‘Freelancing Sucks’: A Texas-Sized Whopper

Randy Dotinga

Independent writers are used to being disrespected. It goes with the territory, along with all those jibes about wearing pajamas all day. (They’re comfortable, dang it!) But while we’re often treated like second-class citizens of JournalismLand, a new commentary titled “Freelancing Sucks” replaces this month’s visions of sugar-plums with a sweaty mug of Rodney Dangerfield.

The headline isn’t the most annoying part, nor the implication that freelancers are “cheap, disposable labor” who put up with “crumbs” and often produce shoddy copy. No, worst of all is how Fast Company senior editor Reyhan Harmanci thinks freelancing is akin to making a miserable trip to Abilene, Texas, when nobody actually wants to go there.

That’s low. Lower than my respect for the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard‎ for refusing to run a rebuttal to Harmanci’s misleading commentary this week. But back to Abilene.

It may be the 27th most populous city in Texas, according to Wikipedia, but the second item that pops up in a Google search has nothing to do with its famous natives like Jessica Simpson or landmarks like the gothic Church of the Heavenly Rest. No, Google thinks something called the “Abilene paradox” is more important.


Are We Back From There Yet?

The Abilene paradox is a parable about the perils of groupthink. It goes like this: A family is lounging around on a scorching day in Coleman, Texas, when a man’s father-in-law has a great idea: How about we all drive to Abilene for ice cream?

Sure, says the man’s wife. That would be nice. The man doesn’t really want to take that two-hour drive to Abilene in an ancient Buick without air conditioning, but he’s not willing to rock the boat. So he goes along with the plan. So does his mother-in-law.

And away they go to Abilene.

It’s a terrible drive for terrible food. When everyone gets back home, the blame game begins. Whose knuckleheaded idea was this? The father-in-law says he’d have been happy playing dominoes but just brought up the idea in passing. Everybody else went along to go along and avoid disappointing anyone. Never mind that nobody really wanted to hit the road.

“We’d done just the opposite of what we wanted to do,” writes a management professor named Jerry Harvey who introduced the parable in 1974 and put himself in the story in the role of son-in-law.


‘All Parties Know They Hate It’

Harmanci, who declares that “everyone knows” that “freelancing sucks,” suggests that we’re all stuck on that horrible trip to Abilene: Poorly paid independent writers, editors who are frantic to find reliable freelancers, and readers stuck with poor stories from harried journalists. “All parties know they hate it,” she writes, “but they still get on board anyways.”

She must not know many successful freelancers. I do: I’m president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, a 1,200- member association of professional independent writers. Hundreds of our members love their careers and don’t want staff jobs. In many cases, they quit working full-time for newspapers or magazines because they prefer the freedoms that comes with independence.

Take me, for instance. (But make sure to give me back.) After about a decade in newspapers, I began life as a full-time independent writer in 1999. For the last 15 years, every dime I’ve made has come from freelance writing.

Despite its frustrations, freelancing has been enormously fulfilling. It’s allowed me to travel the country, get paid to write about my passions and treat my ADHD by giving me 10 beats in one. And a diverse list of clients has provided me more financial stability than I’d ever have at a staff job. Countless self-employed people in countless other professions have similar stories.


Road Trip!

At the end of her commentary, Harmanci takes back her bold statement about the inherent suckiness of freelancing and suggests –  crazy talk! – that some independent writers might actually like what they’re doing: “there will always be people who love freelancing – and occasions when freelance or contract work is mutually beneficial.”

Yes, happy freelancers do exist. Maybe she doesn’t hear from us much because we’re the ones “juggling gigs, with their time spoken for” who turn down her requests for copy.

Many independent writers juggle something else: Devotion to their colleagues and our cause. At ASJA, our members devote thousands of hours a year to teaching all writers – members and non-members – how to succeed.

Thanks to ASJA, freelancers are avoiding the hazards of predatory publishers, money-grubbing content mills and wicked contracts. They’re understanding the value of networking and connections. And they learning how to advocate for writer rights in courtrooms and the halls of power.

Most importantly, freelancers are getting an education in how to survive and thrive from those who love the road they’re on because the view – pajamas and all – is mighty fine.