8 Years of Freelancing: 8 Things I’ve Learned

Today, I’m celebrating my eighth year of freelancing with cupcakes at The Department, a beautiful 16,000 square foot collaborative workspace in downtown Phoenix. For the past four years, I’ve written a blog post with tips, whining, or reflections. (Here’s 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016.) So grab a drink and celebrate with me if you’re interested in another round of musings.

You may not need that anchor client.

When I teach courses to new freelancers, or give advice over coffee, I always recommend finding either an anchor client or a part-time job to assure that rent and bills are paid. This helps people avoid the trap of pitching out of desperation or accepting underpaying work. That said, I’ve spent years keeping anchor clients that weren’t ideal out of fear, and when those relationships inevitably ended, I was always able to replace the work. Anchor clients are great for stability, and there are a lot of benefits to having a relationship that doesn’t involve learning a new CMS every month. But if scope creep, boredom, forced positivity, unnecessary meetings, or even unfulfilling work leave you drained, sometimes cutting the cord can be a good thing. It also means you’ll be more agile and able to jump on breaking news almost immediately. I am somewhat risk-averse and wouldn’t trade my ongoing client relationships for the world, but knowing that anchor clients aren’t necessary and not clinging to problematic client relationships has helped me develop more freedom.

It’s okay to just hang out and socialize at conferences.

When I first started freelancing, I’d get up super early to make sure to hit the morning sessions whenever I went to a conference. I’d spend hours figuring out the best tracks, take diligent notes, and sometimes try to sell recaps or summaries. I still judge people who party all night and miss all of the next day’s sessions when there are amazing investigative reporters and industry experts they could be learning from. I still think there’s nothing like soaking up the energy at an in-person panel. But I’ve relaxed my stance a bit over the years. There’s not a lot of time to schmooze with colleagues if you work from home, and I’ve honestly learned just as much partying at hacker conferences as I have taking detailed notes in overcrowded conference rooms. A lot of those talks are available on video a week later, anyway.

You may never feel like you’ve “made it.” 

I’ve noticed that no matter what my accomplishments are, I can’t help but feel a little confused when people come to me with amazing projects or stories they want me to break. I have a list of other journalists they could’ve gone to instead. I also get really surprised when people look at me like I’m successful, even though I know that by some external metrics, I am. Being comfortable with the fact that my own view of myself may not align with other people’s, and that the truth is probably somewhere between the two, has helped me navigate this. Just know that a certain byline doesn’t mean people will actually talk to you online or invite you to their parties.

Critics can be your friends.

I used to wonder why people didn’t have anything better to do with their time than blowing up my inbox with minute critiques (which more often than not are mere opinions or end up being inaccurate). Even though sorting through these can be time-consuming and annoying, recognizing that some people think being published makes one authoritative has helped me respond more compassionately. I’ve also learned a lot from concerns and even (gasp!) reading the comments, and it’s helped me improve my writing. No love for trolls, and a lot of PR concerns about so-called “errors” are best ignored, but being thick-skinned and open-minded is definitely beneficial.

Coaching helps.

I used to have what can only be described as an addiction to online courses and communities, even though my ROI was very low. But at the end of last year, I had an in-person annual review and strategy session with Pam Slim, and it has guided my work, mindset, goals, and decisionmaking for all of this year. I just scheduled another session at the end of this year.

Editors are gold (the good ones, anyway)

I started writing back in middle school, for my marching band newsletter and my school paper and a family newsletter and a Star Trek fan club newsletter called the Excalibur Press and my own zines, Apple Crumb, Starlight and Live Beat. I remember reading comic books and zines during free reading time and an unapproving English teacher asking me why I couldn’t ever read something “real.” I was attracted to the raw honesty and creativity in zines like Cometbus, Sanity Sux, Girl Germs, Teenage Gang Debs and  in comics like Hate, Eightball, Action Girl, Milk & Cheese, Dork, and Optic Nerve… for the same reason I was attracted to K Records bands like Bratmobile and Bikini Kill and Kicking Giant. I don’t like zines as much as I used to because I feel like some of them could use a little bit of polish. I may just be old and curmudgeonly but I feel like the d.i.y. ethic used to be about becoming the media instead of waiting for approval and acceptance from stodgy establishmentarians. Nowadays, it sometimes seems like people like to put out subpar work out of laziness and call it d.i.y. as an excuse. Perhaps the truth is somewhere in the middle. Too much editing can take the teeth out of good writing. Some editors do little more than adding errors and requiring unnecessary busywork. But not enough editing can lead to work that’s unclear, incomplete, or just not as good as it could be…. and good editors can really make your writing sing. Finding good editors isn’t easy, and I consider myself incredibly lucky that I get to work with so many of them.

Make friends with other journalists and industry experts.

I don’t know what I would do without my friends. I can bounce ideas off of them, give somewhat objective feedback on their challenges, get assistance in rewriting emails so they don’t make people cry, share contacts and intel, and just chat about everything from new tunes to industry news. If you find yourself increasingly isolated, reaching out to others can make your world seem larger.

There are definitely pros and cons.

Freelancing definitely has its perks. The ability to work remotely and set your own schedule. The opportunity to look into whatever you think is interesting at the moment. Experts who can answer your pressing questions just a phone call away. The ability to shine light on injustice to help create a better world. The chance to teach people something that may help them with their lives. Being able provide levity and entertainment in a polarized, toxic world. Getting people to look closer and think deeper. Avoiding unnecessary meetings, if that’s what you want. But freelancing has its downsides. It can be incredibly frustrating, sleazy publications sometimes screw you over, and extroverts like me may miss watercooler talk and getting invited to office parties. There’s really no paid time off, and you have to manage your own retirement savings and health insurance. I haven’t ruled out the possibility of taking full-time work if the opportunity is right, but don’t miss all of the drawbacks of full-time employment either. It’s definitely worth assessing and reassessing to see what’s best for you.

Stuff I Wrote: November 2017

Happy December! I’m writing this roundup post from The Department, where I’m celebrating my eighth year of freelancing, so I’ll be writing about that soon. But first, here’s a roundup of some projects and articles of mine that were published this month, as well as links to three podcasts I co-produced and cohosted along with Trevor Hultner.

Street-Level Surveillance (Electronic Frontier Foundation) I’m thrilled to share this project, which I wrote in collaboration with EFF. It has been in the works for months. It’s a series on modern surveillance tools used by law enforcement, including automated license plate readers, body-worn cameras, cell-site simulators (also known as IMSI catchers, also known as stingrays), drones (also known as unmanned aerial vehicles), and facial recognition. The site also has some information on tattoo recognition, resources for criminal defense attorneys, and more.

 

Staggering Variety of Clandestine Trackers Found in Popular Android Apps (The Intercept) Weather, flashlight, rideshare, and dating apps, among others, are infested with dozens of trackers collecting vast amounts of information, researchers found. Exodus Privacy and Yale Privacy Lab wrote about 44 different varieties found in 300 apps downloaded by billions of people. Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing went into a little more detail about how these trackers are almost certainly in iOS apps, too, and the  legal issues that make this difficult to confirm.

Mr. Robot post-show discussions (Motherboard). If you’ve been following this amazing dystopian suspense thriller, you may also want to geek out on some commentary from a bunch of hackers and journalists. Here’s our post-show chats on Episode 4 Metadata, Episode 5: Runtime Error, Episode 6: Kill Process, and Episode 7: Fredrick & Tanya. (Psst: Episode 8: Don’t Delete Me is also up, but technically posted in December.)

Your fitness questions, answered (Experience Life): I interviewed some experts on what to do with your legs during pull-ups, whether you should lock your elbows or not during upper-body exercises, and why you yawn while you exercise.

Podcasts

This month we looked into a representative who not only assaulted a journalist but also lied to the police about it, the resignation of Puerto Rico’s emergency management director, and the very fishy murder of a Baltimore detective

 

 

Stuff I Wrote: October 2017

Happy November! I’m putting together this content roundup from beautiful Portland, Oregon, where I’ve been enjoying the fall colors and the rain. As always, I’ve been working on a lot of projects that I can’t post about yet, usually because they’re either ghostwritten or not completed. That said, here are a few things I’ve been working on.

  • Big Ass Data Broker Opt-Out List is a quick guide I put together for a cryptoparty in Phoenix, meant to assist people in getting their home addresses and phone numbers off of the web. To make it easier, I characterized opt-out methods with emoji. ☠ 🎫 📞 📠 📫 💰 To find a cryptoparty near you, check out https://www.cryptoparty.in/parties/upcoming.
  • The new season of Mr. Robot is in full swing, and I’ve been discussing the hacks with a group of amazing people. Our chat has moved from Forbes to Motherboard, which is really exciting for fans of the fabulous site, as well as people who object to ad blocker blockers or bad interfaces. Check out our discussions of the premier, Powers Saver Mode, Episode 2: Undo, or Episode 3: Legacy.
  • My biggest news for this month is that I have a fantastic new podcast cohost, Trevor Hultner. This also means that you can download our podcast on Apple Podcasts in addition to either of our Soundcloud accounts. I did attach three episodes below, on the birth control mandate rollback, executive order changes to military recall procedures, and warrantless surveillance. Enjoy!

Stuff I Wrote: September 2017

Why You Should Get a Job in Blockchain (Dice Insights)

Hunting (Software) Bugs For Fun and Profit (Dice Insights)

Under Siege: How To Protect Your Digital Privacy (Consumers Digest, but this is the archived version because they owe a lot of writers a lot of money)

What Closing the Loop of Health Data Means (Built to Adapt/Medium)

Stuff I Wrote: August 2017

It’s been a big month for posts! I interviewed one of my favorite comic artists, Evan Dorkin, who I first interviewed for a zine back in high school. My article on food deserts, which I’ve been working on for some time, finally went live. And, of course,  it’s always a good month when I get to write for The Intercept. Check out those pieces and a few links below.

  • Cartoonist in Hell (Folks) Drawing comics for a living isn’t all fun and games, says Evan Dorkin. Especially when you’re living with chronic pain.
  • No Pain, No Gain (Folks) Fitness instructor Leslie Nava teaches at a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu gym to spite the rare disease which runs in her family… and to inspire her son, who was born with it.

Stuff I Wrote: July 2017

Happy August! If you’re like me, you spent most of July out of town. I was traipsing around Minnesota visiting family and friends, spending time on the lake and eating Juicy Lucies. I’d barely had time for my head to land on my own pillow before I headed out to Las Vegas for Def Con, the quintessential hacking conference that left me with dozens of ideas buzzing around my head.Still, I managed to publish two articles and a blog post in July. Unfortunately, both articles are paywalled. I would recommend subscribing to the Performance Menu for thirty bucks a year for access to health and fitness information (with a heavy dose of weightlifting). The other article is supposed to be available publicly soon, and I’ll update this post with corrections to the errors published. Last but not least is a heartwarming podcast (or as heartwarming as can be expected in our political climate) about the uphill battle for public data.

Instead of just listing blog posts each month, I’ve been bouncing around ideas to make this blog more interesting and relevant to you. I’m not sure how long it’ll take to implement, but I appreciate you sticking around, and I hope you enjoy this month’s fare.

Under Siege: How To Protect Your Digital Privacy (Consumers Digest) I spent weeks on this post, which was meant to be an overview of digital privacy and security concerns and ways to mitigate them. Sadly, I was never given the opportunity to view the final copy before it was published (despite multiple requests). As expected, the published version was riddled with editor-introduced errors. Because this piece is still paywalled (though I was told it would be public today), I’ll have to wait to describe the errors that were not corrected. (I was informed that only a few were forwarded on to the managing editor.) Other reporters tried to warn me about writing for this publication, but I’d signed a contract before hearing all of the horror stories. In case you’re wondering, I would definitely echo their sentiments. (Oh, and I still haven’t gotten paid for this.)

How To Make Your Gym Accessible To Everyone (Rather Than Just Your Rock Star Athletes) (Performance Menu) Unless you’re running a small, elite club for a few select athletes you hope to hone into Olympians or world champions, you could probably use some more business in your gym—or you could at least stand to keep the business you have. One of the best ways to do this is to target not just super athletes, but regular everyday joes. There are far more normies than there are star athletes, after all. This post gives suggestions on making your gym friendly and accessible to the common folk. (Yes, it’s paywalled.)

Independent journalist Tony Webster talks about the fight for public records in Minnesota after the City Council in Duluth recently tried to raise costs.

Stuff I Wrote: June 2017

Since it’s a million degrees in Phoenix, I try to do most of my traveling in the summer. I was lucky enough to escape to Chicago for work and play, and shortly after heading home, I got to attend the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference right here in Phoenix. Here are four articles I managed to write amidst the whirlwind, as well as two podcast episodes from June.

Hacking Is The Least Ridiculous Part of ‘House of Cards,’ Somehow (Motherboard) Amber alert hacking, polyglots, and switching centers.

That One-Leg Monster (Folks) How K.C. Mitchell, a combat-wounded Army veteran, became the strongest amputee powerlifter in the world.

5 Steps For Dealing With Joint Pain And Inflammation (Performance Menu) It’s paywalled, so subscribe already!

Finding Work After Being Fired (Without Lying About It) (Dice Insights)

Stuff I Wrote: May 2017

Time Management Tips For Job Seekers (Dice) It’s easy to get burned out and discouraged while hunting for a new job. That said, you can have a productive and fruitful job search by following some guidelines.

Now You Can Pay People to Ferry Packages While They’re Traveling (Motherboard) You can also get paid to deliver random items—though most of them are abroad.

Unpopular Opinion: Yes, You Should Sometimes Get in Shape Before Training For a Sport (Performance Menu, paywalled)

Stuff I Wrote: April 2017

Last month I promised a backlog of articles, but a few are still in purgatory. That said, here are five posts, one video, and one podcast for your perusal.

What To Do When People Take Credit For Your Work (Dice Insights) That feeling of satisfaction after a job well done can easily fizzle when a co-worker or boss takes credit for your ideas.

Book Review: Wired to Eat (Performance Menu, paywall) If you liked the Paleo Solution, check out my review of Robb Wolf’s newest book.

Can The Cloud Save Retail? (Medium/Built to Adapt) Well, can it?

The Ultimate Fighter 25 Episode 1: Garbrandt and Dillashaw; Too Much Drama? (The Sports Post)

The Ultimate Fighter 25 Episode 2: Faber Joins the Bickering; Gordon/Gallicchio Face Off (The Sports Post)

VIDEO: Beyond the Fast Track Model of Fitness with OPEX founder James FitzGerald. Find it by downloading ZubiaLive (free) and searching in the fitness section.

PODCAST: Newsrooms Unite To Cover White House Financial Disclosures. Interview with Derek Kravitz, research editor at ProPublica.

Stuff I Wrote: March 2017

Can you believe it’s April already? March is my favorite month because of the signaling of spring, and it’s my birthday month. After a few months of visiting places, I just started training at a fabulous Brazilian jiu-jitsu gym in Mesa, which I’m so excited about, so this March was definitely a great one for me. I also spoke at my favorite arcade bar, Bonus Round, for Nerd Nite 29. Many thanks to those of you who came out to grab a cocktail and hear me speak about logical fallacies, alongside the amazing Kevin Flanagan and resident rhetorician Kathleen S. Lamp. I had an absolute blast and I’m so excited that Ty invited me. No speaking appearances this month, but I will be on a live video broadcast on Zubia, interviewing one of my favorite health and fitness experts. Details on that forthcoming.

I wrote four posts that were published in March. There will be many more in April, as a lot of my work this month is still going through the editing/revision process. We also have at least one great podcast planned for April, so tune in to KJZZ’s “The Show” on Monday morning, or listen on their website or on SoundCloud.

Meanwhile, here’s this month’s roundup:

My VPN post for Ars Technica, which is from June 2016 so pretty old for tech reporting, was quoted extensively this month, everywhere from The Verge to Motherboard. I’ll be writing more about personal privacy in the coming months.

That’s it for now! Expect a larger batch in April.