Bankruptcy Blues

One woman, three cancers, and a cash crunch

Julie White

Julie White
Ohio, USA
June 16
writer, editor, dreamer-in-chief
After careers in teaching and librarianship, as well as a stint at editing, I jumped ship to become a freelance writer. I have worked primarily in educational publishing. In 2009, I took a part-time job at a library, trying and failing to make ends meet. Bankruptcy followed. I'm using a pseudonym, because I have to write about money or the lack of it, trying to make sense of my life as an educated, underemployed, aging woman sliding into poverty status.


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APRIL 27, 2012 9:03AM

Just a Freelancer, Trying to Get to First Base

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No, I am not talking about steaming up the car windows of an old Chevy, but of a much less pleasant task—getting paying work as a freelance writer. Compared to making it to home plate as a freelancer, even the insecurities and agonies of junior high pale.

            Assuming one has no prior relationship with a company, but just finds an ad on Craigslist or Freelance Writers or Bookbuilders of Boston, getting to first base is problematic. Each ad for a writer in the education business generates thousands of responses; lots of hungry writers, formerly employed by companies that no longer exist (Scott Foresman, anyone? Silver Burdett? Harcourt Brace Jovanovich?) with excellent connections, are vying for work. Many of them are younger and can navigate the increasing complexities of electronic formats. I don’t do HTML. I don’t even remember what it means, though I do have the skills to look it up. The fact that I know terms like accusative case, indefinite pronoun reference, and past pluperfect tense merely indicate that I am—as a former colleague refers to herself—a dinosaur.

            But let us suppose one does get to first base—an editor or hr person responds to my cover letter and resume. (I think it’s a fairly decent resume, now that I’ve been doing this more than a decade, but again, there are people out there with better credentials than mine.) Now it’s tricky, because second base requires more than a resume. Please send a sample of previous work; pass this writing or editing test. Many a runner strikes out here, with no further word from the company that requested samples. It crosses my mind that they just wanted three sample assessment items without having to pay for them—get enough chumps to write to their specs, and they have a completed project at no writer-cost. Not everyone is that cynical, but I’ve gotten there.

            Completing the actual work itself entails third base. A packet arrives, either via hard copy or e-files; guidelines, samples, templates, and a contract may be included. The contract must be signed before a writer can invoice, except of course in cases where one sees the contract only after the project has been completed. Not to worry. Contracts uniformly exist to protect the person known as the corporation, not actual person needing to pay for housing, health insurance, and food, the writer. In any case, the company can ignore items such as the date by when the writer will be paid, despite stipulating in the contract that it will be thirty days—or forty-five days, or sixty days—after the work has been deemed satisfactory. One waits for a word of praise or revision needed, and generally waits in vain. Not a lot of chatter in the outfield—editors are processing work so fast that they have no time to nurture a writer. The first time I was let go from a project, it was after a single revision that wasn’t what the client wanted. There would be no time for second revision writers. Plenty of writers are just waiting for a chance to show what they can do in one perfect first draft.

            The writer runs to complete the task and turn it in, rounding for home. Just touching home plate, however, does not guarantee anything in terms of prompt payment. When one works, as I often do, for developers rather than the publishing companies themselves, payment can be delayed by The Client. Said major publishing company may neglect to pay the developer on time, and developers do not have escrow accounts to pay the writers and editors they’ve contracted to do the work. Although we do not generally get our names on our work, we do hope to get paid. Sometimes that doesn’t happen. I’ve been lucky—made to wait, but never stiffed, as some writers and editors have been when a developer goes under.

            So one waits at home plate for the editor submit the invoice, or to have someone in IT unscramble the online program that was supposed to have automatically created an invoice. These little things can stretch the contractual month or two by another few weeks, especially if the writer assumes that all is well.

            Sadly, my insurance company doesn’t want to play this game. It doesn’t understand that The Client didn’t pay the developer, who hasn’t paid me, more than two months after the work was submitted. After an enquiring e-mail, I was finally allowed to know when I might expect a check—three months after the invoice was submitted, if all went well, despite the contract that stipulated sixty days.

There is no point in saber-rattling noises about breach of contract or lawsuits. What freelancers are paid is so paltry that suing for the sum would consume the entire amount or more. There is also no umpire or commissioner of freelancing, although there is a union with no teeth. How could it be otherwise? We are a geographically diverse lot; I sit here in the heartland, waiting for payment from a company I’ve never visited and people I’ve never met working for companies based in Boston, Orlando, Chicago. I couldn’t participate in a sit-down strike if I wanted to. Besides, I’m up to bat again, having just swung at a new pitch. Next week, I begin another project, sans contract, but as hopeful as a rookie at spring tryouts.

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Geez...Is one good semester away from graduating with a degree in Professional Technical Writing too late to start drinking? Alas, I am hearing your pain echoed from a lot of writers/editors. And it stinks. But this dinosaur has seen mass extinctions before...And I don't think the way things are is the way things are going to stay...I just don't think writing/publishing is done evolving as a field in this brave new techworld-- even if a lot of us are missing body parts now... Question is, are there enough hot dogs in your ballpark to wait it out? I'm not sure for myself, but I do know I don't intend to be caught napping. This dino will go out with techies and invoices in her talons...that and a chili dog with everything on it dripping from her fangs.