Climbing out of the freelance-writing rut two years ago and into a staff writing job was no cake walk. After four years of writing either on spec, as a stringer or as a contributing writer (only to have my assigning editor bail from the masthead), the enthusiasm that sprung me into freelancing now made me want to seek asylum at a 9-to-5 job. I craved a taste of teamwork to pump up my work ethics, not to mention a steady paycheck and health insurance.
Only I soon found that the job market had lurched into lousy conditions, and my skills (working independently, only writing) were considered odd. The last time I had applied for a full-time writing job, I got one rather quickly. But that was the late '90s.
Back in the job-hunting saddle, at first I enthusiastically combed Web sites that specialized in permanent writing jobs. My resume and clips were sent to every bureau or magazine in my state, as well as to cities I had lusted after on vacations, like Key West and Santa Fe. I sat by the phone waiting for it to shrill with offers to interview. I just knew I was qualified to make the leap from my home office and into a company desk.
Or so I thought. Lots of applications but few interview requests told me that I needed an employer to see that freelance writing, to me, was lucrative and serious. As I kept applying, however, it became clear that I had been writing in a vacuum. As a freelancer I did not assign articles to anyone else and I never conferred with graphic artists or photographers. And unless production skills meant collating my clips in a hurry, sorry, but no. My bylines were in regional glossies and newspapers, but I had no national clips other than a few lesser-known titles.
The truth is, most staff writing or editing jobs want experience with not only assigning articles, but also working with an art/layout staff, managing a budget and having knowledge of the subject matter.
So how do you get that from the home office?
If you have been a regular writer to a publication, list it on your resume, stating either the number of years or sheer volume of articles. And if you meet on a consistent basis with a writer's groupwhether it's fiction or non-fiction, mention it in your cover letter. Express that you are eager to have a more hands-on job where you can see how your writing fits in with a magazine's mission. Also, a professional writer's group, such as the National Writers Union, is not a bad group to join because you may have access to job postings and be able to network.
If there is a writing center or school near you, ask if you can teach a class. This way you will have some management skillseven if they are short-term.
Another idea, and one that will break up that home-office boredom, is to meet with your editors regularly. I learned a lot about production deadlines, photography needs and keeping an issue's theme this way. For example, if an editor asks you if you have ideas for a food-themed issue, send some (of course!) but also take the opportunity to ask how he or she is approaching the theme.
And, don't forget about Quark. While you may have been too broke to buy it as a freelancer, it's necessary to know at most magazines, especially if it's a small staff. See about taking a refresher course or spending an afternoon tinkering with it on a friend's computer. If you never learned how to paginate, take some time now to do so.
My break came in October of 2003 when I applied for the assistant editor job at a new shelter magazine in my region. I think the editor saw my drive and independence (necessary when working from home), and that I knew the editorial content in competitive magazines like the back of my hand. I was put into an office 100 miles away from the rest of the editorial and art team. Expected to come up with story ideas and mentor writers, I handled both of those tasks well. And, along the way, I picked up some more skills that beefed up my resume, in a good way.
Working from home, I hadn't paid much regard to deadlines that an editor and art team had in conjunction with producing my story. I just wrote. I had no clue what their jobs were like. Now I know. They're hectic. And so while at first it was batty to have such a heavy hand in my story (sometimes I scouted properties to photograph, for example), I see how this helps out the staff. Had I known that providing photo suggestions or turning in an article early would have given me brownie points as a freelancer I just may have done those two things more often.
Transitioning from a home office to a 9-to-5-plus-overtime-can't-leave-your-desk-without-good-reason job was difficult at first. (You mean I can't slave over a sandwich at home for lunch, taking a 30-minute walk afterward? And if my favorite shoe store is having a blockbuster sale I can't zip over there for an hour in the afternoon after an editorial planning meeting?) Don't get me wrong. I worked hard as a freelancer but I also took short breaks throughout the day. Soon, though, the joy of grabbing coffee with a co-worker or cramming around a tiny television to hear the Michael Jackson verdict made up for all the anti-socialness that a freelancer's lifestyle often provides. Working as a staff person on a magazine provides more than a social network, it's access to a slate of folks doing the same job as you day in and day out, right next to your desk.
Kristine Hansen is a writer in Milwaukee. Visit her Web site at www.kristine-hansen.com.