Frank Hyman: Columnist Extraordinare

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One could call ASJA member Frank Hyman a fifth columnist but only in the most positive of ways. He actually does write five columns (see below) and while the pay may seem like chicken feed to some, for those who do the math – which he does – it amounts to quite a bit of scratch. He’s also got his first book, Hentopia: Create a Hassle-Free Habitat for Happy Chickens coming out from Storey Publishing late this year. Frank’s other site (and persona, one might say), may have ruffled some political feathers but not so much to prevent his essays and op-eds from being published and reprinted in newspapers in Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, Texas and elsewhere. Frank does a lot of other things too, which, although they may seem unrelated, actually kind of are.

You refer to yourself as “The Column Guy.” How does that work?  I have columns in four mid-sized national print magazines that run six times a year. This fifth one is different in that it’s online in a magazine’s e-newsletter and only runs four times a year. Pay averages between 20-75 cents a word, but because I don’t have to do research or interviews I can make between $100-150 or more an hour. Occasionally I’m also repurposing material from a decade ago for which I already have the rights. None were originally put online and most of them cover specialized markets and topics. They include two columns for a food magazine (on growing veggies organically for their e-newsletter and on foraging for the print publication); high-dollar crops for a farming magazine; cheap food options for a backyard chicken-keeping magazine; and tips about funky, time/money-saving options with containers and houseplants for a gardening magazine.

However, I make sure that each new article is an improvement over the earlier ones. While 80 to 85 percent is an update of the basic material, I also work toward improving and sharpening the language and metaphors and adding additional details and humor. I’d like to think I’m a better writer than I was ten years ago.

You wrote an article for The New York Times, titled “I Make a Living from My Hobbies.”  Please explain! I have what I like to call a broad portfolio. When I became self- employed about 25 years ago, I decided to settle down in Durham [NC] and get paid for my hobbies, which were then gardening, politics, and writing. So I began writing freelance articles for an alternative weekly newspaper, started a gardening business, cut off my ponytail and ran for City Council – and won. Since then I’ve expanded into sculpture, photography and mushroom foraging for restaurants. I was fortunate in that Durham is fairly upper-middle class and there’s a need for these services.

The growing interest in keeping backyard chickens resulted in my book Hentopia, an easy and low-cost system for maintaining them.  I’m also thinking of doing spin-off books on some of my other topics as well. I also teach classes and do lectures and videos on gardening and other subjects.

What about your political site? How does that tie in?

My father grew up on a tobacco farm and like his six brothers, only had an eighth grade education. He met my mother at Parris Island, SC where they were both sergeants in the Marine Corps. The first three years of my life we lived in a trailer park outside Beaufort, SC. A lot of the people I grew up with still live in trailer parks or otherwise work hard for little money. So when I’m engaged in a political campaign, I’m thinking about whether they and folks like them will be the ones to benefit from my work.

I’ve played a wide range of political roles—elected official, campaign manager, community organizer, neighborhood activist, campaign consultant, fundraiser, grant writer, journalist, and essayist. My leadership in successful campaigns that beat the odds has been very satisfying and I like sharing what I’ve learned. Hence my interest in helping people with speech writing, essay writing, campaigns for candidates, issues or referenda or even policy analysis.

What advice would you give to writers?

There’s no sense in competing as a generalist. Find the specific topics you love to write about and let your geek flag fly. Despite the fact that people are bemoaning the death of print, there are still something like 1400 different magazines. And many of the specialty magazines pay, especially if you get a column and build a base of material that you can repurpose and update. Once you get one or two columns you can then market yourself as a columnist.

Once a particular topic has run its course, go ahead and pitch it to another publication, with an eye to continually improving it and making it even more original. However, if possible avoid having your articles put online by editors and try to retain all the rights.

You also need to be organized and come with a system where you can easily locate multiple subjects. Most of us do this online, so make sure to back up your data. Technology isn’t perfect; the IT people it only think it is.

Have you signed up for the NYC conference? Get your spot today! Over just two days, you’ll find useful advice to take your career and your writing to the next level. And mark your calendar for Client Connections lottery May 2-7. You must be registered for the conference to enter the lottery.