I’m excited to include David in this series because I know a lot of you guys are part-time freelancers, fitting your writing in around other jobs and projects, and he has an interesting take, plus some smart strategies for jumping around between different genres of writing.
Name: David Moscrop
Job Description: PhD candidate in political science at the University of British Columbia, freelance writer, consultant, bourbon aficionado, sometimes blogger at davidmoscrop.com.
Location: Up until recently, Vancouver, British Columbia; currently in transition back to Ontario and perhaps to Europe.
And here’s how Dave spends his days:
I generally avoid meetings and events as best I can, so I keep my days pretty clear. I’m not too consistent with how I spend my working time, so I don’t let the clock determine what I do or when I do it. Instead, I have a checklist system that lets me stay flexible while still getting my work done: as long as I spend some time working on a project, it doesn’t matter to me when I do so. That said, I do try to keep a rough order of daily events.
My daily “routine” unfolds over broad time spans instead of specific times. Also, if I really don’t feel like doing something that day, I don’t, but I do try to do most things on most days. When I spend more than an hour on something, I acknowledge that with a checkmark in a book in which I keep track of the days that I’ve met minimum work times. This only applies to weekdays, though. I do work on weekends, but there’s nothing even close to a pattern those days.
Morning: Sometime between 8 am and 12 pm I wake up, eat something that’s easy to prepare, make coffee, check e-mail and texts to see if anything is on fire, ignore most e-mails and texts, and then read whatever I feel like reading: essays if I’m curious, news if I feel like being despondent for the day, or maybe some novels or political non-fiction. Sometimes I play video games.
After an hour or two of that, I write fiction or essays or op-eds for about an hour and a half or two hours, depending on what I’m working on at the moment, either at home or at a coffee shop that I’ll walk to. I typically write long hand in a notebook, since this keeps my thinking to a manageable pace and forces me to really consider my options before I write or delete something: it’s easy to type nonsense or to push a ‘delete’ button, but takes a bit more effort to physically mark something down or scratch something out.
At this time during the day, I try my best to focus on one thing at a time, seeing it through to completion before I let my mind wander. I then spend a bit of time working on pitches. Check.
Early afternoon: After that I tinker with e-mails and texts for a bit, usually because the messages I receive are growing more frantic. I might do some errands or do some more leisure reading. If I do have some appointment, I try to make it for this time, since I’m more likely to actually keep the engagement if it’s after I’ve done some work, but before I’ve eaten lunch. Check.
Then I have lunch and watch some TV: usually American late-night shows from the previous night or listen to podcasts or some music while I cook.
Afternoon: After lunch, if I’m not injured (which is rarely), I go to the gym or run or swim. Occasionally I cycle, but I’m terrified of the traffic because, as a driver, I know that drivers are awful people when they drive. I’ve tried training for a few long-distance races over the course of the last three years (a half-marathon, a marathon, and a triathlon), and I’ve become injured each time. Eventually I recover and repeat the cycle. I’m at my best when I’m running though – nothing contributes to my creativity more than running, with the possible exception of a good conversation. Check.
Then I practice the guitar for 45 minutes. Check.
Late afternoon: Technically I’m a full-time PhD student, so I spend two to three hours each day working on my dissertation. I spend about half that time reading and the other half writing or editing. If I’m working on a related side project: an article or conference paper or some grading, I do that after my dissertation work is finished for the day. Check.
I also tend to be working on side projects, which I spend a bit of time on the late afternoon or early evening. In 2012, I drove from London, England to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia for an adventure charity rally known as the Mongol Rally. I spent a lot of time planning that. In 2014, I’m driving from Alaska to Argentina, so I make time to work on stuff like that.
Evening: Dinner. I eat out as often as not, but if I’m home and training and ambitious, I cook something healthy. But I prefer to go out to meet a friend or two for dinner. I eat a lot of sushi. I mean, obscene amounts.
Night: By now I’m probably meant to be at some event or engagement that I regret having agreed to attend. Most times I’ll try to find a way out, but I end up going slightly more often than not. If I don’t have anything to do, I’ll read more, maybe answer some more e-mails, or watch a movie or play video games. I often edit work for friends – they do the same for me – so this is when I do that if I haven’t already. Check.
Bed: I go to bed between 10:30 pm and 2 am, depending on the day. I can’t really predict when I’ll feel like sleeping, so that’s a big part of the reason my mornings can be so erratic. If I can’t sleep, I’ll get up and read a bit more, or watch something on Netflix that I’ll know will put me out.
VA: Give us the backstory: What inspired you to become a freelance writer and how long have you been doing this?
DM: I was once nearly suspended in elementary school for writing an “inappropriate” story. That was in response to the story starters the teacher had given us: those little paragraphs that are meant to get your mind going. I resented being told to build off someone else’s work. Anyway, they called in my mother, the principle, a counselor, and a priest to talk to me. That’s the moment I knew I loved writing.
But it wasn’t until 2011, when I had the worst year of my life, that I published for pay. At one point the year got so bad that I would joke that if it were written up as a novel the reader would say “Now, really, that’s a bit much isn’t it?” I was staying with my best friend in Ottawa and trying to get my head right, and I was bitching about how much awful work gets published. He and I had run a fairly successful long-form essay website for a while, and he had published elsewhere, but I hadn’t. Finally, he said to me that I should just shut up and try to write my own stuff, if I thought it was so much better than most of what was out there and I had something to say. I suspect he was more polite than that, but however he said it, it was motivating. I pitched that day, and was published (for money) shortly afterwards. I’ve been at it since then.
VA: What is your most favorite project or projects to date?
DM: Aside from my doctoral dissertation—which I take turns loving and hating—I’ve loved writing op-eds for the Ottawa Citizen. I’ve had the chance to work with two great editors there, and being an academic and a freelancer has given me a chance to satisfy two needs at once: to explore issues that are normatively important to me and to share my writing with a broader audience than my fellow academics.
Also, three of my good friends are also freelancers and we trade ideas and edits for one another. Working with them on my stuff and theirs has been rewarding and a ton of fun.
VA: Where do you get your story ideas?
DM: Out of the ether? It’s hard to say. Often enough it will be something that pisses me off. This is especially true of op-eds. I’ll be reading the news or I’ll overhear someone on the bus say something and I’ll think: well, I have to respond to that!
Other times, like with fiction, it will be something small and simple that ignites something in me and suddenly it’s like a world is born. I wrote a short story recently called the Eulogy. One of my family members was ill and I thought to myself: what would I do if I had to write a eulogy tomorrow? Then I imagined someone sitting down to struggle through that, trying to balance what was expected from them and what was true, and the story was born.
And then, of course, I always have family and friends saying: “you should write about…” Sometimes they’re on to something and I follow up.
VA: How often do you pitch stories? (Per week or per month or no set schedule?)
DM: I don’t have a set schedule because I’m a bit of a phony freelancer. Most of my income comes from my academic work, and I’m lucky to be very stable and fairly paid for that. But I have so many ideas and I love writing, so I try to pitch at least one smaller piece bi-weekly and one bigger one monthly. Since I don’t have to jump at every opportunity, I hold back a bit so that I can have time to work on my dissertation and so that I don’t add too much to a market that’s already over-saturated.
VA: How many assignments do you work on at once?
DM: I try my best to stick to one piece from each category that I’m interested in: my dissertation is omnipresent, then I’ll keep an op-ed near the top of the pile, then a fiction piece, and then something bigger like a magazine piece. I haven’t had much luck with magazines, but I haven’t pitched them all that often.
But I have to shift gears between pieces, even within the day. If I go from reading the news to working on a short story, I take time to prepare myself for writing fiction; if I’m writing a short story and then have to work on my dissertation, I need to take 30 minutes or so to get ready for that change. Otherwise everything I write ends up reading like nothing in particular. I really do think of it as shifting gears: you have to be in the appropriate space for the task you’re undertaking.
VA: Do you have a niche or do you consider yourself more of a generalist? (And why did you choose one or the other?)
DM: I’ve tended to write political pieces because that’s what I’m trained in and they come fairly easily to me. But my short stories are different. They’re quite general. I’ve also tried some travel writing and I’ve written news stories; I’ve even done interviews with artists and celebrities and such. But ultimately most of what I write is close to me, so I suppose whatever that makes me, I’m that.
VA: What is your favorite part of the job?
DM: I don’t want to offend real journalists or freelancers who really bust their ass by calling this my job. I do it part time because I love writing and I think I have something to say that, if I can be so bold, I think is worth reading. But I do get paid for my work. So I suppose that my favorite part is having a chance to reach an audience and to write about things I find interesting or important, but not having to take jobs I don’t want to take. I’m very lucky in that sense, because I know that it’s different for many other freelancers. That said, I don’t feel particularly lucky when I have to grade 50 identical essays in a week while also trying to write.
VA: What is the worst part of the job?
DM: Probably the rejection. I don’t mind rejection in and of itself—I genuinely don’t take it personally—but if I think a piece is strong and a good fit, and it doesn’t get picked up, then it’s disappointing. It’s especially frustrating if you disagree editorially with a publication you’ve submitted to, and think you might have been a better fit than what they’ve decided to run. But I’m sure every freelancer feels that way, kind of like how every prisoner in the pen is innocent.
VA: What do you wish you had known starting out, so you always make sure to tell other people?
DM: Whenever I’m procrastinating or doubting myself, I think of Robert Frost’s wonderful line from The Gift Outright:
“Something we were withholding made us weak/
Until we found out that it was ourselves.”
I wish I had known that what was holding me back during all the years I wanted to write but didn’t was me. Some people won’t be successful writers because they’re bad at writing; some, though I bet fewer than most would think, will be unlucky; but many will fail for lack of courage and conviction and effort. So I often tell friends and others who have some project they want to do that they should work hard to make sure that they aren’t holding themselves back; there are plenty of others who will try to do that. No need to assist them.
VA: What are you still trying to figure out about this writing business?
DM: Whether or not I want to do it full time. Some days I think of myself as a writer who works as an academic; other days I think of myself as an academic who moonlights as a writer. Doing both is not like having two meaningful and complementary relationships; it’s like having a wife and a mistress.
VA: Probably the two biggest fears about freelance writing that I hear are: How do you have enough discipline to work for yourself? And, how do you maintain any work/life balance when you work for yourself? So — what are your thoughts on these?
DM: I go back and forth on the discipline question. One month I might be training for a marathon, and the next I might be seeing how many Coors tallboys I can fit into my pockets while going from casino to casino in Las Vegas. Generally I just do what I want and minimize the noise. Most of us get an undetermined amount of time to live, but waste so much of it disciplining ourselves to fit some idea of who we should be and how we should work.
I’ve come to accept that I have to respect some amount of discipline so that I can eat and buy clothing and travel, but I give myself a wide berth when it comes to saying “Forget it, today I’m playing Skyrim until my eyes bleed.” Not everyone can do that, but I bet most can do it more than they currently do.
VA: Where do you see yourself, writing-wise, in five years?
DM: Probably I’ll be the greatest writer of all time, having written the book that saved civilization. But I’m bad at predicting.
At the very least, I’d like to have written a scholarly book and a novel, on top of my regular writing work.
VA: Who are your favorite writers right now?
DM: I’m a pretty conservative reader, actually. As I said, I tend not to like a lot of writing, and I hate feeling like I’m wasting my time, so when I find people I like, I read and then re-read them. I’m currently reading a lot of essays by Mark Slouka, David Sedaris, Christopher Hitchens, and Lewis Lapham. I’m also reading a great series of biographies of Ernest Hemingway by the late and great Michael Reynolds. And once I get home to Ontario I’m going to re-read The Count of Monte Cristo.
PS. Want to share your Day In the Freelance Life? Email it to me on virginiasolesmith [at] gmail [dot] com, subject: Day In the Freelance Life Submission. Try to follow this format and include a picture or two of yourself, your work environment, what have you.