Sunday, May 31, 2009

Cindy La Ferle, Author of Writing Home

Cindy La Ferle of Royal Oak, Michigan writes personal essays, columns, and features on family topics and women’s midlife issues. Her work has been featured in more than 60 different newspapers, magazines, and anthologies. She is the author of Writing Home, which won four awards for creative nonfiction, including one from Writer's Digest magazine. She also writes a weekly column on midlife issues for The Oakland Press, a suburban Detroit daily. You can read more by visiting

- You have successfully created a writing niche with family and women's midlife issues. Is this the market you started writing for or has it evolved over the years? What triggered your interest in these topics?

My freelance writing career evolved over the years. I started writing for my local newspapers and a weekly alternative magazine. I was assigned to write features on small local business in addition to play reviews and arts features. It wasn't unusual for me to have three or four assignments per week, which kept me busy and helped me learn how to stay on deadline.

Around that time, I was also offered the editorship of a national country inn travel magazine owned by a publisher in my community. That job involved a lot of travel, as you can imagine, which was not ideal because my son was a preschooler then. As much as I enjoyed the work, I didn't want to miss my son's childhood. So, when the travel magazine folded, I decided to stay home with my son and rebuild my freelance writing career in a new way.

That's when I decided to shift writing gears and focus on family (and domestic arts) topics -- which had always been my real interest, anyway. Because I'd "established" myself early on with my local daily paper, I was able to go back to one of my editors and talk him into a weekly personal column. That was my all-time favorite writing job. I explain this more in depth in the introduction to my book, Writing Home, which is a collection of the published columns and essays I wrote after I decided to become a work-at-home mom.

- As a freelance journalist since 1984, what wisdom can you share with readers regarding the ability to pursue a writing career during tough economic times? Has flexibility been important? Have you accepted a lower price for your work just to generate some income or have you been able to hold out for higher earnings?

You're absolutely right about flexibility. When I began freelancing, journalists weren't using the Internet like we do today. The Internet totally changed the way I work. Research, for example, is so much easier online. That said, I truly miss the face-to-face editorial connections I made before the Internet. Plus, the Internet has turned print publishing upside-down -- which leads to your other questions.

You asked about accepting lower wages for work, given the economic crisis. Many freelance writers are working for less money now, but part of the problem is that there's so much more competition. Everyone in the world, literally, is blogging or publishing online. The Internet is, in many ways, a "free-for-all." As everyone knows, readers don't have pay for (most) Internet content, plus few Web sites are pulling in enough advertising revenue to survive on ads alone. So there are countless online editors who have no choice but to use writers without paying them. Or paying them very little.

The Internet is partly why print journalism is in trouble. Magazines and newspapers are folding right and left -- and the ones that remain are not able to offer as much money for stories as they used to when I started out. Here's an example: A longtime client of mine, a national decorating magazine, used to pay me $750 per 600-word essay. After a couple of years, the editor had to lower pay rates to all freelancers. By the time the magazine finally folded last year, I was being paid only $300 for the same type of essay I was publishing for $750 originally.

But there are Web sites and magazines that do pay writers fairly -- so freelancers need to seek those out. All said and done, we're all trying to navigate a whole new way of working and negotiating payment.

Sometimes we may have to write for free just to get our work "out there" -- or there may be other trade-offs involved. But as I often tell my writing students, if you value your own skills and experience, you should avoid writing for free or for abysmally low pay rates. If everything you do is pro bono, you're making it harder for other professional writers (and yourself) to earn a decent wage in the long run.

I think the real secret -- aside from being persistent -- is to find a niche that isn't quite so competitive, and to explore areas of writing that aren't so saturated. Find yourself a new specialty.

- You have listed your membership in Women in Communications, Society of Professional Journalists, Detroit Working Writers and the American Society of Journalists and Authors. Has your membership in these organizations resulted in writing projects? Would you recommend any other organizations for writers to consider?

So much depends on how much time and effort you are willing to put into these organizations. If you don't extend yourself, you'll probably get little more than a free newsletter and a press card. You need to go to the organization's conferences, volunteer to work on projects, and get yourself involved. Personally speaking, though, I've gotten the most out of local and regional writing organizations. I find it's so much easier to network in my own region. And the face-to-face friendship is fun and rewarding. I'm a homebody and a hometown girl, so I love going out for coffee with writers in my own community.

- Can you share with us one tip you have implemented which has helped you manage the business side of your writing business?

Keeping good records -- and treating your writing like a business is essential, of course. But more than that, maintaining strong working relationships with editors and colleagues is the real secret to success. Editors move around a lot, but if you've done your very best for them and treated them with respect, it's very likely they'll call on you to work for them again.

Read more about Cindy at