A couple of days ago, I did a radio interview on local Catskills radio station WIOX regarding writing and the life of a writer. It got me thinking about my journey here, especially my journey from filmmaker to freelance writer. On the surface these career paths seem very different. They are in some ways… but in many ways they’re also similar.
As I’ve mentioned before, filmmaking requires a lot of:
Freelance writing generally requires less of these things. There are exceptions. For example, the team of Boston Globe reporters depicted in the current movie Spotlight spent over a year writing multiple stories about the Boston church sex scandal. But for the average reporter or freelance writer working on a routine story, most assignments are handled solo with a relatively quick turnaround and require minimal equipment.
Traditional filmmaking and television also require:
- many levels of approval before the public sees the product
- many levels of collaboration and interpretation along the way
Journalism and freelance writing require approval and collaboration but on a smaller scale. As a freelance writer, I am usually dealing only with one person – my editor. The editor deals with his/her bosses, and they have to deal with the publisher, etc. But the chain of command is smaller than let’s say… network television.
This also means that your writing goes through less filters, whereas in Hollywood, once you turn in a script, it’s read by dozens of people. Even if you’re directing your own script, you usually have to answer to a lot of people before the final film hits the big screen.
Then there’s a little thing called THE TRUTH.
Filmmaking is by its very nature a recreation, presentation and interpretation of truth (even films based on true stories, or documentary films). A lot of folks would disagree on the effectiveness of journalism to present the “truth” (in the form of facts), but I think we can all agree that, in an ideal world, journalism is not supposed to be “make believe.”
Now… for the similarities between filmmaking and journalism/freelance writing:
- Both are about STORY. At the core of all media – whether film, radio, television, print, digital or what have you – we’re all just trying to tell a good story. And the way we go about it is the same, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, by organizing and structuring the material into something that has conflict, interesting characters, a beginning, middle and end.
- Both start with a pitch. A pitch is selling the idea for the story before you write it. In film, the pitch usually happens in a face-to-face meeting with an executive. In freelance writing, it usually happens via email to an editor. In essence, though, it’s the same (nerve-wracking) process: we present what the story is, why it’s important to tell now, why it’s right for this particular venue, and why we’re the right person to tell it. Then we wait for the Yay or Nay.
You have to be visual. Obviously, film is visual. But these days digital news media includes just as much video and/or photographs as print. Even when its straight print, we have to paint a picture with words… we have to show, not just tell, the reader what’s going on.
- You have to HUSTLE. I don’t know any successful filmmaker or freelance writer who doesn’t hustle his/her ass off, or didn’t start that way. You can’t be timid or shy or wait for things to happen. You have to put yourself out there 100%. I find myself being even more aggressive as a freelance writer than I was as a filmmaker exactly because everything rests on my shoulders. I’m also new to the field and need to build my portfolio and relationships with editors. So, my inclination is to say YES to almost everything (unless the pay isn’t worth it), and to literally push myself forward. It’s a little daunting, but also exhilarating.
- You need strong communication skills. While it’s true freelancing is a more solo experience than filmmaking, you still have to be able to talk to people… and get them to talk to you. In a sense, you have to build instant trust and be able to communicate (in other words listen, not just talk). I find this very similar to being a documentary filmmaker, as well as directing actors (which is all about listening).
- You learn by doing more than anything else. Filmmaking and freelance writing are both professions one can learn and excel at without a formal education. It might be more challenging, but it’s possible. The more you do it, the more you study on your own, and the more you study others, the better you get.
- You have to negotiate. I was never comfortable negotiating as a filmmaker. My attitude was “that’s what producers and lawyers are for.” Well, now I’m on my own. So, if I want more money, I have to ask for it! And I do. And I get more money. Even if I get $50 or $100 more, it helps. Am I making big bucks yet? No. But I’m inching my way up, and with every negotiation (every story, really), I gain confidence.
- Time is money. You’re never more aware of this than when on a film set. The longer things take, the more chance you’ll fall behind in the schedule and go over budget (not good). As a freelance writer, you’re working for yourself and generally getting paid a fixed rate ( per story, or per word). So, the more time you spend on a story, the less you’re getting paid per hour. As a newbie, things take me a lot longer than people who have done this for years. But every story I write, I try to beat my “record.” Practice, practice, practice.
- You have to market yourself. Marketing is literally the difference between people seeing your film, or not… and getting work as a freelance writer, or not. Neither profession happens in a vacuum. You’ve got to connect with others and shout your accomplishments from the rooftops!
- Less is more. In film and in freelance writing, the more you can say with less, the better. There are time constraints in the former, and word/space constraints in the latter. The ability to be succinct is key.
I’m sure there are more similarities and differences, but that’s all I can think of now.
Hope it provides some perspective!