Meet Julie Brown. Based in Reno, Nevada, Brown started freelancing in the summer of 2018 with over a decade of experience in reporting and journalism.
Since Brown has been freelancing, she’s had three different contributing editor positions (REI Co-op Journal, Winter Wildlands Alliance, and SF Gate) and written for numerous publications including San Francisco Chronicle, Outside, Tahoe Quarterly, and Ski Journal. She’s also had to deal with some seriously negative feedback over emails and from the Twitter crowd for some of her work (a common issue for journalists covering hard-hitting topics) and offers some valuable advice for others dealing with Twitter hate, imposter syndrome, and burnout.
This was a very honest and in-depth interview, so without further introduction, here’s Brown’s story.
Year started freelancing full-time: 2018
Age when started freelancing full-time: 33
Preferred Pronouns: She/her
What’s your “about you” elevator pitch for what you do?
I try to keep it really simple and say I’m a freelance writer. It’s difficult to pigeonhole yourself sometimes and I cover a lot of different things and so I try to keep it simple
What did you do before freelancing?
I worked for a variety of different outlets, starting at a local newspaper in Lake Tahoe, jumping to an independent monthly magazine. I went to graduate school and then I worked at a ski magazine and then I started freelancing when I moved to Reno.
What made you decide to start freelancing?
A combination of things. Freelancing is something that I’ve always envisioned for me. It feels like it’s the career track for writers unless you want to live in New York or San Francisco. My job was based in Southern California and I moved to Reno to be with my now husband. So that move kind of forced my hand to start freelancing.
What was your education/experience before starting freelancing?
I have my masters in journalism from UC Berkeley and I’ve been a journalist since my early twenties right out of college. So I had going on a decade of experience reporting for a variety of different outlets, and my most recent job was an editor at a magazine. So I have a strong background in journalism and reporting.
Do you only do journalism?
I balance journalism with writing for brands and doing copywriting and content marketing. I’ve also done work with nonprofits. I keep those lines pretty defined. So I have my journalism work and then I have my content marketing work.
I think that’s a blend that a lot of freelance writers do today because freelance journalism is really hard to make work to pay the bills.
How do you define those lines?
I don’t write about any company in my journalism that I have worked for.
That’s the clarifying thing, but I really do try to distinguish industries, which has evolved over time, too. I used to report on the ski industry, but I don’t anymore so that enabled me to start doing a little bit of content marketing for ski brands.
What does being a contributing editor actually entail?
It means you’re a part-time half-staff person.
It can mean a lot of different things. I think it just depends. It’s a pretty common title for freelancers who have a regular arrangement to contribute to a publication or to be on board with a non-profit.
I worked with a non-profit and I wrote regularly for their blog and website.
I was also a contributing editor with REI for their REI Co-op journal and so I focused on a beat for them and I both edited and wrote the stories for that.
My current position [with SF Gate] is more of a part-time editing/writing position. I don’t do as much editing in this one even though my title is contributing editor. I write regular features for SFGate about Lake Tahoe.
The contributing editor positions that I’ve had have all taken different shapes and they’ve all looked a little different but to describe them all together, it just indicates a lasting relationship with either a publication or client.
How do you become a contributing editor?
All three of the ones I’ve had came to be based on people that I knew and referrals.
Networking is really important as a freelancer and I think it goes both ways. So when I’m busy I try to refer work to other freelancers that I know and that’s been a saver that’s been paid forward to me too. And that has really opened a lot of doors for me.
It is foggy, but it’s also very easy to reach out to other freelancers to connect and to hear what’s working for them and what’s not and how they make it work. And to stay in touch with people and have normal conversations.
How I think of freelancing is just to stay in touch people and that often leads to work for me.
When you become a contributing editor, how does payment work with that?
It’s different for each one. I’d say most of the time it’s a retainer.
All the times that I’ve been a contributing editor, it’s been a regular consistent paycheck in some form which has made it possible for me to freelance because having that steady income is a baseline for me.
So that’s what keeps me going from month to month, but then I’m able to build on top of that income with other work. Having a retainer or regular income of some kind really makes it a lot easier to keep your mental sanity, at least for me.
With editing and writing, how do you distinguish between the two and transition from one to the other?
It’s definitely different skill sets. Right now I do a lot more writing than editing.
But when I’m an editor, it’s just about working with other writers supporting them helping them navigate the process of paperwork sometimes and then I think my style of editing is to try to help the writer’s voice come through as strong as possible.
What is the biggest way that your master’s in journalism has helped you in your freelancing career?
It’s absolutely 100% the people I went to school with. I was really lucky in that my class at Berkeley was really close and tight and full of this incredibly dynamic, incredible group of humans who now work at places all over the country.
I’ve stayed in touch with a lot of them and it has led to work in a lot of cases. One of my most regular clients right now is actually directly through one of my colleagues and friends from grad school. But also it’s just been this community of people that I still stay touch with all the time and talk about journalism and we support each other. I feel like we raise each other up.
Is there anything that you wish you’d learned about freelancing during the masters, but didn’t?
I think that my master’s was really focused on practical journalism skills, which was super important, but it really didn’t focus too much on the business side of it or on the getting work side of it.
And then also it was a really traditional program. So, talking about other forms of work like content marketing on the side to support your journalism was not on the table, but I think that since I’ve left grad school, I realized that is how a lot of journalists make it work, myself included.
What preparation did you do before going full-time freelance?
I really just jumped into the deep end. I told everybody I knew that I was starting to go freelance. That set me up with a lot of work right off the bat. I think one of the biggest lessons I learned really quickly was to not say yes to everything. I learned that the hard way because I did say yes to everything and it was too much.
What was the most challenging thing for you when you first started?
Figuring out what your strengths are, what kind of projects you want – it’s learning how to say no, which is really critically important to freelancing.
It sounds counterintuitive to say no to work, but I’ve learned that saying no to work you’re not interested in or isn’t a good fit for you, or doesn’t pay you well enough, opens you up for work that is a better fit, pays better, and is more satisfying and fulfilling.
Also, when I started freelancing, I had a scarcity mindset and I had a lot of fear that I’d flounder and I’d be abandoned on this desert with no work. I think there’s actually a lot of work available and to have this abundance mindset totally shifts the approach. There’s more than enough work to go around for everybody and the more we support each other the easier it is for everybody. That’s been a really welcome to shift as well.
How did you get clients when you first started?
When I first started it was really about my connections from my previous job and the people I knew. After that, it’s been pitching and as my network has expanded just staying in touch with more people and getting exposure through different bylines at different publications that connect you with other editors.
I think social media is a great way to get in touch with editors or learn what editors are looking for. There’s so many newsletters right now that have calls for pitches that curate them and send them to your inbox every week. So it’s really easy to just go through those and find work and reach out and send pitches that way.
A lot of it’s putting yourself out there. Taking risks, but also knowing that it’s a friendly, friendly world out there and people want your talent and your skills and that you also probably have a lot more to offer than you might think. Journalists have a lot of skills that are really useful in today’s world.
What sort of skills are you thinking of?
Communicating, writing quickly, writing clean copy, knowing how to tell a story, how to interview people, how to research things. Those are all skills that are really transferable.
How did you get into the outdoors niche?
I grew up in Lake Tahoe, so I’ve been into skiing, hiking, and mountain biking for most of my life. Writing about outdoor recreation was a natural extension of that. It’s a blend of my two worlds – of being someone who loves to ski who is also a journalist.
Do you ever go into other topics?
I do. Yeah, actually I don’t write a ton about outdoor recreation anymore to some extent. Most of my focus is more on communities, especially mountain communities, which are a bit of a microcosm for a lot of things happening in the world.
I’ve been writing a lot about the housing crisis lately. I write about climate change, public lands, environmental conservation and I’m definitely always trying to look for new things that interest me.
When did you make your website portfolio?
Right away. My name is pretty common and I got that URL (juliemariebrown.com) so I definitely bought it a long time ago.
How did you make it?
Squarespace on my own. Part of grad school I learned how to code, which is a skillset that has come in very helpful to me, but honestly I didn’t do very much coding on that website. Squarespace made it easy.
How do you work in vacation or sick days?
I don’t have a system for that. Some people do but honestly, I mirror the schedule of my husband who works a full-time salaried position. So I take a similar amount of vacation as he does.
I don’t really take sick days because as a freelancer our schedules are so much more fluid that if I’m not feeling well, I might take a nap or work less that day, but then work more on a day I’m feeling better.
How do you handle your accounting and taxes?
My dad’s a CPA, so I have a pretty first-hand understanding of taxes. That said I’m definitely guilty of procrastinating and doing it all at once at the end of the year.
I have a business credit card and a business checking account. It’s just a personal checking account that I use for my business which makes it a lot easier to separate business expenses from my personal expenses, which is convenient when you’re getting all that information together for your taxes.
I also budget. Like I live by my budget. And then I use an app called You Need a Budget that’s amazing for helping me understand how much money I have and plan out every dollar that comes in towards my expenses or savings or whatever I need.
Do you use your dad as a CPA?
He helps, but I do most of it myself.
Do you use an LLC?
No, I’m personal. I considered doing an LLC, but it hasn’t made sense quite yet for me. I think it’s just different for everybody but for me it just made sense to do it personally.
However, with the pandemic and some of the funding resources that were available this year, it was a lot harder for me to get those because I wasn’t set up as a small business.
I think for some people, setting up an LLC helps you mentally take yourself seriously as a small business, which I think is super valid.
How do you manage retirement funding?
That’s a good question and something I honestly just started setting up this last year. I take 10% out of every paycheck and put it into a budget line item that says retirement and then transfer that to my Roth IRA.
I also take 25% of every paycheck and put that toward a line item for taxes. It’s a lot easier to just immediately cut off the top for taxes and retirement when you get a check because then it gets it out of the way, I don’t even think about that money.
Then the rest is what I have as income to spend and that’s what an employer would do anyway so I do that for myself.
How do you decide your rates?
My rates really vary. I have an internal hourly rate that I have to stick to and that helps me decide whether or not I can take an assignment. I know about how long different types of stories take me and from that, I can decide what the rate turns into hourly. If it lines up then I can take it, but if it’s too low, that’s an easy way to say no.
That said, there’s different reasons for taking different projects. Like if you’re getting work with a new publication that has a whole lot of prestige and reputation or has been a publication you’ve been wanting to work for for a long time, then I’m more inclined to accept a lower rate.
How do you decide when to bump up your rates?
I’ve been told that you should always ask for a higher rate. I think I try to make it a regular practice especially if I’ve been writing for a publication for a long time. Just asking the editor if they have a higher rate available. I could probably be better at that and more systematic at it, but I try to stay on top of that.
How much did you make in your first full year freelancing full-time?
I don’t remember exactly how much I made but I know I made more than at my salary magazine job, which I was getting paid $50,000 by the end. Not much more but enough to make me feel good that I started freelancing.
It’s fluctuated. That first six months was really strong and then I kind of took a step back for another six months. Then I got a retainer client which pushed me back up and then the pandemic came and that stalled things. Then I got another retainer client, which really helped carry me through the rest of last year. So it really varies and goes up and down.
Approximately how much do you make annually now?
Just under $60,000.
How did you start making more?
Having retainers helped a lot and then also saying no to lower-paying work.
How do you invoice?
I use Harvest because I like to track my time and I think they have a really good time tracking software. I think time tracking is really useful to make sure that you’re hitting your internal hourly rate.
Before that, I was using QuickBooks, but I don’t actually think that their software was that helpful. It didn’t have as many tools like time tracking for freelancers. I think they do have time tracking but it’s an upgrade.
I also just use Google Sheets to keep track of finances.
What do you think you’re best at as a freelancer?
I’ve learned a lot about myself as a writer and that I gravitate naturally toward deeper more complex topics and stories. So trying to get out things super quickly has always been a challenge for me.
It’s a good challenge, but my strength is definitely diving into more complicated stories that have a lot of nuance and require more research and reporting.
Any tips for others about how to do that?
There’s a balance between learning how much time to spend on a story and also pushing yourself to do research and to call and talk to people.
There’s a lot of writing on the internet that is just looking at what else is on the internet and using that – just doing a Google search. But I find taking those extra steps and calling up several resources – I really try to get two or three voices in every story.
It’s really important and sometimes it takes longer. One key that I’ve learned is outsourcing the transcribing of my interviews. I definitely pay for a service that is automated and transcribes my interviews for me which cuts down on the time and still lets me dive in with long good interviews with people.
What transcribing tool do you use?
What do you like the most about freelancing?
In theory, it’s nice to have some degree of freedom.
Right now my contributing editor position is a part-time job, so I clock in and clock out for that but beyond that, I have a lot of flexibility. That also comes with a lot of responsibility and it’s really tempting to just go skiing.
I’ve shifted so that I go skiing late in the day and get my work done first and I think that that’s been pretty satisfying for me.
Being my own boss, having control is really important. Also, just having a little bit of control over the work you choose to do.
Have you ever felt or experienced any challenges as a woman in the outdoor industry?
Yeah, lots of challenge.
I think the journalism and the outdoor industry are both very white male-dominated industries and that can provide a challenging dynamic at times.
At the same time, we have a lot of privilege and it’s important to start to speak up more about diversity in the workplace and equity. If we’re not bringing that up and if we’re not advocating for that, then who is? But that’s hard sometimes.
The other thing, it’s hard to know if it’s about me being a woman or not, but the internet is a vile place sometimes and when you publish something, you are exposed to people on Twitter.
I’ve gotten a lot of emails. I get cussed out. I get threats. That’s just part of the job and it’s hard, but I’ve learned how to process that kind of negative feedback and I don’t really pay attention to it as much as I used to. I try to really keep a strong boundary on who’s feedback I consider and I keep that circle pretty close to home.
Relying on your network, being open, and trying to lift other people up is really huge and you pay it forward every time.
And then people throw all sorts of things at you and it’s really good to get feedback from certain people, but it’s important to understand when you should be selective about that feedback.
At the end of the day, the lessons that I’ve learned is you can tell who supports you and who doesn’t. It’s important to have the foundation of who you are and what you’re doing and the work that you do so you can move through those challenges a lot better.
As a freelancer, you’re out there on your own so it’s really easy to get knocked over. I think that it’s really easy to put our identities in our work.
For me, one of the ways that I’ve learned to cope with being a woman as a freelancer is to not put my identity in my work, but more in who I am as a person. Then it’s easier for me to be stronger against those challenges and obstacles.
Another thing is that it’s really wonderful to use the blocking tool on Twitter, whenever people come at me with threats or negativity. I definitely consider constructive feedback that’s respectful, but as soon as it’s lowered to a point that’s disrespectful, I block people.
It’s also about workplace dynamics too. I’ve had workplace dynamics that can be pretty challenging. I think it’s important to have the strength to walk away from environments that don’t respect you, which is really really hard to do.
How do you notice when there’s a workplace that doesn’t respect you?
Trust gut instinct on that. If your gut is telling you that it’s not a good fit or that something’s wrong, you should listen to that.
I think all too often I ignore that voice inside of me or I let other people tell me that it’s not a big issue when I feel like it is and I listen to other people instead of listening to myself. It’s something I’ve been working on and trying to learn to listen to myself more.
What do you think is the most important skill to have for freelancing in the outdoor industry?
The outdoor industry in particular has a tendency to be this place that if you get work with a particular company or a job then it consumes your identity. It’s got that cool factor where they think that they don’t need to pay you as much or treat you as well because you got in the door.
I think the biggest skills for freelancing in the outdoor industry are to be a business person, to know what you’re worth, to speak up for it, and to not get swayed. There’s a lot of low wages in the outdoor industry, but if you can navigate that by staying true to your business model and your business and fighting for fair wages, that’s a huge skill as a freelancer.
There’s also kind of a club atmosphere and it can be pretty intimidating to break into it. It’s a big scene and there’s a lot of hype around it, but at the end of the day, that’s a facade. People want good quality work and it’s almost more important to be on time with your deadlines and turn in clean copy than it is to be a superstar athlete or some incredible writer. The most important thing is to follow up on what you say you’re going to do.
Have you ever dealt with imposter syndrome?
Yes, all the time.
How do you manage it?
I go to therapy. That helps me keep my thoughts in check. That’s helped a lot.
It’s something I still struggle with on a regular basis and have to acknowledge that I have it and then try to fight through it, but it’s really hard.
Also having your identity grounded in something that’s not your work helps with imposter syndrome a whole lot.
Have you ever gotten burnt out?
Yes, a lot. I think I’ve been kind of fighting with some burnout recently actually.
How do you manage that?
Closing my computer. Going outside. Going skiing. I try to take some pressure off myself. Try not to be so hard on myself. Burn out’s a really hard thing. I think it’s pretty common for freelancers.
There’s always this mentality of you have to get more and more work, but sometimes it’s also important to just say you have enough work and to accept that what you’re doing is enough and then to be able to open up time for yourself to go on a hike or read a book.
I’ve also started to read more novels. I’m getting a little burned out on news, so I’ve taken to novels.
How do you find time to read on top of everything else?
That’s a constant balance that everyone’s trying to figure out. I deleted all social media from my phone which I was realizing was a major time suck. So instead of scrolling Twitter, I actually read something of substance.
I’ve also had to take inventory of all of my subscriptions and I focus on the publications that I really want to write for and just read those really well. So I’m not trying to read everything but I’m trying to be very intentional in my reading.
Finding ideas though, especially right now during the pandemic is really hard. I get so many of my ideas from being out and talking to people in person in my life and without that it’s been hard to get that inspiration.
I’ve actually been reading a lot of books on writing. Stephen King’s book on writing [On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft] was super inspirational for me.
Is there anything you’ve done as a freelancer that you regret? Or something you look back on and still grimace about?
I do a lot of that as a freelancer. It’s not a super clean straightforward pursuit. You kind of try things and if it doesn’t work then you evaluate and you go forward again. And it’s putting yourself out there and being okay that it’s not always going to be a hundred percent. But that’s okay.
Especially in journalism, there’s this perfectionist mentality which is in part super important because you need to get it right. You need have everything be accurate and double-checked and fact-checked.
But at the same time, it’s easy to take that too far and read too much into your writing. I personally am my worst critic and there’s a lot of stories that I read and don’t think very highly of them or think I could have done something better. But I’ve learned to recognize that for what it is and let that go. Certainly there’s stories that you write that you wish you could have done better or done differently. I think that’s unavoidable.
The important thing there is to be honest with yourself and learn from those stories. Go forward and do better next time.
What are you most proud of as a freelancer?
I think that’s another really hard question. I think a lot of freelancers, we’re so in the thick of it that it’s really easy to get hard on yourself and to think you’re not going anywhere – like your wheels are spinning.
But from the outside perspective, it’s different. I look at some of my peers who are people who I respect in freelancing and I think they’re doing great things. Then I talk to them and they’re like I feel like I’m just in the trenches trying to keep up.
So I think it’s hard to say something that you’re proud of, but I guess the fact that I’ve been able to keep it going for almost three years is a pretty good indicator.
If you could give one piece of advice to a newer woman freelancer getting into the outdoor industry, what would it be?
Have that abundance mindset. To not feel like there’s this limitation on work, like the scarcity of work. There’s a lot of work out there and there’s plenty to go around. To support the other people who are around you and to open doors because they’ll be opened for you too.
And the more women and the more diversity that we can bring into the outdoor industry, the more the industry will grow. I think the industry itself has had a lot of growing pains recently and it’s had to reckon with a lot of really deep big things and that is really important. We all have a really important role to play in that.
To learn more about Julie Brown’s work, check out her website.
Read a few of her stories: