My Summer Adventures in Freelance Writing

Image: Raw Pixel Ltd

After my last Zoom call with students ended past June, I checked out more than I have any prior summer while teaching. I was so fatigued from a year and a half of teaching online during a pandemic that I decided that this summer I wasn’t going to think about teaching at all. Of course, that’s not really how it works. If you are teacher, you know that as much as you can promise yourself to not think about teaching, it will inevitably sneak into your life. However, I was able to not think about the logistical aspects of teaching for a while, which was a nice break. Instead of attending a bunch of teacher professional development workshops during the summer, as I have done in past years, I decided to work on developing my own professional skills, specifically my writing skills.

I consider myself a decent writer who can adapt my writing to many different purposes and audiences. I write creatively to satisfy my own desire for storytelling and craft, I blog to share my experiences or to participate in the online literary community, and I journal for myself. The role of teacher, especially English teacher, also involves a fair amount of writing— lesson plans, lesson materials, emails to parents, emails to colleagues, etc. But I didn’t actively pursue much paid professional writing before this summer. If I got paid for a funny satirical article or a short story here or there, I was pleased that someone liked my work enough to pay me for it. However, this summer I realized that I have the skills needed to make some money on the side writing professionally.

First, I took a class on Coursera called The Strategy of Content Marketing, since as a UC Davis alum, it was free. While taking that course, I realized that a lot of what I know about teaching academic writing also applies to professional writing. You’re trying to hook an audience for a specific purpose, to convince them to become your customer or to buy the product of a company you are promoting. Content marketing and copywriting employ a lot of the same techniques as classic rhetoric— convincing an audience to trust you due to your credibility, appealing to the audience’s emotions, and using logic and examples to prove your product or company is valuable (in other words, ethos, pathos, and logos). I realized that whether or not I ended up writing content marketing articles for a client, I could use what I had learned about marketing in the classroom. The high school where I teach recently formed a committee on incorporating college and career readiness skills into the classroom, so in the back of my mind while I was taking the Coursera class, I was thinking of how perfect a writing unit on marketing or advertising would be for demonstrating to my students the value of writing in the “real world.”

After I finished the Coursera class, I decided to try out my new skills by applying to freelance writing roles on Upwork, which is a platform where you can apply for all different types of freelance gigs. I soon realized that despite my previous experiences writing articles for some magazines, it was hard to stand out as a writer on that platform for general writing roles since there is so much competition. However, I noticed that there were some roles that specifically involved writing for education companies or writing educational materials. I started to apply for these positions and had some success. I also applied for some editing roles, too, because as an English teacher and as a graduate student, I’ve had a lot of experience editing other people’s writing.

Once I was able to land a few positions, I discovered that I really like writing professionally. Each gig came with its own rollercoaster of emotions, which gave me some insight into what it must be like for my students when I give them a challenging writing assignment. First, I felt elated whenever I was hired to do a particular task. Then when the client sent me the specific information on what they needed, I would start to second guess myself, feeling imposter syndrome. What if I couldn’t deliver what they wanted me to deliver? It felt scary to face the possibility of failure, even if failure only meant that I wasn’t going to be paid a relatively small amount of dollars.

 I soon discovered that a lot of companies will ask for you to do a “trial” for them if you are writing content for their website so that they can see how you do with a short assignment. Then if they like your work, they will offer you chances to continue writing for them. This way, they can test out if you are a good fit for what they need, and you can also see if you like the type of writing they want you to do. I like this system because at least you get paid a little for trying out the work even if you end up not being hired for a long-term role. This also helped ease my imposter syndrome a lot since I felt less pressure if I knew it was a trial run.

I imagine that my students must also feel overwhelmed at first when they encounter a writing task that they don’t know how to do. I think I can empathize with them more now in this situation because I now know what is feels like to have anxiety when approaching a new writing task. I found that it helped to see models of what the client was looking for, such as a sample article. It also helped to break down the steps of a writing task into more manageable chunks, such as creating an outline and then filling in the outline over the course of a couple days. This sometimes meant that I spent way more time on a task than would be suggested by my hourly rate, since most of the tasks I completed this summer were fixed price projects. However, if I succeeded at doing one task, the next time it was a lot easier to do a similar task. One aspect I had not considered as much about freelancing was negotiating pay, and I am still trying to determine how much money a project needs to pay to be worth my time. Ideally, I would be able to charge a high rate for writing since I have a decent amount of experience as a writer, but in practice it seems like it’s hard to find writing roles that pay well.

Some types of professional writing and editing I tried out this summer included creating reading comprehension questions for short stories, editing transcripts of a professional development podcast and turning them into articles, editing someone’s creative writing and helping them find venues to submit their work, and writing study guide materials. I found myself drawn to jobs that involved creating or editing educational content because I have expertise in that area and because it was fun to take on a different role in education than the one I usually play.

While I don’t see myself making a living solely from writing any time soon (though who knows— maybe I could in the future), trying my hand at professional writing expanded my own understanding of what kind of writing skills are necessary in the workplace. As a writing teacher, it gave me a chance to dip my toes into the “real world” of writing and allowed me to gain experience that I can share with my students. If students ask me why they need to learn a particular writing skill, I now can answer them with confidence, explaining not just why it’s important for future academic courses but also how it could help them earn money in the future. If you teach writing but have not practiced it outside of an academic context, I highly recommend giving freelance writing a spin. It will help you see how academic writing skills can transfer to other contexts, and you will be able to prove to your students the utility of writing.

Finding a Work/ Life Balance as a Teacher/ Writer (During a Pandemic)

A view from one of the many my many after-work runs that help me clear my head before writing

In the past year, I’ve had more time to develop my writing than I have ever had while working a full-time job. To be fair, I have only worked a full-time job for two prior years in my life, one as an Americorps literacy tutor and the other as a first-year teacher, and both were extremely mentally and physically demanding. So maybe this year I’ve just found breathing room that wasn’t present during those other two years. It also helps that I don’t have children to take care of, and I’ve been able to do my job remotely during this pandemic. It’s still been a difficult year, since I had to switch entirely to a different mode of teaching- distance learning- all the while coping with anxiety and grief over the toll of the pandemic. I recognize that these aren’t the best circumstances for creative output, and I am probably one of the few lucky people who has found the time and energy to produce more during this pandemic. For me, writing is an escape from the stress of my job and the difficulties of everyday life. I’ve used it as a coping mechanism, so it makes sense that I’ve leaned on it more during the pandemic.

I started this blog three years ago positing the question of whether it was possible to be both a public school teacher and a writer. At that time, I hardly knew anyone who tried to pursue both. They seemed like worlds that did not often cross, except for when my students were reading and writing themselves. However, during the past year, I’ve discovered a whole community of other teachers who write or writers who teach on places like Twitter or WordPress or among teacher acquaintances I know from the Bay Area or UC Davis. There are a lot of people who are making it work, pursuing their passion for writing while also teaching, whether it’s K-12 public education or working at private schools or colleges. Being in touch with a writing community has really helped me stay motivated to continue writing despite the difficulty of finding the time to write and the challenges of developing good enough writing to be published.

In the past year, I’ve been published 3 times online, and I have another story forthcoming in a print literary journal soon. It’s nice to receive external validation from being published online, but more important than that validation is the excitement that comes from sharing my writing with other members of the writing community. I’ve found a lot of joy this past year in reading literary magazines, whether they are new online journals or print journals I’ve had sitting in my apartment for years. It makes me feel part of a greater literary community that is having conversations about important ideas, discussing racism, capitalism, language, and culture through literature. It doesn’t matter that these pieces, whether it’s poetry, short stories, or essays, are ephemeral and won’t be widely perused by the public. As long as there is a community of readers that care about them and writers who want to create them, literary journals are relevant and important.

As I approach the end of my year teaching via distance learning, I’m looking forward to the beneficial aspects of teaching in person such as building relationships with my students and being able to cultivate a culture of learning and creativity in my classroom. But I’m also worried that I will lose some of the work/life balance I’ve had to work so hard to develop during this past year. It may take a while to adjust back to the routine of in-person teaching, and during that time I don’t think it will be easy to write. I’m just hoping that I will be able to apply some of the lessons I’ve learned during this past year about maintaining boundaries between life and work to my teaching career going forward.

First of all, I’ve gotten better at creating mental boundaries between my life and my work. I no longer dwell too much on thoughts of teaching and replay scenes from my classes in my head during my free time. Of course, some reflection is positive and necessary, but I don’t let it occupy my mind as much as a I used to because I need that time to rest. In this case, rest means turning my attention to other things that I value.

Second of all, I have also gotten better at prioritizing what I need to do for work in order to complete tasks outside of classroom teaching such as grading, lesson planning, contacting parents, and filling out paperwork more efficiently. Reading the book Onward by Elena Aguilar really helped me figure out how to make the most of my contracted hours so that I can stop working relatively soon after the school day is technically over. Of course, I still have to work outside of my contracted hours. Otherwise, I would not be able to do the things I need to do to teach well. But I have minimized the time I work on weekends and after school. I used to let teaching take over both days of my weekend, but now I limit it to Sunday, even if it means Sunday is rather stressful and rushed. To me, having a rushed Sunday is worth being able to relax on Saturday. I know not everyone feels that way or has the same work rhythm, so teachers have to figure out their own ways to make things fit into the time they have.

It would help, of course, if we didn’t have as ridiculous of workloads as we do. However, I don’t let my endless to-do list of tasks rule over my time. If I complete everything I need to do to be prepared for the next day, and then some ongoing tasks, even if I have more I could do, I cut myself off. The problem with teaching is that you often feel that no matter how much you do, it’s not enough, but it’s also toxic to keep working when you need to rest. I’m getting better at stopping myself before I’m completely exhausted.

During my free time, I’ve developed routines for how to use my time after work so that I get to do the things that are important to me. I usually work out right after I finish working, then relax and help prep dinner (I’m lucky that my partner does most of the cooking). After dinner, I write. I don’t write every day, but I’ve figured out that this time is the optimal writing time for me to write on a regular basis. When I was first trying to fit writing into my schedule, I tried to block it out at 4 PM on a couple days a week on my calendar, but I just found that timing didn’t work for me. I can’t focus on writing right after I finish work. I need some time to decompress before I can turn to what is basically my second job. This is what works best for me, but everyone has their own preferences for when they feel most creative. I could never do creative work in the early morning, or even exercise early in the morning, so all of the “life” part of my work/life balance has to happen after work.

Next year, when I’m back in person I’m going to have to adjust my routine by accounting for the time it takes me to commute to and from my job. I will also lose some of my precious evening time because I will have to go to bed earlier. No more staying up until 10 PM writing for two to three hours straight because I was struck by a good idea (well I might still do this every once in a while and then just go to work sleep deprived). I don’t know if the work/ life balanced I have now is truly sustainable. I just know that it’s working for now, so I will relish it while I still can. I am hoping that once I’m back into the classroom, after an adjustment period, I’ll find a new version of work/life balance. I just hope it doesn’t take too long to achieve it and doesn’t require me to give up too much.

Is it possible to be a writer and a public school teacher?

Is it possible to be a writer and a public school teacher?

This was the question I asked a number of people while I was deciding what to do with my life while finishing my master’s in creative writing program last spring. Unfortunately, no one could give me a straight answer. My creative writing professors, wonderful as they are, had no experience or interest in teaching in the K-12 world, and most of the English teachers I know like to write as a hobby but aren’t committed to creative writing. I even looked for role models online, people who have published books while also teaching through talking with people on Facebook groups and doing google searches. I didn’t come up with a whole lot. I’ve seen some isolated examples of teachers who also have published novels, like Roxanne Elden (whose blog I adore), but no one was talking about the challenges of trying to write while also teaching. Most people who have taught secondary English told me that as a teacher I would not have time to pursue my own creative projects and that I would be buried under the enormous workload of lessons to write and papers to grade. Still, I knew I had a calling to teach in public schools because I’m drawn to the idea of helping to shape the minds and hearts of young people.

I know I love teaching since it’s the only job I’ve had that fires me up in the same way that writing does. In the second year of my M.A. program in Creative Writing at UC Davis, I designed and taught my own introduction to writing fiction course. It was an incredible experience to see my students’ writing transform in just a few weeks. I enjoyed teaching college, but I was worried it wouldn’t be a sustainable career. I would have to work as an adjunct and perhaps go back to more school since I would need an MFA or a PhD to qualify for most full-time positions. Plus, I haven’t written a book, published any academic articles, or won any prestigious awards, so I would not be competitive on the academic market. Instead of going into academia, I chose to pursue a different career, teaching at the secondary level. I entered a teaching credential program to obtain a single subject credential in English for grades 6-12. I still am not sure if I chose the right path, and I don’t know if I’ll stay in this field forever, but I am learning so much from teaching younger folks.

Hot air balloons in the distance at my student teaching placement added a sprinkling of whimsy to the school

It’s been 6 months since I started my teaching program, and I’ve barely had any time to write. I’m hoping that this is just temporary, since I have so many things on my plate. Once I get my own classroom and teach for a few years, I will have more time to carve out for my own personal writing. In the past few months, I have met at least one teaching mentor who keeps up writing. She told me she does it by writing on her phone while she’s on the treadmill, jotting down any ideas that strike her at any time, and setting aside time to work deeply on projects during the summer. I am glad I found one person who told me that it is possible to continue writing while teaching, although her whatever-it-takes methods did not do much reassure me that a work-life-writing balance is possible in the future. It’s very discouraging to go from writing every day in grad school and receiving regular feedback from professors to only having time to write if I sacrifice time that I should use to sleep or go to the gym or prepare my lessons. I’m still in the process of figuring out if it’s really possible to pursue my dueling passions— writing and teaching— without tearing myself apart. I decided to start adding posts to my blog to document this experience.

Along the way, I hope to investigate how my writing can help fuel my teaching— and vice versa. As an English teacher, I think it’s important to model the writing process for students. If I’m telling students that they need to write to keep learning, improve their skills, expand their creativity, and grow connections in their brain, shouldn’t I be doing the same?

I don’t really do New Year’s Resolutions. I’m a perfectionist, so there is always a ticker tape running in my head of things I should be doing better— working out more, eating healthier food, getting more sleep, and WRITING MORE (it shows up in all caps in my head too.) But I do want to renew my commitment to writing this year, even as I venture further into the rip tide that is the public school system. I’m not afraid I’ll every give up on writing, but I hope to not go so long without it that when I do write it feels like I’m gasping for air after nearly drowning.

After writing a whole collection of short stories for my master’s thesis, most which will never see the light of day, I wrote a total of one new short story that I’m even close to satisfied with during the second half of 2018. I’m proud I wrote as much as that. Right now, I’m struggling to find the mental space to write when I come home exhausted beyond belief, frustrated with my ineptitude at teaching. It’s hard to remember how to be a novice at something, but teaching reminds me over and over again of how much you can learn from failing repeatedly until you get it right. Writing is like that too most of the time. I’m trying to learn how to recover from a stressful day of teaching by writing, and how to dive into teaching while letting my writing brain still whir in the background. In the long term, I don’t know if I’ll succeed at becoming both a good teacher and a better writer. But I’m willing to bet that it’s possible, as long as I don’t give up.

If you’re interested at all in following my journey, subscribe to my blog, and I will post more about my dual identity as a writer-teacher in the upcoming months.

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The view from one of my favorite cafes in Sacramento during one of the few opportunities I had to write these past few months