My Summer Adventures in Freelance Writing

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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.

6 Tips for Submitting to Lit Mags

Image credit: Julia Chandler/Libraries Taskforce

In 2021, I’ve had the incredible luck of being published in 5 literary magazines, with one more publication forthcoming. I’m a bit flabbergasted by this. The online literary scene abounds with rejection, and I’ve become accustomed to receiving a lot of it. This year may turn out to be a fluke for me, but even if I don’t get published again until next year, or several years from now, I’ve discovered some strategies for making the submission process more meaningful and less painful that I want to share.

Just a quick disclaimer: This post assumes that you are already familiar with the submission process to lit mags. If you are not already familiar, there are already some amazing articles that break down that process, including this one.

1. Find journals that match your writing style, but also cast a wide net. The biggest determinant of acceptances to lit journals is the taste of the editors at the journals. If your writing doesn’t match the taste of the editors, no matter how good it is, it won’t be accepted. Most lit mags also receive far more excellent submissions than it is possible to publish, so you should never take it personally if your writing is not accepted. If you tend to only submit to the literary giants and aren’t having much success, it might mean that you need to discover some lit journals that are not The New Yorker and The Paris Review.

There are thousands of literary journals out there, both print journals and online lit mags, waiting for you to discover them. You may need to explore to find ones that fit the niche that your writing falls into or find places that would be open to your writing, even if they are not an exact fit. The best way to know if a lit mag is a good fit for your writing is to read their previous issues. Most lit mags have at least some free content on their website, so even if you can’t read all of an issue, you can still get a sense of what they publish. Plus, you don’t need to read the issues from back to front. Two or three pieces in the genre that you’re submitting to can be enough to get a sense of what the magazine likes. That way, you can use your time efficiently and be able to discover a lot of potential places to submit. If you need help finding new publications to read and submit to, I have a blog with reviews of lit mags: Litbloom.com and I also keep a Twitter list of lit journals that are free to read.

This is a time-consuming process, but it can also be enjoyable. After all, if you are a creative writer, you probably love literature, and reading what your contemporaries are writing can be entertaining and inspiring. This method also tends to pay off. It certainly saves you time because there’s no point in submitting a fantasy story to a journal that says it doesn’t publish genre fiction. Most of my own recent acceptances have been to journals whose content I was already excited about even before my writing was accepted to them.

2. Write a themed piece explicitly for a particular lit mag. Many journals, even if they publish “literary” writing, whether it’s fiction, or poetry, or nonfiction, have themes for some of their issues and encourage people to submit work that fits the theme. This doesn’t always work for me since I usually write stories well in advance of seeing these themed calls, but if you’re someone who gets inspired by writing prompts, this can be the motivation you need to produce something new with a publication venue in mind. Even if your piece gets rejected from the initial lit mag, you can still submit it to other publications later.

3. Keep track of encouraging rejections. One of my editor friends who runs a literary journal has reassured me several times that receiving an email that invites me to submit again, even if it is automated, is a sign that the editors liked what they saw, and really did mean that the piece just wasn’t a good fit for the magazine. If you receive an encouraging rejection, note down where you received it from. This can be a sign that the piece that you’re submitting is good enough to be accepted somewhere else, as long as you find the right place, and you should definitely submit other work to that lit mag again. Most of my acceptances have been pieces that received enough encouraging rejections to make me feel confident that they were worthy of publication. I also keep a list of magazines that I return to again and again with submissions, hoping that at some point the piece I send them will end up being a perfect fit.

4. Don’t submit until the piece is actually ready, and don’t be afraid to revise and resubmit somewhere else. Let’s face it. It’s really hard to know when a short story or a poem or an essay is really ready to be published. Sometimes we are so eager to send out our work into the world that we can’t view it an unbiased way. Other times, we get so discouraged by rejections that we are sure that something must be wrong with our work. Having a friend or community who you can turn to exchange writing is helpful for figuring out what you need to improve upon and when a piece feels “done.” But for some of us, writing never truly feels finished. At some point, you may have to just take a leap of faith. What I’ve noticed is that for some pieces, after I receive a rejection or two (or fifteen), I realize something fundamental about it needs to be revised, and I make that change. There’s nothing wrong with doing this. You just have to keep track of where you sent which version of the publication because most lit mags won’t accept resubmitted work, even if you’ve revised it.

5. Decide when it’s worth it to pay for submissions and when it’s not. In my personal experience, I have never received an acceptance for a journal that charged a submission fee. Not once. Maybe this is just a coincidence. However, it hasn’t stopped me from submitting to places that do charge for submissions, especially if those same places offer payment for publication. If you’re someone who objects to paying for submissions on principle or you simply can’t afford to submit to several lit mags a month, then just focus your attention on places with free submissions.

If, on the other hand, you have some spare change, it might be worth it to pay some submission fees. I am lucky to be able to afford to submit to places that charge for submissions, but I’m still intentional about how much I pay to submit. I set a budget for myself of $15 maximum each month in submission fees. Most places that do charge for submissions charge between $3-$5 per submission, so this means I can usually submit to 3-5 magazines per month that charge fees, as well as an unlimited number of journals with free submissions. Some contest fees can be even higher than $15, so submitting to a contest alone could wipe out my budget for a month or two.

To be cautious with your resources, only submit to venues or contests that charge fees if you feel confident that your work is worthy of publication and that it would be a good fit for the journal. I also recommend only paying for submissions if you think it’s worth giving money to that journal even if they don’t accept your work because at least that way you don’t feel like you’re throwing money down the drain.

6. Keep a lot of irons in the fire. This may be a personal preference, but I always work on several stories or personal essays at once. I like to have some stories out for submissions while I’m writing or revising others so I don’t feel as much disappointment when the inevitable rejections roll in. Instead of feeling frustrated that I have to once again revise the piece that was rejected, I can just shrug, send out new stories, and come back to revising that story eventually. This keeps my morale high because the greatest barrier to publication is becoming discouraged. If you lose hope that you will ever be published and give up on submitting, this will guarantee that you won’t be published! It’s better to pick yourself up, appreciate yourself for your hard work despite the rejections you received, and keep trying.

I hope you found these tips useful for your own writing and publication journey. If you liked my blog post, please subscribe to my blog and check out my other website, Litbloom.com, where I review online lit mags. You can also follow me on twitter at @mollywritesalot.

Applying Lessons in Writer Resilience to Teaching Online

Image Credit: Alan Levine

On the last day of the fall Zoom semester of 2020 (or should I say “doom semester?”), I burst into tears. Despite my best efforts to reach many of my students, I had to give out far more failing grades than I am used to doing. I knew it wasn’t my completely fault. After all, there is a pandemic going on, my students are struggling to learn online, and I don’t even know what their learning environment at home is like since most of them don’t feel comfortable turning their camera on. Still, I felt responsible, and with every F I entered into the grading system, I felt like more of a failure as a teacher.

After a few days of letting myself wallow in my feelings, and a week or so of resting over the holidays, I picked myself up, wiped the slate clean, and moved forward with my plans for the next semester. I came back to online teaching this past week with vigor and energy, trying to project the hope to my students that this Zoom semester will be better.

Throughout this pandemic, I have needed to find coping strategies to deal with the unprecedented challenges I’m facing as a teacher. I’ve realized that many of the strategies I use to remain resilient draw upon my years of a experience as an “emerging writer.” As someone who has been attempting to write and submit work for publication for almost a decade, I have experienced plenty of rejection and failure. The stakes are much lower that they are for teaching, because having one short story published here or there is not going to make or break my writing career (then again one student failing will not make or break my teaching career either- but it could be devastating for that student). But I think from these smaller failures, I’ve had plenty of time to practice the experience of being thwarted in my goals, which has helped me see the bigger picture when it comes to distance learning. So here are some of the ways being a writer has helped me remain positive at my high school teaching job even while trying to teach under the current undesirable circumstances.

  1. Celebrate the small successes, and don’t be discouraged by rejection. I’ve dealt with a lot of rejection as a writer since unless you already have connections in the writing world or are just a literary genius, the odds are against you. Whenever I do have a story accepted or an article published, I celebrate, no matter how “minor” of an accomplishment it might feel like. I was published in a local zine this past summer, and despite the fact that it’s not a well-known publication, I still felt proud to see my work in print. When it comes to teaching, I celebrate the moments where I can reach a student who I haven’t been able to make a connection with. Last semester, I had a student who responded to me with nothing but negativity. After I asked if she was OK for probably the hundredth time and pestered her about doing the work, she told me that she appreciated that I cared. Of course, that kind of breakthrough does not have the finality that publication has. I still have to cultivate a relationship with that student going forward. But it gave me something positive to cling to, which I really needed.

2. Have patience. This goes with my first point because you have to wait to see the results of all of your efforts, whether it is the hard work you put into revising a manuscript or the continual nurturing of connections with students. I am a slow writer, and I also usually have to rewrite or revise stories and essays at least a dozen times before I feel satisfied with them. It has taken me years to write a story, and years after that to place it in a journal. Still, as long as I have all the gears in motion, with some stories in the works, some out for submission, and some brewing in my head, I know that I will eventually see some success with publication. I know that it is twice as hard for students to learn right now, so if I see that they make progress over the course of the year, even if it is progress that I expected to only take one semester, I will still count it as a success. Since I teach 9th and 10th grade at a small school, I will probably see most of my current 9th grade students next year in the classroom (hopefully in person), and perhaps at that point, I may start to see the results of my efforts from all this past year come to fruition. I have heard from more experienced teachers that it can takes years sometimes to reap the results of the work you put in, that teaching really becomes the most rewarding once you see how your students are doing in five to ten years. As a second year teacher, I just have to be patient enough to get to that point in my profession.

3. Find a community with others who are pursuing the same goals. I’ve found some of the best encouragement in my writing from my friends who have taken workshops with me and from strangers I met on the internet who are friendly and want to help others succeed. I’ve also received some of the best teaching tips and advice from my teaching colleagues from my credential program or from educational leaders I follow on Twitter. During this pandemic, I’ve had both teaching buddies and writing buddies who I text and share ideas with on a regular basis. They have helped me feel less alone in the ventures of writing and teaching, which are both very isolating even in normal times.

4. Look for models in mentors. See what they are doing, and try it out yourself. Writing allows you to have mentors who you have never met or even corresponded with. I view my favorite authors who inspire me to keep writing as mentors, while I also keep in touch with professors who have helped me personally improve my writing. In graduate school, my professor Yiyun Li told me that one of the best ways to work on your writing is to emulate the style of another writer– not with the goal of having that work published, but just as practice, since trying on other writer’s styles can help you develop your own style. I think this also applies to teaching. By imitating the style of a mentor teacher you may admire, even if it is just for a day, you may be able to experiment with your own teaching style and decide whether the way a mentor or a colleague teaches feels natural to you. You may decide it is not how you want to teach and switch directions, even mid-lesson, but it can help clarify what is working in your teaching and what is not working. I used this technique during my student teaching, and now that I am teaching online, one actual advantage is that I can experiment a bit more than I was comfortable doing in-person. I hope this experimentation allows me to return to the physical classroom as a more dynamic teacher who is more assured in my own teaching style.

5. It’s OK to take breaks and come back to things later. Well, of course, you can’t leave your class during the middle of a zoom meeting or a class period, but if you need to take your prep time to meditate or take a walk instead of grading, you can. With writing, I’m the type of person who needs a long time to mull over a draft before returning to it. I usually work on one thing for a couple weeks, put it down for a couple months while I’m working on something else, and then return to it. Teaching can’t replicate this same fluctuating rhythm, but you can break up grading with planning, if one makes you happier than the other. One way humans learn well is through spaced repetition, where you practice a skill or memorize information in a systematic way in which you focus mostly on the newest ideas or skills and occasionally on the older ideas and skills to reinforce them in your mind. With teaching, I don’t always have time to fit in vocabulary every week, but I know that if I come back to the same words with my students after a week, and then revisit the same words after a month, it might feel inconsistent but it might actually stick in their minds better that way. I give myself permission to not get to everything done in every lesson every week knowing that my students will benefit more if we go deeper into fewer concepts while circling back to the same ideas a few weeks later.

Being an English teacher and a writer means that I’m constantly thinking about how to help my students become better at writing while also keeping my own writing on the backburner in my head. I was worried that the pandemic would make balancing these two identities even more challenging, but I’ve been lucky that they’ve been able to reinforce one another. For both writing and teaching, resilience is essential to keep going, especially when we’re in a global pandemic. So, if you are a teacher or a writer, or both, I hope you are able to take some time to take care of yourself so that you can bounce back from whatever challenges you are currently facing, or even just muddle through them.

By the way, here’s an essay I wrote that was published in McSweeney’s recently, in case you need a good laugh.

What I Learned from Organizing a DIY Online Writing Workshop

Photo Credit: EdTech Stanford University School of Medicine

My favorite classes in college and graduate school were undoubtedly my creative writing workshops. At the large public universities I attended, they were an oasis of humanistic growth and communal support. I was able to develop my craft while also getting to know like-minded peers, some of whom have become lifelong friends.  I had not taken a workshop or had much time to write at all since graduating from my MA in Creative Writing program, but when the pandemic and the shutdowns started, I had a strong urge both to write and to seek out connections to my writer friends whom I had lost touch with. So, I organized a free, do-it-yourself online writing workshop over Google Meet this summer with friends and acquaintances I met on social media.

I learned from this experience that I didn’t need the official stamp of approval from a university to create a communal environment where peers could share their work with one another, receive feedback, and bond over the experience of writing during a pandemic. However, having participated in many types of writing workshops before, including university courses and weekend writing retreats, I can see that this type of do-it-yourself workshop is not a panacea. There are some things you just can’t replicate online, and there will be some missed insights when there is no established author in the room. Here are some of the pros and cons that I discovered from this experience.

Pros

  • It’s free. I have no objection to established authors and poets who make their living from writing workshops. It is only fair that the people who have the most expertise should be able to charge for it. But for people on a budget during a pandemic, like me and my friends, it’s a hard sell to pay several hundred dollars for a weeklong online workshop or to pay tuition at a university for a part-time creative writing program. I have paid for workshops in the past, and I think those workshops were absolutely worth the price, but I also think that banding together with your friends to create a writing group is also valuable because it is accessible to everyone who has the time to do it.
  • You can receive genuine feedback without external pressures of grades or competition. When I was teaching creative writing during grad school to undergraduates, one of things I liked the least about it was having to assign a letter grade to people’s creative writing. It left me with an icky feeling. I worried that I was just giving high grades to students who adhered to my literary aesthetic. In my online writing workshop, no one had to worry about pandering to the professor’s tastes because there is no professor. We also didn’t feel like we were competing for the favor of the professor or the institution, as grad students in MFA programs often must do to secure fellowships or book deals. We were genuinely interested in helping each other improve, and we could also be explicit about our vision of what we want our writing to accomplish. That way, we could give each other the feedback that we needed to steer ourselves in the direction we want to go. It’s more democratic, although it is not immune to the pitfalls of people’s tastes. I know the MFA workshop has been critiqued before for marginalizing writers of color and women because it prioritizes the perspective of the dominant culture in advising people what literature should sound like. Since all the people in my group are shaped by dominant American literary culture in one way or another, we probably still passed on some of those biases in our feedback. Nevertheless, I tried to establish at the beginning of the workshop that if someone objected to advice they are being given, even if it was a view shared by several people in the workshop, they were free to raise their objections or even to speak in their own workshop if they felt the need to.
  • Another major advantage to setting up your own workshop is being able to set your own rules and norms for the group collectively. At the first meeting of my writing workshop online we discussed what we thought should be the norms of our group and why. This probably should be a feature of most writing workshops, regardless of the setting and who is hosting them, but this was the first time I was in a workshop where I felt everyone had a voice in creating the agreements on how much people should submit and how often, whether the writer should be able to talk during their portion of the workshop, and how we would approach sensitive topics. I try to create community agreements like these with my high school students whenever we are having a discussion, so it felt natural to do so for the writing group as well. After having many writing professors who swear by certain aspects of the workshop and craft being inalienable, it was nice to have the flexibility to make our own decisions.
  • You have a reason to hang out with other writers once a week. Many of us writers are introverts, although, not all, but even for the introverted it can feel like a Godsend to have structured social time planned into your schedule. I have hardly socialized with anyone in person for 6 months. It was really rewarding to get to know some new acquaintances who joined my online workshop through friends of friends and to forge deeper connections with friends I’ve had for years who live far away.

Cons

  • Your workshop is only as good as the writers you invite into it. I wouldn’t recommend creating a DIY workshop to writers who have not participated in a writing workshop before in any setting. If there are a few less experienced writers in the group, you will probably be fine, but if you’re relying on your peers in the group to critique your writing, you need them to have some experience with creative writing and some knowledge of craft because you are relying on them for support. Alternatively, you could incorporate readings from a book on writing such as Fiction Writer’s Workshop by Josip Novakovich (an excellent resource, in my opinion) into your group to give you insight if everyone in the group is a beginner, but it wouldn’t be the same as having the mentorship of folks who have been in the writing world for a while.
  • Online meetings can feel awkward at times. By now, nearly everyone is familiar with the strange pauses that accompany online meetings, where you want to speak, but you’re not sure how to signal that you want to talk. You signal that you are ready to talk by turning on your mic, but then your sound and video are delayed for a few seconds, so by the time you start talking, someone else is speaking too. It’s harder to establish a rhythm when you’re discussing a piece in an online workshop, but using an online platform does have advantages as well. I’ve noticed that the chat function makes it easier for people to echo people’s ideas or express their enthusiasm without having to repeat phrases like, “I totally agree with what X said.”
  • There’s no incentive to revise unless you build it in to the workshop. In most of the workshops I’ve taken in an academic setting, the final grade for the class is based on a portfolio of your work that you submit to the professor during finals week containing some new writing and some revised work. This time, there are no grades to motivate me to revise my pieces, so I will probably leave my notes from the workshops in my notebook for a while before I return to them. Still, being in a writing community with others is motivating enough to overcome this hurdle. Reading other people’s work is invigorating, and hearing comments, both positive and negative, about my own writing is a powerful incentive to keep writing.

My summer workshop is over now, but I’m hoping that I can continue to cultivate writing partnerships with the folks who have been in my workshop so that we will hold each other accountable for continuing to work on our writing and our craft.