What I’ve Learned From Writing For the Internet FT For Several Years
And: what’s next?
Ever since I left my full-time nonprofit job in 2013, I’ve been writing and editing full-time — mostly for the Internet, but also for some print publications. I’ve written two or three blog posts, and edited one feature, for this here site every single day since I started back in May 2014. I’ve written recaps and advice, personal essays and short stories, listicles and longreads, in-depth profiles and punchy headlines. For a stretch of several particularly high stress months, I did all that and wrote two serious, researched 800–1000 word pieces each week for the Business section of the Atlantic.
I ghost-wrote a non-fiction book and an accompanying article for a couple of doctors. I wrote website content for major financial institutions. (Which credit card is right for you? What is bond laddering?) I wrote questions for an NPR trivia show. I wrote a piece of creative non-fiction that won a prize and was listed as “Notable” in Best American Essays. I was interviewed on several TV shows, a couple of podcasts, and HuffPost Live. I accepted fellowships in Lithuania and Tennessee. I wrote reviews of dozens of other people’s novels. I wrote my own novel, which didn’t sell, and I started writing another one.
I made money. Not enough money, especially once my husband switched jobs and we became a family of four trying to hack it in New York City, but I made money, steadily, more each quarter than the quarter before. At some point, I stopped pitching pieces, because editors started approaching me to ask if I would write for them, and that felt like success. Then employees of fancy Manhattan agencies started asking me if I would consult for their clients — financial institutions that wanted to hear me talk about women and Millennials — and that felt even more like success, because it paid so well.
That income wasn’t consistent or predictable, though. I didn’t even actively identify as a consultant until I had a conversation with an older, well-established figure who listened to me ramble for a while and then cut me off, saying, “You’re a consultant.” Oh! Okay. It was like he knighted me. At last I felt confident enough to own it: people paid me for my advice, my ideas. I was a consultant.
That was this summer. It was too late.
After the baby was born in March, and my husband and I were trying to cope with two kids, I became more and more stressed out maintaining my spreadsheet. Who still owed me a check? Who hadn’t I followed up with lately? The business side of running my own business had never been my strong suit. After the second baby was born, it became my Achilles heel. There are probably still invoices outstanding that I haven’t managed to get paid, that might never get paid.
Besides, no matter how much money I managed to pull in — saying “yes” to everyone who asked for something and could offer a check; working until I had to shift to childcare and then, after putting the kids to bed, working some more — it never felt like enough. I never felt like enough. I hadn’t had a paid day off, whether for sickness or for vacation, in years, but I still feared I was somehow being lazy. In some ways, I had my dream job: I was working for myself, from home, writing full-time. I was also anxious and close to tears much of the time, and yet I didn’t feel like I could afford therapy.
So I’ve called it quits. Tomorrow is my last day the Billfold; next week, I start a new full-time job as a Senior Editor at CNBC, and I am super excited, though I’m also going to miss you all. This community is one of the best on the Internet and I’ll be haunting the comments section because I know I won’t be able to stay away.
I’ve also learned some lessons over the past few years. Such as:
1. Try not to be wrong. But when you’re wrong, apologize
The time I really messed up most and worst was so terrible I still get flashbacks. In very short summary, I was presumptuous and insensitive, and I hurt someone else’s feelings. Mortified, I added a note to the offending post to indicate regret, put my contrition on Twitter, and then I stopped breathing for about a month, until the worst of the deluge — the think pieces and hot takes and factually incorrect screeds from Perez Hilton — stopped.
As agonizing as it was to have people I respected and liked (and Perez Hilton) saying I was wrong in public, I was wrong, and they were not wrong for pointing that out. It was my job to keep my head down, not whine, and try not to be wrong again.
2. If you’re not wrong, don’t apologize, even if other people are annoyed. As my mentor, a freelance writer himself, once told me, “It’s not your job to make sure other people are never upset.”
Maybe you remember the time I got in trouble for saying “being a writer isn’t a job”? You might, since it was basically yesterday. As soon as the volume rose on that particular debate, I re-read my piece and considered whether I stand by it. I do, I thought. So I did. I tried to channel Alexander Hamilton (“I’d rather be divisive than indecisive”), smiled at any message that came to me from an indignant dude I’d never met, and moved on.
Speaking of indignant dudes, someone recently left four increasingly enraged comments on a blog post, culminating in telling me, “Mind your own fucking business.” I thought about it and decided not to take his advice, because, when you write for the Internet FT, other people’s business is your business. Thanks for reading, though, indignant dude!
3. The best is when you write something you love and the Internet loves it too
For me, that was sandwiches.
4. Sometimes read the comments
Yes, trolls live under the bridges of the Internet, but so do people who are worth listening to because their feedback will make you a better writer. Caution: side effects can include increased nervousness, shortness of breath, defensiveness, second guessing yourself, and flashes of blinding rage. Ask your doctor if reading the comments is right for you!
5. Making yourself vulnerable online means you can get kicked. It also means you can be cared about.
YMMV may vary. To me, getting to form relationships, or even temporary but meaningful connections, with strangers, and getting to experience the waves of real warmth that wash in in response to a piece like the one I wrote about my grandma, is worth it.
6. Life becomes a lot easier when you listen to what the universe seems to be telling you
When I started out, I wanted to write about culture and feminism and politics, and that was great! I had no problem getting paid to write about culture and feminism and politics — just, like, $50-$250 a piece. And for that opportunity, I was competing with what felt like a zombie apocalypse-level crush of bodies.
Although I was doing fine, holding my own, whatever, I wasn’t rising to the very top. I wasn’t Jia. I wasn’t Jazmine.
At the same time, people were asking me, and offering me significant sums, to write about money. I’ve worked for more banks now than I’ve had credit cards with. One finance-related assignment paid me more than six months worth of clever posts about “The Great Gatsby” or “Outlander.” When the editor from the Atlantic asked if I was interested in contributing, it was for the Business section. The tide was pulling me in one very clear direction.
For a while, I resisted the pull. I wanted to write about culture and feminism and politics. That was how I saw myself. Wasn’t agreeing to do something else settling? Even selling out?
Gradually though I came to realize that our egos are not always the best judges of our abilities. We can be most useful, and still feel fulfilled by, doing something other than what we always thought we’d do. We can adapt. We can even enjoy it.
I started thinking of it this way, like a Venn diagram. There’s what you want. There’s what the universe seems to want of you. And there’s what you can get paid to do. I found my dot at the intersection of those circles, and it is writing and editing stories about money. Considering that you’ve been reading me on the Billfold, maybe that won’t come as a shock to you. What can I say? It took me a while to catch up.
It turns out that, in 2016, my best self needed a change (and a salary, and health insurance, and a 401K at last!), so off I go. But it’s been great. I am so appreciative to all of you for being such engaged, supportive readers. Bye Mike! Bye Nicole! So long and thanks for all the fish.
Support The Billfold