A Chat with Freelance Writer Kelly James-Enger

After five relatively unenjoyable years working as an attorney, Kelly James-Enger struck out on her own to become a full-time freelance writer.

In her new role, she quickly learned that making it as a full-time freelance writer wasn’t easy. But she’s one of the few who not only survived, but thrived, in her pursuit and learned how to make more than a decent living.

Specializing in health, fitness and nutrition, she has now written for more than 50 national magazines including Family Circle, Health, Parents, Redbook, Self, and Woman’s Day. She also has several books to her credit, including Six Figure Freelancing, a highly regarded book that explains, to aspiring and new freelance writers, the many fundamentals of writing as a business.

This month, we had a chance to catch up with James-Enger to get her insight on what it takes to truly make it as a full-time freelance writer. Here’s what she had to say.

WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO WRITE “SIX-FIGURE FREELANCING”?

I’d written my first book, Ready, Aim, Specialize!Create your own Writing Specialty and Make More Money, several years ago and it focused on how specializing could make writers more productive. But there was a lot about running your writing as a business, developing relationships, boosting productivity, and the like that I didn’t have room for. When I was asked to speak on a panel on six-figure freelancing, I realized the outline for my 12-minute speech was also a brief outline for a book. I pitched it and Random House bought it!

WHAT HAVE BEEN THE MOST REWARDING ASPECTS OF BEING A FULL-TIME FREELANCER?

I do love being the captain of my own ship, so to speak. I choose the work I take on instead of being handed the crappy cases by a partner (I was a lawyer in my former life). That doesn’t mean I always love what I’m working on, but I definitely like the feeling of being more in control. After nine years of being self-employed it would be pretty much impossible to go back to “working for the man.”

THE MOST CHALLENGING?

Well, the first couple of years I found the isolation of freelancing difficult. But I’ve discovered my inner introvert and now prefer working alone. I think a real challenge for any self-employed person is the constant battle not to let your job take over your life. Sometimes I still have to work nights and weekends to meet a big deadline, but I’ve learned to set better boundaries for myself when it comes to work.

WHAT DO YOU THINK ARE SOME OF THE MISCONCEPTIONS “WANNABE” FULL-TIME FREELANCERS HAVE?

Ah, misconceptions. There are a lot! Some popular ones:

– You get to write whatever you want when you freelance (Not true if you want to make a living-you will take on projects that don’t necessarily thrill you.)

– You get to write whenever you feel like it-or whenever the muse shows up. Again, not true-you’re running a business, not pursuing writing as a hobby.

– You don’t have to market your work. In other words, the romantic fantasy of the tortured artist in the garret is great, but you can’t lie around hoping that someone will seek you out. You have to get out there and query, pitch, market, make cold calls-whatever it takes.

– You don’t have to approach your writing like a business. (Kind of encapsulates #1 and #2.)

I could go on and on, but those are the biggies, I think.

WHAT WOULD YOU SAY ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT QUALITIES ONE NEEDS TO POSSESS IN ORDER TO BE A SUCCESSFUL FREELANCE WRITER?

Aside from some writing skill (although you needn’t be Margaret Atwood), you need to be persistent, flexible, driven (you’re the one who’s responsible for making sure you get your work done, after all!), interested in the world, and resilient. People skills and an abundance of energy are also huge plusses.

HOW IMPORTANT IS IT FOR FREELANCE WRITERS TO FOLLOW-UP ON THE PHONE AFTER SENDING THEIR PITCH TO AN EDITOR?

I think it depends on the editor. I used to follow up in writing after sending a query; now I usually call or email a week or two later, but I’ve got years more experience than I did when I started out. I think one or two follow-up calls is fine; after that, you’re probably going to annoy the editor. If he or she wants the piece, the editor will get in touch.

IN WHAT SITUATION(S) WOULD YOU RECOMMEND A FREELANCE WRITER NOT FOLLOW UP A QUERY WITH A PHONE CALL?

If you’re a new writer with no experience/no clips, it may not be worth it, especially if you’re pitching a national mag. On the other hand, one follow-up call takes one minute and may help you get the assignment, so why not?

DO YOU FIND IT A GOOD MARKETING TACTIC TO WRITE LETTERS TO EDITORS TO SIMPLY INTRODUCE YOURSELF?

Depends on the market. I’ve had good success with that technique to custom publications and trade magazines. My experience with consumer mags, though (and I’ve written for 50 national mags) has been that they want you to query.

DESCRIBE YOUR WORKSPACE.

I’ve always had an office since I started freelancing. Currently it’s small-9 by 9, with a desk and return, several bookshelves, and several filing cabinets. In my office I have my laptop/docking station, an all-in-one copier/scanner/fax, tape recorder/headset, and two-line telephone. Also vertical files for organization, a stereo, and a couple of prints on my walls, along with the usual collection of photos, etc including lots of my five-month-old baby boy. Alas, there are also usually stacks of stuff to be recycled and empty Diet Mountain Dew cans lying around my office-as well as an 80-pound golden retriever snoozing under my desk.

WHY DO YOU WRITE?

That’s easy. Writing’s my job, and I’d rather do this for a living than anything else. That’s why I write nonfiction, which pays my bills. I write fiction and essays (which pay but not nearly as well), though, because I’m always fascinated by people and why they act the way they do.

WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE WRITING BOOKS?

In addition to my own [smile], I think Bob Bly’s Write More, Sell More has great tips for being more productive. The Renegade Writer by Diana Burrell and Linda Formichelli is great for newer writers who need guidance getting started. The ASJA Guide to Freelance Writing is excellent and covers a wide range of writing subjects. And for inspiration, both Pen on Fire and Dojo Wisdom for Writers are great reads.

DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE WRITING-RELATED QUOTE?

It’s not writing-related specifically, but I have a simple rough framed drawing on my office wall that features man in a sailboat and quotes an old Chinese proverb. Below it, it reads, “If there is no wind, row.” That’s probably the best advice for freelancers I’ve heard.

IF A WRITER WERE TO GLEAN ONLY TWO OR THREE PIECES OF WISDOM FROM “SIX-FIGURE FREELANCING,” WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE THOSE TO BE?

– Treat your writing like a business, not a hobby.

– Look for ways to work as efficiently as possible. Your time is limited, so you want to make the most of it.

– Develop relationships with editors, experts, and other writers. As you grow your business and develop a good reputation, you’ll be amazed at how much easier it is to get work (assuming you do a good job, of course.)

You can reach Kelly James-Enger via her web site at www.BecomeBodyWise.com.

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