Writing Out of My Depth: Why You Should Challenge Yourself Professionally

this image is from Flickr User brendahallowes

Today is the last day I’m writing at Adotas.  My (incredibly brainy) friend from college, Brian LaRue, is Managing Editor there, and he posted on facebook last weekend that he would be taking a week off, and needed a fill-in writer.  Adotas’s subject matter is technology and marketing.  I offered my services post haste.

I may be a bit better informed than the average end user, but I’d position my know-how at the top of the bottom tier of tech-savvy.

So writing for adotas was challenging.  Even when writing about the changes in TV Marketing.  Also, it’s really hard to be interesting in jargon.

I am an artist.  Writers are.  People forget that, I think.

A thing about being an artist who practices writing is that I’m curious.  About everything.  So I spent my week learning terms like pre-roll and verticals and SQI and exploring concepts of which I had, really, peripheral awareness, like the role of analytics and how ad-based marketing and branding are changing.  I looked up a lot of initialisms, too.  That world slaps initialisms on everything.    And I loved it.  It was like being 22 again: looking out over a vast expanse of possibility and the unknown, and recognizing that there is so much I don’t know, will never know.

So yeah, it was harder than it strictly needed to be, but it’s really important to step out of your comfort zone once in a while.

Here’s Why

1.  Diversity in work history is good.  Employers look favorably on people who are willing to do or learn what the job demands, regardless of their expertise or experience.

2.  Learning new stuff feels good.  It’s good for your brain and your self-confidence.

3.  When you challenge yourself professionally, you remember that the world extends beyond your purview.

4.  You get to meet new people who you would never meet in any other context.  I talked on the phone with the CEO of Share This. While he was on a plane. How cool is that?

5.  As an artist or other sort of creative person, stepping outside of your comfort zone demonstrates your ability and desire to make unexpected solutions, and it can also help your potential clients or employers think creatively about how to put you to use.

6.  Getting your name in front of more people is always positive.  When you step outside of your zone, you position yourself for relationships or clients you wouldn’t have had access to otherwise.

7.  You refresh your awareness of your own resourcefulness.  The ultimate death blow in any career is comfort and stasis.  Especially in our world that is constantly changing and being niggled into unfamiliar spaces by technology and its capabilities.

8.  It reminds you how to admit you’re fallible and how to ask for help and where to look for help you can give yourself.

How about you?  Any great stories from stepping outside of your expertise?  Any other reasons to do so?

Is Fake Journalism Viable as a Career? Methinks Nope.

I took this picture at a hospital on a freelance project.

My journalism studies stopped abruptly after my first semester of college when I realized that my true love is fiction & writing it.  So after–or perhaps it was during–my second semester, I did a ninety degree turn and switched from Journalism to English with a Creative Writing concentration.

I spent most of the glorious next four years swimming in the ocean of literature, criticism, contemporary fiction, and writing.  I dropped the Oxford Comma habit, then picked it up again when I ditched MLA for Chicago Manual.

Now, ten years later, I find myself as a practicing journalist.  Would those lovey journalism professors I scorned during my energetic and immersed first year of college be proud of me, or would they think I’m a poser?  I feel like a poser.

I write hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of words each week for newspapers and magazines, and am in hot pursuit of more of this work using my trusty manual, Writer’s Market, and the online service, too. These are invaluable for the freelance writer.

And while all of the editors I work with seem to esteem me and my work somewhere between pleased and just-glad-to-have-a-reliable-freelancer, I keep finding and being offered more of this work, so I must be doing something right.

The jargon eludes me sometimes (though I cheat), and there are many aspects of AP Style that strike me as particularly un-stylish.

I’m kind of devastated by the realities of the print media business, and I am knees-deep in something that feels, in many ways, to be almost dead.  Rasping halted breaths after the world wide web and free content bludgeons it, print media is living paycheck-to-paycheck.

Nobody is paid well enough (especially not freelancers), and in the barren economic environment–or in the failure of print media to adequately prepare for and adapt to new media–the dearth of analysis and criticism that print media can afford its subjects contributes to the general disregard for critical thinking that is all too prevalent.

Still, I love talking to people and learning new stuff.  I love to do research and procure a working understanding of new topics.  And for the Williamsport Sun-Gazette (that I’m not linking here because every time you open their website, you get popups from Publisher’s Clearing House or Netflix), I get to talk to artists and musicians primarily, and I’ve met some excellent people, and learned about some groovy new tunes.  I’ve also talked to some Broadway celebs and authors I admire or respect.

But, I live in Williamsport, PA.  And while there’s tons of stuff that’s happening here that’s amazing, it’s not New York, Chicago, LA, or even Nashville.  We get d-list celebrities and Glenn Beck. Besides which, freelancers for small-town newspapers don’t really get to talk to the national acts (which is totally understandable and I am NOT complaining), and even when I do get to talk to national acts, it’s not like they’re folks who’re up-and-coming.  American Songwriter probably doesn’t want a piece about Foghat.  And the two pitches I’ve made for singer/songwriters that I thought would work there have been handily ignored.  (Again, not complaining.  Rejection is a reality of a career as a writer)

And in this huge Wildcat Comic Con project, I’m meeting even more cool people and learning even more cool stuff.  Ditto my podcasting for Billtown Blue Lit.  And these are up-and-comers.  So I’m hoping to mine a goodly number of pitches from this work.

But I find myself wondering why I expend so much energy and get paid so poorly (or not at all) when the likelihood that this work (or more of it) will still be available for me in even two years is slim.  Staff writers are more-or-less a thing of a bygone age, with staff writers having made a laborious transition to being called editors and getting paid less to do more work, so I don’t delude myself.  I am an apprentice to an industry that won’t be able to provide for my retirement.

So I mostly view this work as personal enrichment, and building a solid base of published pieces that I can leverage into better-paying gigs, plus writing practice because (say it with me), All Writing Is Writing Practice!

(I am also considering applying to graduate school again.  Don’t tell Penelope.)

Too, I’m getting my name into the world, on the internet, and the more people who know about me, who see my name in conjunction with things they enjoy, the greater my odds of being offered freelance writing work of any stripe.

But Penelope says that when you’re in your 30s, you have to stop doing work that people in their 20s do. I feel like I’m doing what I should’ve done the moment I earned my degree, and the realities of efficiency and the limited number of hours each day means that honoring this low-paying work while pursuing better-paying writing jobs is a tightrope walk between self-torture and -affirmation.

And I get Writer’s Digest, and I read blogs about freelancing, writing, media, and personal/professional development. I learn more about how to freelance as a writer every day.  So maybe I’m doing everything right? Or maybe I should just keep on keeping on and quit worrying so much over the theory.

Anybody care to weigh in?  I’d love to know what you think.  I approve all comments, even if I think they’re wrong, unless they are decidedly trollish.