Wordwork: the art and craft of making a living as a writer.

  Writing is a hard business. Finding the right words, and making sure their meaning and their sound and their rhythm all merge properly on the page, has been a head-banger since people were scratching on cave walls. Those of us who write stories we make up have one special set of problems, and those who try to research and write the world’s literal truth have another. This blog will be my attempt to share what I’ve learned in more than three decades as a reporter and writer about gathering and organizing information, and then writing it down as clearly as possible.

    I’m going to try to do something else as well: discuss how to make a living as a writer. Because as much as writing is a literary act, it’s a mercenary one as well. If we don’t get paid — if we can’t pay the rent and buy groceries and keep the lights on — it doesn’t matter how brilliant we are as observers, investigators, and wordsmiths. It’s the dirty little secret of the literary life: Words are to writers what shoes are to cobblers. We have to produce enough of them and sell them at a high enough price to stay in business. It isn’t easy.

I started writing this blog in 2009 and am re-posting it upon request. The latest is at the top. To read them in order, read from the bottom. If, reading these blog posts, you encounter any that require a password, email me at danbaum@me.com. You can also get new postings in your email in-box by clicking in the Follow box and typing in your email address.

My wife, Margaret, and I both started out as newspaper reporters. Then we were full-time freelance writers, with no other income, from 1987 until taking jobs with an NGO, in 2015. We didn’t live large, but we lived entirely on our writing income, and rarely had to resort to writing stuff we didn’t want to write. We were lucky. But we also were careful never to forget that alongside the responsibility that we have to write the truth and inspire with our words is the equally important requirement to make a buck so we can keep writing. We’ve watched a lot of freelancers fail over the past three decades, and usually it has been not because they failed at the former, but because they lifted the eye from the latter.

If people who claim to love you suggest you minor in accounting  or learn construction skills “so you’ll have a fallback,” remind them that people who have a fallback tend to get the fallback. If you have a parachute in the plane, you’ll use it when the engine catches fire instead of bringing the plane in for a wheels-up landing and saving the lives of everybody else aboard. If you have a lifeboat aboard the Patna, you’ll jump into that instead of toughing out the storm at the helm.*  Need I keep stringing out the metaphors? I think not. You get it: Have no fallback. There’s nothing wrong with learning construction skills or knowing the basics of double-ledger accounting. But if you have your heart set on writing for a living, better to be hungry for a spell and work your ass off at writing than to flop back into something “practical” that you don’t want to do and from which, once you’re accustomed to the regular paycheck, you will find it difficult to extricate yourself. Stay hungry. Let’s begin:

“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” — Samuel Johnson.

Now, sit up straight and stop mumbling. Your use of the language is about to improve a lot, whether you like it or not.

correcting you grammar.jpgShirt sent by my good friend Phelim. Margaret says she’s going to hold me to the “silently” part.



*Obscure literary reference. The Patna is the storm-wracked ship full of Mecca-bound pilgrims into a lifeboat of which the protagonist jumps at the start of Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim. When he is rescued at sea and steams back into port, there sits the Patna, safe as houses. That Jim is branded a coward doesn’t mean I’m calling you a coward for jumping into the lifeboat. Just that had he had no lifeboat, Jim’s life would have depended on piloting the Patna home safely, as someone obviously was able to do. If you can arrange things so that your life depends on getting paid to write, you’ll vastly increase your chances of getting paid to write, as some people obviously are able to do. 



After I’ve done some interviews and gathered up some electronic documents, all carefully footnoted, I take a break from gathering to do some mid-process processing of the material I’ve gathered so far. How soon I do this after I start my research, and how often I do this, depends largely on the expected length of my document — sooner and more often for shorter docs.

For this stage, I make a new document in the top level of project’s folder, and I give it the lofty name “Jewels.” Here is where I put the quotes and facts from all my interviews and documents notes that I think I will actually use in the piece. Here, for example, is “Wal-Mart jewels” that I made while researching “God and Satan in Bentonville,” the piece I wrote about Wal-Mart for Playboy in 2003. (For some reason, I don’t have that story on my “Articles” page — I’ll do my best to fix that soon — but on this page is a link to a story that the New York Times, of all papers, wrote about it.) This 

By the time you’re done reading all the interviews and documents you have to date, you should be able to fill up a few single-spaced pages Now, when you’re writing, you’ll be looking at just a few dense pages instead of splashing around in all your notes, feverishly looking for that quote about the cordwood. Again, footnote every individual jewel on the page  so that the footnoting is all done when you’re writing your piece/proposal/book chapter. 


Footnote, redux

I discussed here the importance of footnoting everything you write. It’s worth rereading because too many people fail to do so and get themselves into various kinds of trouble.  And I will amend that post this way: Footnote your notes.

On the top of an Interview file I will put the source’s contact information, like this:

Dan Baum, 303-986-7994, danbaum@danbaum.com

(Those aren’t real, by the way, so don’t try to contact me that way. Please use the Contact button on the first page of the website.)

Putting them all in one line makes it easy to block-define and copy into a footnote in the article or book you’re writing. If I’m digesting a book and taking notes on it, I’ll put the bibliography information on the top of my page of notes, like this:

Baum, Dan; Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure; Little, Brown; New York; 1996.

Again, easy to block-define, copy, and transfer into a footnote or, ultimately, your bibliography if you’re writing a book. Of course, if you’re digesting a book into notes, you’ll want page numbers associated with every factoid or quote you derive from the book. So if you found this quote in Smoke and Mirrors and transferred it to your notes — “I don’t care if we stack ’em up in prison like cordwood,” Terwilliger said — you’d footnote is right there in your notes, using full bibliographical cite. That way, when you move that quote into your manuscript, the footnote will go with it.

You can add footnotes later, but it is infinitely more difficult and time consuming. You’re looking at Smoke and Mirrors right now, going through it for things you need. This is the time to footnote what you get so you’re not asking yourself a month from now, “Oh, Christ, where did I get that good quote about the cordwood?”


Starting a big project

Okay; you have an idea for a story you want to pitch to a national magazine. You even know to which magazine you want to pitch it, following the iron rule I lay out in the essay at the top of this page. Now it’s time to get to the hardest work there is in this career you’ve chosen: turning an idea for a story into crackerjack proposal. As I told you here and here, most of the work that you’ll do to put a 3,500-word piece in a magazine you’ll do in the proposal stage that you are starting now. This is where you’re laying out the worm-turning moments of the narrative, describing the structure, walking all the characters on stage, and synthesizing the meaning of it all. Once you have the assignment, you’ve done all the hard stuff. So this is moment zero — when you grasp ahold of that unformed idea you have and begin turning it into something real. This is where you need all your smarts, talent, confidence, education, ambition, and energy, so do what you need to summon them. A brisk walk around the block thinking about what life would be like in the wake of failure, followed by cup or two of Margaret’s weapons-grade coffee, usually does it for me.

Thus begins what I call a “Red-Dog Day,” because I imagine myself as a big, loose-jointed red dog with snout on the ground, tail in the air, snuffling feverishly as I criss-cross the blank terrain ahead, desperate to find the story’s scent trail

Do this along with me on your computer so you can see it and so it really sinks in: I will use an example from 2009, when I wanted to sell to Harper’s magazine a story about the rapid growth of the concealed-carry movement as a way to launch the book I wanted to write about gun owners. First thing I did was make a folder called “Guns” in the main folder in which I keep all my documents. “Guns” was a top-level folder, equal in stature to any in my Documents folder, right up there with “Friends’ Writing,” “Journalism,” “Journalism Archive,” “Recipes,” “Toyota,” (about our car), Lombardy (about our house, on Lombardy Drive), “Brain,” (about my tumor,) and so on. You may be wondering why I didn’t put “Guns” in “Journalism.” We’ll get there.

Then I created in the “Guns” folder the following folders: “Guns interviews,” “Guns documents,” “Guns interview requests,” and “Guns Proposal Drafts.”

I also created in that top “Guns” folder two crucial documents:* “Guns people to find” and “Guns things to get.”

Then I turned to the stack of newspapers and magazines that had discussed the increase in the number of people carrying guns (the articles that had convinced me that I could do a good piece about this) and started reading those articles carefully. This is the easy part; published journalism on your topic is laid out like a cruise-ship buffet, chockablock with names of people you’ll need to interview and documents you’ll need to acquire, who and which will lead you to more. Every time I hit a new name, I put it in the “Guns people to find ” file with a little information, like this: “Jack Barklow, Florida CCW” or “Sheila Graham, Brady Center.” or “Drew Cunningham, Johns Hopkins;” “Marc Rachlin,” Detroit PD, pro.” Like that. Every time I hit a potential document, I put that in the file “Guns things to get.” (“Hopkins study CCW & Crime,” “Joyce Foundation white paper on the castle doctrine,” “FL lege debate on CCW,”) and so on You with me? By the end of the morning, the “Guns People to Find” and “Guns Things to Get” were each a full page of densely packed single-space gleanings of either people or documents I was going to need.  The real work was about to begin. We’ll continue tomorrow.


*Lately I’ve been using Microsoft Word because that’s what we use at work, but I don’t much like it and prefer Apple’s Word processor, Pages. You’ll find online a vigorous discussion of the pros and cons of many word processors for either Mac or Windows.


In this recent post,  I advised “abject honesty” as a strategy, and several readers reacted positively to that. It surprised me that they felt it worth noting at all. Reminding journalists to be  brutally honest with their bosses, their editors, their readers, and themselves shouldn’t be necessary.  A single drop of deception can curdle a working relationship or scuttle a career, and as I suggest here, delivering unto your editor unpleasant news about a story’s progress early will not  diminish you in her eyes, but rather elevate you. We are journalists, after all, and we are asking our readers to take our word for it every minute of every day. We need to guard especially against self-deception, that tendency try to convince ourselves that the story is really as good as we thought it was when we pitched it, that we can fudge that interview since it’s off-the-record anyway, that this one big dinner check we’re submitting for reimbursement could as easily have been for lunch with a source…. You can see where this is going. If you stick to the absolute truth about everything, you never have to worry about keeping your story straight. Let on to an editor even once that you’re not always 100% honest and you’re finished at that magazine. Amazing to feel it necessary to remind journalists of this, but temptations loom. The smart and the strong resist. Christ; if you’re going to be slippery with the truth, go into advertising and get properly paid for your immortal soul. We freelancers don’t get rich, but the good ones among us have our virtue intact.

Chicken, meet egg

A reader writes in with a classic conundrum that we’ve all faced.  Say you’d like to profile Peter Moskos, the renowned author and thinker on policing issues, for Esquire Magazine, but you have no connection to either Moskos or Esquire. You may not want to pitch Esquire until you’re sure Moskos will cooperate and you’ve done a preliminary interview to get enough material to bait the hook. But at the same time, you don’t want to ask Moskos for his time until you’re sure you have the assignment from Esquire. Chicken, meet egg. The solution is staring you right in the face. It is, as it so often is, abject honesty.

Approach Moskos first. Tell him, “I am preparing a memo about you for the editors of Esquire in the hopes that they will assign me to write a profile of you. May I please have a preliminary interview to gather some material for that memo?” Note that you haven’t said that you have such an assignment. You haven’t implied that you’re a staff writer or that this is a sure thing. You’ve told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth: You’re preparing a memo for the editors of Esquire. That should be enough to get you that preliminary interview, during which you can ask Moskos whom else you should interview to write the memo. (His will be self-serving suggestions, but if he’s found himself on the opposite side of an issue with anyone, that name should come up in the preliminary interview, too, and you can decide whether he or she should be interviewed for the proposal.) Once you’ve done the preliminary interview with Moskos and anybody else that seems necessary, and you’ve gathered the documents you’ll need fully to understand Moskos, you can write the proposal, being careful, as discussed here, to write it in Esquire style.

This may seem like a lot of unpaid work with no guarantees. It is. Writing a successful magazine proposal can take as long as it takes to write the story itself. Once you get the assignment, writing the piece is easy because you’ve already done all the hard work — conceiving the story, deciding on a structure, finding the sources and the documents, even doing some interviews. This is how you make money and keep from going broke as a freelancer; you do this pre-proposal work quickly and with great concentration, and you write a truly stellar proposal. This is when you really work hard. Even though the assignment, once you get it, will come with a deadline, you can actually rest on your oars a little as the post-assignment research and writing begin. You’re over the big hurdle. As Hunter Thompson used to tell his impatient editors at Rolling Stone, “the piece is finished; all I have to do is write it down.”

Got a problem with any of this? Let me hear from you.