After a round of layoffs from media company Vox, Racked’s now-former shopping director Tiffany Yannetta found herself out of a job. With her severance package as a cushion, she embarked on full-time freelance work that includes writing copy for Italian shoe brand M.Gemi and stories for New York magazine and GQ, among other publications. Yannetta sat down with She Spends to share her best practices for running your own business, why being nice is important and the email habit she’s trying to break. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
An unexpected layoff is scary. How did you establish your freelancing business so quickly and know you can make rent?
As far as money goes, I’ve met many other freelancers who have some sort of financial situation that supports their creative pursuits. Some may be married. For me, it would be very different if I was married and had two incomes. In lieu of that, what I've done is take on editing projects and consulting-type things that’s a little more reliable. I charge per week and I tally that up to know that I can pay rent and have enough leftover to live. The writing is the fun stuff I do on top of it, knowing that’s money I won’t be “living off of” but it’ll be coming in on a rolling basis and that will be my spending money.
How do you figure out your rate?
I have a $250 minimum that I won’t work below, and that was really important to tell myself, because it can be very tempting to want to pick up work, but you will spend more time chasing down these small little payments than it’s worth. Granted, I’m a little bit more senior so I feel like I can do that, but if I was just starting out it would be a little different. I just made a hard and fast rule. It’s only just because I know myself and I’m better at bigger, longer projects than a million small things. Some people like a million small things and you can just fire them off, so you need to figure out what you want. For me, it was figuring out my limit.
Some industries, like media, are notorious for making freelancers hunt their checks down. How do you know how much money you’ll clear each month?
If you can have any sort of cushion, that’s really helpful because a lot of places won’t pay until you’ve been published. If you spend two weeks working on a story, filing it, editing it, waiting for it to be published, and the place pays in 45 days, you’re looking at two months. If you can start with a cushion, that’s preferable. You can start doing the work so when your cushion runs out you’ll have streams of income coming in. I would tell people to look for streams that are steady. You just have to be in charge of making the right calls. Maybe this project is a little boring, but this project is going to pay me $X per week, so you just do it. A lot of freelancers do branded content, copywriting — anything you could do for a brand is great because they have more money and you can charge them more money because it’s advertising. It will always pay better than editorial.
OK, so you’ve pitched stories to editors or brands and they’ve agreed to your rates. Are you signing contracts to guarantee when that money comes in?
Before you do any kind of project, whether it’s freelancing writing or a permalance-type situation, you're going to have paperwork to fill out. It’s some standard agreement for the reader and tax stuff, like a W-9 form. Contracts are very important because it details all the work you're doing for this project. For GQ I was doing small shopping stories. Do I ever want to turn those into a book? No. Do I want to repurpose them elsewhere? No.
If I were to do feature writing or an essay, you really need to read your contracts because you want to figure out who has the rights to your work. In many instances, the company retains the rights. If you want to have it published elsewhere one day or write it in a book, or someone wants to turn that into a movie... these are all high in the sky-type things, but definitely worth knowing when you go into a project what you want to be able to hold onto. In some instances, you can try to negotiate rights with people, which is why many people want to sign term sheets before they start.
Is a term sheet different than a contract?
Yeah, a contract says: You the writer are agreeing to do work for the company; you will be paid in X amount of days after. It explains how you get paid and who retains the rights. A term sheet is by assignment. I, the editor, commission you, the writer, to write this specific assignment for this specific dollar amount. You can sign a contract for one company and then sign 20 term sheets. The contract is what has the meat and potatoes that you’re agreeing to. This gets more in depth with photographers.
A lot of places will have non-competes, where you won’t write about the same subject for anyone else. I had to talk to my editor at GQ and say, I write about shopping. I need it in writing that I can write about shopping elsewhere, and they’re happy to do it. Just read your contracts. It also gives you a realistic expectation of when you’ll get paid.
As a former editor, what are some things you’ve learned from making the switch to freelancing?
A lot of that is answering emails promptly. I had a really bad habit of addressing less important emails first because they were easier to knock off and get rid of my inbox, like PR pitches. I would leave freelance emails to later in the day, and of course that would mean the next day, because those required more mental bandwidth to read through thoroughly, respond thoughtfully, do edits, all this stuff. I was shooting myself in the foot because I was doing work that really didn’t matter as much and not prioritizing the work that did actually matter. As a freelancer, I’m realizing how frustrating it can be to have conversations over email over the span of a week, two weeks, that could be done on the phone. That’s one thing I learned that I really don’t want to do again as an editor.
When I pitch other editors now, I usually write a whole email and I go through it and think: What can I cut from this? What can I make tighter? What can I get to the point quicker on? Editors are so busy. I would open my email so many times at Racked and see five paragraphs and say, Whoa, saving this for later! Being as tight as possible. I’ve also asked to get on the phone with people because it’s faster – once you get the point of the pitch being accepted.
Promptly editing and publishing makes a huge difference. Obviously every editor cannot always control the publication schedule, but I am so grateful for the editors who have edited me quickly after I filed.
How valuable is it to keep in touch with your former coworkers or other people in the industry?
I cannot stress enough how important it is to be a nice person in life because it’s not only the right thing to do but because it also pays. I tried to be as kind as possible to interns and freelancers and people who were junior to me. People really appreciate it and remember it. I’m proud that I can call on people I’ve met in the industry for work. It’s a two-way street: You ask people for help and you give help when people ask you. There’s nothing sleazy about networking, like asking someone if you can take them out to coffee.
Is there a line freelancers should be mindful of not crossing? What has bothered you when you were an editor and how do you apply that to your freelancing now?
It’s genuineness, and people can tell when you’re genuine or not. I always like when writers ask to meet. When people understand that your time is valuable and limited and express that, coffee is the easiest thing because you can basically do it in 20 minutes. I’m always very happy when freelancers ask to do coffee, especially when they say 'I can come by your office.' That’s really appreciative.
My friend is a freelancer down in Atlanta, and she was here in New York a couple of months ago and was meeting all of her editors. She came to our offices; it was the first time we met in real life and now we’re text friends. Just asking people to meet, but taking the time to talk about real life things other than what you’re trying to get from them. It’s all part of the same thing, but we’ve built out a rapport; I know and you know that we want things from each other professionally. It’s being genuine and being human.
You want to be conversational and casual, but you don’t want to cross a line. I’ve known other writers who have done this to editors, where they forget this is still a business relationship and transactional in some way. You can’t miss a deadline because your cat is sick. You still need to deliver even if you become close with this person. You can’t let yourself become overly comfortable to allow yourself to be rude.
--Amanda Eisenberg, She Spends Issue 49