our career, even if the upfront cost might hurt a little.

A blogging course — Really?

I’m lucky to have a strong professional network through the Professional Writers’ Association of Canada (PWAC) and the Canadian Farm Writers’ Federation (CFWF).

I have trusted peers locally, nationally and internationally who I can call on for help, advice, support and friendship. Or a glass of wine or bottle of beer.

A couple of PWAC colleagues, Wendy and Trudy, and I decided we were looking for just a bit more oomph from our network. We wanted to find someway to carry on that enthusiasm we get from professional development workshops, conferences and meetings. You know that high when ideas flow just by having a discussion with like-minded entrepreneurs? We wanted to bottle it and drink deeply every week.

Last November, we started to meet once a week via Skype. So far, so good, although in some ways, we’re still finding our groove.

When we met last week and Wendy talked about taking a blogging course, my initial reaction (that I kept to myself) was, “a blogging course — really?? Why do you need a blogging course? Just jump in and do it!” But Wendy was excited about it, the course came with high recommendation from another PWAC colleague and I was happy that Wendy was finally going to start working towards her goal of setting up a blog. Trudy asked for the course information and I did too.

I changed my attitude about the validity of a blogging course when I checked out the outline and realized it would answer many questions I’ve been wondered about blogging, but just hadn’t gotten around to answering on my own. Making the switch to Word Press, syndication, effective use of widgets… stuff I could probably get a handle on myself — probably someday — were all nicely packaged into a six week course.

Sign me up! I’m in.

And that’s the beauty of a good network of support. They’re always inspiring, even when you least expect it and when you’ve let your support for the others slip a little.

Allison’s Follow Friday Twitter List

Here’s my Follow Friday list for this week… and some of the reasons why these are great folks to follow.

@KimEagles – for her organizing tips
@upmagazine – for seeking out freelance writers
@AaronBillard – for the love of Star Wars
@LtoG – for her hard work at freelance writing
@briancormier – for his brilliant idea of buying two coffees at once at Tim’s
@rebeccahannam – for her curiosity about all things ag
@SteakPerfection – come on… steak. Perfection. What more do I need to say?
@JPlovesCotton – for our shared love of making an entrance
@FredMarcoux – for hot news tips
@Tamara_Stecyk – for helping feed Edmonton’s hungry

How to make love to your editor (figuratively speaking, of course)

(disclaimer: I have a great crew of writers and every week, I’m thankful that I have them as part of my team. What lies below are general comments and most certainly not directed at any of them. If I was referring to my writers, we’d be talking in person, not here.)

Early in my career, I met a few editors who made my life hell. They were mean. They were nasty. I think some even had green skin and horns.

Now 20 years into my career, I realize that those editors taught me rock solid, core journalism values. (And for the record, many more editors were patient. A special few were also a lot of fun to be around and were wonderful mentors).

Now that I’ve “crossed over” to the editor’s side, I sometimes wonder if I may be growing my own set of horns.

Good freelance writers are hard to find so when we find you, we want to keep you. To keep our horns from growing, here’s a Top 10 List of how to make love to your editor (figuratively speaking, of course):

10. File on time. Stuff happens, I know that. I have family and friends and pets too. Sources go on vacation, get tied up in meetings, don’t return calls — it happens. If you’re working on an assignment for me and something comes up, let me know as soon as you can. Don’t wait until deadline.

9. Check your facts. We’re human and we all make mistakes, but it’s your job as a journalist to get the facts and figures in your story right. Your reputation, my reputation and the publication’s reputation is on the line.

8. Ask me for my style guide. If I don’t have one, I’ll let you know if there are specific rules for you to follow.

7. Stick to the word count. I only have so much space and I assigned you a specific word count for a reason. If I ask for 800 words, don’t file 873 words — or 542 words. And if you do file a story that’s 873, don’t add a note like, “I’ve trimmed as much as I can, maybe you can do something more…”

6. Do suggest a sidebar. If you have some quick facts that can easily be made into a sidebar, I’m open to suggestions.

5. Every story should be your best story. I know some topics actually hurt when you’re writing the story. I’ve written them too. But I’ve assigned this story to you because it’s a topic I want to publish — and you accepted. I expect your best work.

4. Check your spelling. ‘Nuff said.

3. Follow up, but don’t pester. Many editors get hundreds of email a day and, I’m sorry, but I sometimes lose your pitch. Check with me, I don’t mind.

2. Tell me how to reach you. Add a signature on your email. You should do this anyways if you’re a freelance writer, but if I have a question for you, I don’t want to go sifting through business cards to find your phone number. And make sure you have voice mail.

1. Send a real pitch. Don’t send me a three day conference agenda and ask if I’m interested in a story. Focus. Craft. Sell.

Farm Writers in Atlantic Canada

Have you ever had the experience of working with people who are so excited and enthused about a project that it rubs off on you? I love that feeling.

I had that experience earlier this week when I had a conference call meeting with three people from Atlantic Canada. Together, we’re working to start a regional branch of our national farm writers’ guild, the Canadian Farm Writers’ Federation (CFWF).

Up front, I have to say that the desire to start our own group is in no way a reflection of the branch we currently belong to, the Eastern Canadian Farm Writers’ Federation (ECFWA). The simple vastness of Canada and the geographic divide between the majority of our current ECFWA members means farm writers in Atlantic Canada feel disconnected.

Personally, the desire to gather together with some of our own is inspired by ECFWA, as well as CFWF and our international group, the International Federation of Agriculture Journalists (IFAJ). Once I experienced gatherings with like-minded individuals, I felt the aspiration to do it more often with those closer to me.

Not all farm writers in Atlantic Canada are onboard with the formation of a regional group. Some have said they want to maintain connections with former colleagues within ECFWA, while others may not be interested in the work involved in setting up a new organization (not that anyone has said that to me, I’m just speculating). I hope they’ll reconsider.

The folks I met with earlier this week are keen and ready to get a local group formed. We’re pooling our talents to host a day of farm and research centre tours on June 4.

Early in my career when I wrote for daily newspapers from rural New Brunswick, I kept hearing the untold stories of farmers and opted to help be one of their voices. From that, I found out about CFWF and that connection eventually led me to focus my career on agriculture writing.

Through CFWF, I’ve toured farms across the country, met agriculture experts and associates, gained writing and editing jobs and met hundreds of Canadian farmers. I’ve also met a lot of great people and developed some very good friendships.

Cumulatively, what the organizations have given me inspire me to help create like opportunities for farm writers in Atlantic Canada. I hope we’ll create a network, come to count on each other and grow opportunities for ourselves.

Then together, we can help farmers tell their stories about the food they grow for us.

Class action suit settled

From PWAC

CTVglobemedia announced earlier this week that they have agreed to pay $11 million to settle the class action suit launched 13 years ago by Heather Robertson on behalf of thousands of freelance writers claiming their work was reproduced electronically without proper permission or compensation.

“The Professional Writers Association of Canada is thrilled with the news of the settlement. This has been a long ongoing process and we appreciate Heather Robertson taking the lead role in the battle for the protection of writers’ rights,” said PWAC President, Tanya Gulliver. “As freelancers we want to be fairly compensated for the work that we do, and want to ensure that publishers recognize the value of our work. This settlement, stemming from the Supreme Court decision in 2006 that supported our position that freelancers own control of their work unless otherwise agreed upon, is historic and a great achievement for the freelance writing industry.”

PWAC and Ms. Robertson, a founding member of PWAC, are optimistic that the settlement will expedite a positive outcome in other pending lawsuits and set a precedent protecting creators’ intellectual property rights and ensure fair compensation for digital exploitation of their work.

Ms. Robertson would also like to thank PWAC and the many individual members who have vocally supported her over the years and provided financial assistance to help cover her legal costs.

Ms. Robertson and her legal representatives will be publishing a full version of the settlement and a notice to claimants in the Globe and Mail and the National Post on Saturday.