An award-winning freelance journalist and author, Kate Siber started freelancing full-time 16 years ago and never looked back. Siber has written for a variety of different publications including National Geographic Traveler, Outside, New York Times, 5280, and High Country News among others and has published three books (her latest in October 2020 – 50 Adventures in the 50 States).
In December 2019, Siber was diagnosed with breast cancer. As a full-time freelance journalist, Siber had the flexibility to lighten her workload and take time to attend to her health during treatment (she’s now fully recovered).
Here’s what Siber has to say about her story freelancing.
Year Started Freelancing Full-time: 2005
Age When Started Freelancing: 24
Preferred Pronouns: She/her
What’s your “about you” elevator pitch for what you do?
I am a freelance journalist, writer, and correspondent for Outside magazine. I’m also a children’s book author. I write about a wide variety of topics, from mental health and social issues to nature and the environment.
How did you figure out what to emphasize and highlight?
In my case, I would say that “figuring out” would be an overstatement. I’m not terribly devoted to strategy. I intuitively wind my way through my career, saying yes to some things and no to others, pursuing what feels right at any given time. So I can’t say I make any concerted effort to emphasize or highlight anything in particular. I just do what interests me in the moment and what feels like a good service to readers.
What did you do before freelancing?
I worked at Outside magazine as an editor. Before that, I was an intern at the Associated Press bureau in Rome, Italy. Very early on in my career, I did various other things in between jobs, like working as a tech in a ski rental shop and waiting tables. At one time I actually worked as a pastry cook in a high-end restaurant.
What made you decide to start freelancing?
I was at a fork in the road. I was being considered for a new job opportunity at Outside. Concurrently, my boyfriend at the time was moving to Durango, Colorado from Santa Fe, and I was considering moving up there to be with him and try my hand at freelancing. My dream was to write (not edit) anyway and that seemed like as good a time as any to try. The latter seemed like perhaps the more irresponsible choice, but that’s the choice I made and I have never regretted it for a moment. To my great amazement, freelancing has worked out and I have never had to do anything else to make ends meet. In a way, it was a blessing to make the leap to writing when I had so few expenses, relatively low standards of living, and little pride to lose!
What was your education/experience before starting freelancing?
I have a bachelor’s degree in English and two internships under my belt. And of course, working as an editor.
How do you go from being a general contributor to a correspondent for a publication like you are with Outside?
I can’t claim that that was my own doing. I rarely think to advocate for myself in that way even though that would be advisable. A thoughtful editor I had been working with frequently suggested that I become a correspondent and made it happen. They offered me that title on the masthead and I was grateful for it.
What has it been like winning awards for your writing?
It’s always a sweet boost in morale to see your work rewarded in that way.
How do awards like those work? (Do you enter, does someone have to nominate your work, etc.)
It depends on the organization. Much of the time, you need to apply for the award. There are some, where you are chosen out of the blue. It’s worth keeping abreast of awards that mean something to you and applying when the time is right. On a side note, it’s also worthwhile to look into fellowships and residencies that would be a good fit for you and support your unfolding and development. I benefitted tremendously from the Metcalf fellowship in science journalism.
You’ve written several books – how did writing those differ work-wise from your journalism writing?
A lot. The rhythm of writing a book is very different from the rhythm of writing magazine features. I love the slower pace. Also, writing for children is just a wondrous delight.
What tends to be your primary revenue stream – journalism or your book sales? Or something else?
It never occurred to me that I would make royalties from my books, but it turns out that has happened. It has been a huge blessing. Book royalties are still less than half of my income but it’s a gigantic help, especially last year, when I went through treatment for breast cancer and couldn’t work in the same way as I normally do. (All good health-wise now.)
What is the single most important thing you’ve learned in regard to your career?
Be a human before being a writer. Your humanity is more important than your role. Early on, I was sometimes too beholden to my own ambition. I was occasionally blinded by it, prioritizing what I wanted to get done over what was most important in the greater context of things. Magazine stories come and go. Make sure the way you are operating and the way you are being in relationship to your sources is a higher priority than the product you are putting out.
What preparation did you do before going full-time freelance?
I had this great gig at Outside magazine for a while: I worked three months on and three months off as a contract editor for a special issue called Outside Traveler. In the off months, I would travel and write. It was a fantastic way to make the leap gradually.
What was the most challenging thing for you when you first started?
What helped you the most when starting out?
I worked really really really hard. I think working hard can be an antidote to self-doubt, at least in the beginning. It wasn’t uncommon for me to put in 12+ hours days. I’m not sure I would recommend that to others because eventually it caught up with my physical health and I had to slow down. But simply getting mileage under my belt—words, words, words—I couldn’t help but get better at it. And I honestly had a long way to go. When I started out writing, I wasn’t very good at it. That isn’t false modesty; I don’t think I had a particular talent. But I loved it so much and was so interested in it I kept at it.
I was also lucky that people took chances on me.
How did you get clients when you first started?
I did a lot of pitching and a lot of hustling. I wrote for anyone who would have me. Outside was a great source of connections, and I also went to the OR show, which was a wonderful way to meet others in the industry, including editors. Plus it was downright fun…
How did you make your website portfolio?
My aforementioned boyfriend, who lured me to Durango (where I still live, not with said boyfriend) actually gave me a website as a Christmas present. His friend made it for me and it was tremendously handy. Since then, I have revised it using the web designer Ryan Wilson, whom I wholeheartedly recommend.
How do you work in vacation or sick days?
I probably have a different relationship to time off than most people. I feel like the nature of a creative existence is cyclical. There are periods of time when I work extremely hard. I’m obsessed. I work through weekends for weeks at a time. Then the cycle ebbs and I have time off and I am not afraid to take it.
Cumulatively, I probably take several months off a year. I disappear into the wilderness and also on silent meditation retreats on a regular basis, sometimes for four weeks at a time. (I don’t have kids, obviously, and I have a very understanding husband.)
Some might see the off-time as a luxury, but I think of it as a crucial piece to being able to show up fully. While there is often a compression of tasks before and after, say, a monthlong meditation retreat, it always seems to work out financially.
How do you decide your rates?
Generally I’m not the one deciding rates. Publications decide their rates and I decide whether I want to work for them. And if someone comes to me with an assignment, they tell me the fee on offer and I either say yes or no. Generally I try not to work for under $1/word but it depends. So it’s more of a choice as to which work to pursue and take than a blanket “here are my rates.”
Where do you find publications that offer $1/word or more?
I just wrote a story for New York Times, it was $1/word. Another for Elle Magazine, that was $2 a word. I had an assignment for Men’s Health that was $2 a word. National Parks Magazine is $1/word. 5280, the Denver city magazine pays $1/word.
[Note: you can view reported rates at whopayswriters.com and this is a list of over 70 publications that pay at least around $1/word (though I haven’t fully verified this).]
A note on having “Clients” as a freelance journalist.
It’s interesting – I don’t think of the publications I write for as clients exactly, although I suppose you could phrase it that way. I think of it more as a mutually beneficial collaboration. And while this is a business, technically speaking, I think of it more as a way of life and a calling.
Even saying “client” feels very formal and transactional to me. Generally, you have a relationship with an editor and that is the primary vector of communication even if technically the “client” would be the publication. It’s very worthwhile to nurture relationships with editors whose work you admire and who truly support you in creating your best work. A good editor is gold.
What do you think you’re best at as a freelancer?
I was contemplating this and wondering what to say. My husband is sitting here near me, so I asked him what I’m best at as a freelancer. He says “You’re extraordinarily well organized compared to other people. You really have your *hit together. Just take a picture of your underwear drawer and send it to her and she’ll understand.”
Ha ha! I don’t know what he’s doing inspecting my underwear drawer, but I guess it’s pretty organized? I’ll spare you the photo.
Any tips for others about it?
I think everyone has their system and that’s fine.
For me, I like to be organized because it helps me relax. And when I’m relaxed and spacious, that’s when I do my best work. I generally try to get my stories mostly done at least a few days ahead of time, for example. I almost never have more than 10 emails in my inbox and they’re all things that have a “to do” attached to them.
Being organized helps me feel like I can show up without the static of my life interfering with my work. I don’t know if I have any tips other than to find what works for you, whatever supports you in being fully present.
What do you like the most about freelancing?
It’s a great gift, privilege and responsibility to be able to do something creative for a living. How many people in history have been able to write for a living? I never ever take that for granted.
Have you ever felt or experienced any challenges as a woman in the outdoor industry?
There have been only a few obvious incidents when I felt like I didn’t belong in a way that felt discriminatory. What is more prevalent is just the low-grade internalized sense of not belonging that happens insidiously. It’s hard to even point to concrete things, but it has to do with your own experience not being taken seriously and your own ways of knowing not being respected and encouraged.
A lot has changed even over the last five years. I remember Outside’s women’s issue, which appeared a few years ago, being a major turning point for me. To see my gender represented in that way was really emotional. I finally realized what had been missing for so long and the psychic toll of not seeing your experience (in a sense) fully represented, mirrored and celebrated.
I also recognize that I hold an absolute boatload of privilege in other ways—I’m white, hetero, cis-gender, etc.—and it’s a constant inquiry as to how I can show up in my work to dismantle these systems of oppression and marginalization that seep into everything we do in ways both seen and unseen. I’m very committed to understanding my positionality and dismantling my unearned advantage and very very humble in knowing that I have a lot of work to do. I’ve made a lot of mistakes and I am learning.
As a field in general, steps are being taken, and we have a long way to go toward becoming a real community of belonging where people of all identities and backgrounds feel welcome and seen. At this point, my view is that you can’t in good conscience be a writer and not tuned into your responsibility in this way. You need to be actively and constantly educating yourself in how to be anti-racist, anti-heteronormativity, anti-ableist, anti-ageist, anti-oppression, etc. It’s lifelong learning, and as members of the media, our voices are amplified. The responsibility is even greater for us.
If you could give your 24-year-old self, who was just starting out, some advice, what would it be?
Relax. You don’t have to try so hard to be perfect.
Yes, uphold integrity—be accurate, meet your deadlines, be courteous and all of that. But the most important thing is to grow into your voice by cultivating your personhood in an authentic way. That is something that can only be lived into over time, so be patient. Take your time. Enjoy. Follow your interests. Curiosity is your greatest asset. Use it as the fuel for your career (and wellbeing) and let it unfold naturally, with grace and humor.
To learn more about Kate Siber’s work, check out her website and get her latest book, 50 Adventures in the 50 States.
A few of her stories: