There’s no such thing as a free(lance) lunch: Aaron Broverman

There’s no such thing as a free(lance) lunch is a series that asks professional freelancers the questions you want to ask them.  Think of it as having coffee with everyone at the same time. This week: Aaron Broverman

Who are you, what do you do? What’s your speciality?

My name is Aaron Broverman. I am 27-years-old and I was born in Vancouver and raised in South Surrey, B.C. I moved to Toronto in August 2003 to pursue a bachelor’s degree in journalism at Ryerson University with a major in feature writing and Magazine. I do whatever someone will pay me for.

I am strictly a writer for the most part, but I do edit for my corporate clients. (Though, I admit I am less confident in my editing abilities) My work appears mostly online for brands like Huffington Post, AOL, Bankrate, Marketwire and Travel and Escape, but I do mix it up with a few magazine features a year and supplement it all by Ghostwriting a blog and editing newsletters for an independent insurance brokerage in Markham called LSM Insurance.

My specialties are personal finance, small business, disability issues (Because I have one) Entertainment and pop culture and comic book industry journalism

How long have you been freelancing?

I’ve been freelancing since 2006, while I was still in university and have been doing it full-time, with the occasional internship and in-office contract at points in-between.

How did you/What made you start freelancing?

I didn’t get the jobs or high-profile internships I applied for before the end of school. I could’ve interned for Gary Ross at Vancouver Magazine, but I thought I wouldn’t be able to afford to fly out for the interview, so I turned it down. I later learned my parents would’ve paid for the flight.

The internships I did get, didn’t or couldn’t offer me a job at the end, and when Investment Executive finally did at the end of my six-month contract in 2008, I was already well in to my freelancing career, (I would get home late, freelance for the rest of the night and get up the next day) and wanted my career to be more diverse and within my control. I didn’t want to cover investment news full-time. I really wanted to cover a lot of other things, particularly entertainment, and I knew I wouldn’t have time to do that if I took this job.

Freelancing was not encouraged by my professors for someone right out of J-school. It was thought we wouldn’t have the connections and only cold pitching every month was not a sustainable career. After Bruce Gillespie (my handling editor for my final piece in the Ryerson Review of Journalism) took me under his wing and offered me my first regular freelance assignments as the editor of Bankrate, I figured there had to be a way to freelance, but still have some guaranteed income, so you weren’t pitching articles one by one in a scatter shot, hit or miss fashion.

I found a freelance regular contributor contract with on and that lead me to target more websites as a regular contributor. I was off to the races with at least a path to guaranteed income. As long as I kept it going. I would get assignments and I wouldn’t have to pitch every one of them. This told me it was possible to make a living as a freelancer and I liked the variety and unpredictability of each article. Never a dull moment.

How did you sell your first piece/pitch your first job?

In Spring 2006, I was manning a table at a disability awareness festival as an employee of RyeAccess — Ryerson’s community service group for students with disabilities — when Jaclyn Law, who at the time was managing editor of Abilities Magazine, came to the table. I had been reading Abilities since I was a kid and had even pitched them ideas as a kid to no avail. At first, I didn’t know who I was talking to, (I had never seen her face) but there were copies of Abilities on the table and she asked me and my fellow tablemate what we thought of the magazine.

It’s at this point, (Not knowing who she was) that I started ripping into what I saw were the issues with the magazine in general. I said that although the magazine talks about accessibility, they’d never really done a survey on what’s available for public transportation and how Ontario’s system is only partially accessible and when improvements can expected to be seen. She liked the idea and revealed herself as the managing editor. But since Abilities is a national magazine, she wanted to expand the scope of the public transportation accessibility survey to a national level. As a result, I ended up writing a 2,500 feature called “In Transit” that outlined what was available for people with disabilities in every province, when more accessible options were expected to arrive and why they had not come sooner.

After that, I began to write for Abilities on a regular-basis until their ability to pay a decent rate finally waned.

What are the pros?

The pros are that everything you build, everything you create comes from your own efforts and there’s a certain pride that comes with building a business that all comes down to you. You get to pitch the ideas you want and write about what you want and you can target the magazines you want to write for from your dream job on down and you’re not beholden to any one publication or boss in particular.

Your schedule is flexible, you can work from home and you’re able to balance work, family and leisure time more easily as long as you are disciplined about it. Nothing you do ever has to be dull or boring if you don’t want it to be. There’s the perks of being able to interview and meet your heroes and people you greatly admire. I’ll never get tired of watching a TV or reality show one minute and interviewing its stars the very next day. Plus, the free stuff doesn’t hurt, as long as you’re judicious about it. Oh, and I can write off part of my cable bill and my comic collection on my tax return.

What are the cons?  

Freelancers are the drug dealers of the journalism world: You can’t ever stop hustling, you’re practically working 24/7 and you’re always chasing down the money you’re owed. The only difference is, it’s recommended you don’t use a gun or a baseball bat to expedite the payment process.

The biggest con is a lack of financial stability and if you’re not smart with money you could be living paycheque to paycheque. It’s not that it’s not possible to pull together the money you need every month, it’s that the timing of when you’ll actually get your money versus how much you’re entitled to on paper is never consistent. One delay and you could be screwed. Plus, if publishers have a window for payment, say 30 days, 60 days or 90 days, they will most likely take that full window before they start sending out the cheques and if one thing is off on the invoice, or if someone makes a mistake, it could take even longer.

The top rate average of a $1 per word (Maybe $2 if you’re lucky and belong to the top tier of the industry) hasn’t changed since the 70s. You don’t own most of what you write. You’re in over your head a lot and you spend a lot of time alone in front of a computer. You also have to remind people that you’re actually working a lot and you just can’t meet them anywhere. Also, your taxes are way more your responsibility, so you have to be sure to do them and set money aside for both income tax and if you make over $30,000 HST.

Editorially speaking, the job has become less collaborative. The onus is more and more on the writer to write and then edit themselves. More and more editors are just assignment editors and you don’t often get to see or approve changes (If they are even made) before something is published, which can create a circumstance where mistakes are edited into your work. Multiple drafts and a back and forth meeting of the minds are things that are hard to find among editors now, particularly for online stuff. The attitude is get it up, correct it later, and quantity reigns over quality in a lot of cases.

Also, the income and opportunities keep shrinking. You may start at a job at one dollar per word rate and then they will inform you of perhaps multiple rate reductions over the course of your time there. Rate increases don’t happen, but editorial restructuring and reformatting do, so your job is never a sure thing and often, it’s not your fault. The first thing to get cut is always the writers and their money.

This job is a struggle and it never really stops being one, so you have to really love it and live and breathe it to pursue it. You have to be willing to play through the pain because you are going to bleed for this and if you’re not careful, freelancing will eat your soul and you could become jaded, bitter and exhausted, so stay positive because you’re running a treadmill.

Keep your hands and arms inside the vehicle and protect yourself at all times.

Let’s talk networking. Some people think of it as a dirty word. What do you think about networking and how do you do it? 

I don’t do networking very often in the traditional roam around the room drinking-wine-and-eating-cheese sort of way. I used to be more outgoing that way, but then I became a writer and spending that much time in my head kind of turned me into more of an introvert, except when I’m “on” doing interviews. However, I do mine my colleagues and other editors for work. If I want to work somewhere, no matter how improbable, I will simply e-mail an editor with pitches or ask if there are any opportunities and it usually works. I’m pretty brazen.

I did become a blogger for This Magazine by walking up to Graham Scott and telling him he needed a blog on people with disabilities. Editors and colleagues often come back for me when they’re creating new opportunities and need writers. I also hand out my business card all over the place. (It also helps me pick up girls.) Like I said, “Everyday I’m hustlin'” To some, it could be characterized as shameless editorial prostitution, but it works. If I have to be the rent-boy of the writing world, so be it.

Is it really who you know when you freelance?

Yes, unequivocally, yes! Right from university, I got my first job at Bankrate because I knew Bruce Gillespie and the chain just continued from there. Sure, I applied for maybe two or three jobs out of school, but since then, opportunities have come from former sources, friends and colleagues who are now editors looking to populate their staff writers on a new site and simply people who read my work and recruited me. (as was the case with AOL) I’m not saying I haven’t had to apply for anything, (I have) but the majority of my jobs come from people coming to me directly and asking me to join them or sending me leads.

What do you think about the ‘pick your brain over coffee’ invite? Do you do it?

I don’t really do that when it comes to editors I don’t know, but it was strongly encouraged in university, so maybe I should do it more, but I think the strategy doesn’t work in the same way anymore. It seems dated. The only people I meet for coffee are former profs and colleagues of mine. Stephen Trumper’s coffee meetings are the stuff of legend for a lot of writers, including me. They are absolutely invaluable to me and he gives me the perfect advice at the perfect time in my career. This seems to be enough.

Do you think you have to have a certain personality to freelance?

You do. You have to be adaptable, you have to be assertive and you have to be in it for the love, not the money. You have to learn to bob and weave, don’t take things personally and be able to hustle as much as you can. Resilience is extremely important because you must be able to endure the pain of not being able to eat some days. Most freelancers are those who get bored just doing one thing all day and need constant variety to make what they’re doing fun and exciting. They’re pursuing that true romantic notion of the starving artist or rebel writers like Hunter S. Thompson and David Foster Wallace. If you want to do this, your love for it better permeate every fibre of your being because you’ll need the motivation when times are tough.

What are your tips?

Find regular contributor contracts, so you don’t have to individually pitch every single story you write and you can introduce at least some financial stability into your life.

Approach those places that you always wanted to write for, not just places with current job openings.

Be disciplined, get up in the morning at a decent hour and go to bed at a decent hour. Treat the work day as a work day and resist procrastination.

Never think any interview or opportunity is out of reach. If you want to talk to someone, find their representation and give it a try.

Develop areas of specialty. Marketable topics that you’re such an expert in that no one else can touch and then exploit them as much as you can when looking for publications and writing opportunities.


Free(lance) lunch is a weekly series published every Monday. If you are a freelancer and want to be featured on Free(lance) lunch, please email [email protected].

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