Full-time Freelance Career

  Lisa Holton

                                  Independent Writer, Editor and Researcher    


Lisa Holton heads The Lisa Company, an Evanston, IL-based writing, editing and research consulting firm founded in 1998. She is a former Business Editor and reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times and a former editor with the Thomson Corporation. She is a busy author and contract writer for corporations, associations and universities nationwide.  Her new book, For Members Only: A History and Guide to Chicago’s Oldest Private Clubs, was published in June 2008 by Chicago’s Lake Claremont Press.  Her e-mail is Lisa@TheLisaCompany.com. 

As Lisa describes it, this is the not-terribly-brief story of why she chose a full-time career as a freelance writer and author.  It’s a great read for anyone considering a freelance career. 

When I graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School with a piping hot newspaper degree (sweet!) in 1981, I had already heard the rumblings about the death of American newspapers for some time.  You see, papers had already been dying for well over a century – at the turn of the 20th century, there were nine major dailies in Chicago. At the turn of this one, only two.

I found myself in business news completely by accident, or more accurately, necessity. The nation was digging itself out of recession in ’81, and after a summer internship at the Sun-Times, the only full-time gig I could snare was a rewrite position in the paper’s business section, then at a whopping 15 staffers (of course, back then, the well-heeled Tribune had more than 30 writers and editors on the business section payroll and they had the gall to gripe about how thinly staffed they were compared to the New York Times).

I thought of the business section as a waystation when I got there, because, come on, in the aftermath of Woodward & Bernstein, who would actually want to spend a life in journalism writing about business?  I despised numbers (still do).  I hated rewrite and the boss I was working for at the time. I hated that most people at the paper looked at us as a bunch of goldbricks who got weekends off. (Well, that was pretty cool.)

But when I finally got a beat, I learned to love business writing because when it’s done right, it’s the best storytelling out there. Why do people take on extraordinary risk to start companies? What happens to them when they fail? What happens – or doesn’t happen – when they cheat? How does it feel to be thrown out of a lifetime career because you worked for the bastard who screwed up, got screwed or cheated?

And you’re probably asking, why is she going on about this while she’s spent the last 10 years working in her attic? Here’s the reason. I quit newspapers because I got to do what I loved less and less because newspapers cared less and less about it.  

I’ve been working in my attic for 10 years because I get to do what I love every single day for people who want it.I’ve turned my experience and toddler-like curiosity into career currency. It’s bought regular assignment work at national magazines (there are fewer now than there used to be, but you get the point) where I’ve covered everything from personal finance to corporate governance. Right now, I’m working on my 15th book in a series of self-authored and ghostwritten titles. I still get to tell stories about major organizations, but now, I get to hear the really good stuff and I understand organizational behavior (and misbehavior!) better than I ever did.  And I realize I don’t have to work at a big organization to do multimedia – I’m now working as a freelance producer and on-air interviewer in a video podcasting business I’ve started with some longtime partners. It’s out there, I have the knowledge, why not try it? 

Most important, I’ve learned to become self-sustaining and extremely flexible in a media world that’s going through convulsions at every level. Now, that doesn’t mean I haven’t sweated over a client’s late payment or lain awake at 3 a.m. fearing that Hank Paulson might not be much brighter than his boss. But at least I realize that every chance for success and failure is completely mine, that I’m teachable and I don’t have to wait for a boss’s OK to try something completely new.

For anyone new coming into the communications business, in journalism, in PR, marketing or the technology end, the most important thing is to identify exactly what it is you love and how to leverage the skill no matter what comes next.  My job still allows me to do the best storytelling out there, and that’s everything.

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