And here is the second installment of notes from my presentation for the Society of Writers, Editors and Translators on the business side of being a freelance writer in Japan (the first is here: This time, it’s about vetting clients and assignments and some general thoughts on doing the job.


Are you interested? Does the assignment tick your boxes?
Ok, at the outset of a freelance career we might not have the luxury of being extremely selective about who we work with or what we work on. That’s all (well, mostly) good experience. But, my best work comes when I’m interested, when I’m being paid enough to give sufficient time to do my best, and when I work with people I at least respect (and ideally like). There can always be exceptions (such as doing an assignment purely for fun or as a favour for a friend), but if ALL those boxes aren’t ticked, I typically say no. Even if you aren’t in a position to be that selective, can you at least make sure you tick some of your boxes? It might not seem like it sometimes, but there’s a ton of work out there. There are always plenty more fish in the sea. You can say no.

Are you a fit for the editor and their work style?
I like projects that take their time. I like naps. I work hard, but I also like neglecting work for a day or two. I like work-free holidays. I don’t check email every day. I’m not a good fit for an editor that likes constant communication or super quick responses. That kind of editor isn’t a bad thing at all, they just aren’t for me. If an editor gets in touch to discuss an assignment and wants to know if I can be on Skype in the next hour or if I can talk on a weekend morning, then they have the wrong person. We have different paces to our work lives. For my own sanity (and theirs) that usually means I politely decline the assignment.

Why I avoid vague editors

If you want to avoid the misery of a rewrite, you need a brief. Sometimes an editor gets in touch with a very concrete idea. Great. You can follow that to the letter. You could suggest tweaks. Either way, you’ll both know what the goal is BEFORE you start writing. Some editors say they aren’t sure how to focus a piece (quite common when they don’t know Japan very well), but are keen to work with you to define something before the writing starts. That’s great, too.

Some editors, however, have wishy-washy ideas about, “A story on Tokyo in 1,000 words. Anything is ok.” Thing is, once they see the piece they have given you free rein to work on, it’s not uncommon to hear, “I was hoping for a different focus”. That and the rewrite that follows can easily be avoided. However, if a publication isn’t willing to take the time to develop a firm outline (and it only takes an email or two), I’d pass on the assignment.

Other red flags.

First, there’s poorly written email. This will sound very anal on my part, but an editor is someone I am trusting with my work, which will have my name on it. If they keep getting my name wrong (“Hi Ross! Thanks Roger!”) or if their correspondence is rife with poor English usage and PR-like business speak, that for me is a large red flag about the quality of the publication. Then there are impersonal inquiries. Casual is absolutely fine for me (I prefer “Hey Rob!” to the creepily formal “Dear Rob Goss”), but not impersonal. You know that you are one of ten people that have been contacted and the first to reply will get the assignment. Call it foolish pride, but that’s not happening. If you choose to respond, chances are someone else has the gig by the time you do so. That’s time wasted. And evasive editors are another turn off. Professionals discuss both the creative and business side of an assignment at the outset, but I often get contacted by editors who are coy about contract conditions and fees. From my experience that has almost always ended up meaning that after discussing the story (and maybe providing an outline) they spring a horror of a contract offer, a fee that either wouldn’t cover an hour’s work or something else that means the assignment is an obvious no-go. When an editor can’t or doesn’t provide basic business info upfront, I now say no.


Take advice/wisdom with a pinch of salt
On beginner forums you hear all sorts of “truths” repeated about how to be successful and how to deal with editors, etc. Some editors will also give you self-serving advice about such things as the benefits of working for nothing to gain experience (at their publication!). Again, nonsense. And what some unscrupulous publications will try and tell you is “industry standard”, in many cases isn’t. They might still be worth doing a one-off story with to get a clipping and build your portfolio, but don’t believe everything you hear from people in the industry. If another writer tells you it’s impossible to make a living, that’s a no too. Impossible for them doesn’t mean impossible for you.


Keep simple, but accurate records
Record the pitches you’ve sent to keep track and know when to follow up. Do the same for stories sold, with a note of the rights you own or have sold (the easiest person to accidentally plagiarize is yourself). Keep track of who has paid and who hasn’t. Of course, track your income and who is/isn’t withholding tax for you. Make a list of publications you want to target and those who you know are open to ideas. It’s all quick and easy to do, but it makes marketing easier and tax returns, too.


Be nice, be helpful
If an assignment is offered to you but it’s not your thing, suggest someone else for it. Maybe tell the publication to check out the SWET member’s list. If another writer or photographer asks for a contact at a publication, share it. What have you got to fear? If another writer asks for advice, help if you can. We are all in it together. If you are offered a contract with (by your standards) a risible fee, politely say no – spare the poor editor a lecture, as their budget probably isn’t his/her fault. When you are on the wrong end of a bad edit, take deep breaths, calm the inner diva, and be polite and professional (and firm, if needed) with your response. When a gig is over, email an editor to say thanks. Do likewise when a payment comes. The list here could go on and on. Maybe it breeds good karma, but more than anything it keeps you positive.


Enjoy it
Even dream jobs have stresses, and the business of writing is no exception. You sometimes have to deal with a deadbeat client that keeps “losing” your invoice. You might get the occasional unpleasant editor (usually afflicted with big fish in small pond syndrome). Deadlines can pile up, and then work can run dry for a week. But to make a living as a writer is a joy. To travel for work, to play with words, to create things, to meet all sorts of people, to be one’s own boss, to have the flexibility to always be able to put family first, to build a work schedule around playing in the park and doing the school run, to work in your underpants (just not during a Zoom, please), to avoid rush hour, to be able to fire deadbeat clients without worry, to schedule afternoon naps with your dog, and to do and benefit from many other things makes being a freelance writer something worth jumping out of bed for every morning.