Confessions of a Freelance Attraction Show Writer
In response to your excellent questions about getting into the business of becoming a freelance themed attraction writer, I can only refer to my own experiences. As you know, I worked as a freelance writer in the themed attraction design business for several years before ITEC Productions finally hired me to be their full-time show writer. But I actually started my writing “career” many years earlier writing for free. Yes, I actually gave my work away. The point was to get myself published in any way possible so I could get the experience and the portfolio. So my first assignments were writing articles and book reviews for a newsletter published by a space advocacy organization to which I belonged. I was still in college at the time. Though it did nothing to enrich my wallet, it was excellent training for me and helped me develop certain journalistic skills (getting my facts in order, learning how to communicate quickly, clearly, accurately, working under deadline, etc.)–skills which have served me ever since.
Later, I started writing professionally (for money, though not very much). It was very opportunistic; I had recently graduated from film school and was working for a motion picture visual effects firm in L.A. as an f/x cameraman. During slow periods, I also wrote press releases and ads for the company. More good, basic training–this time in marketing. One day, I happened to find myself on the phone with the publisher of a major movie industry magazine and, on a whim, I asked if they might be interested in an article about a recent f/x project we had been shooting. To my surprise, they said “yes.” They didn’t know or care if I had any writing skills. They just wanted the facts behind the project. I ended up spending much of my vacation time that summer writing the article, which they published with almost no editorial changes. The check they wrote me was tiny, but it was just cool to see my article on the newsstands a few weeks later. So in this case, I saw an opportunity and grabbed it. I ended up writing another article for the same magazine, and later I was able to get other industry magazines interested in having me write articles for their publications. It helped a great deal that I had a publication history and a reputation for turning my manuscripts in on time, properly written, and neatly typed to the assigned word count.
I later moved to Orlando, where my journalistic background and my portfolio of published articles helped me land a part-time writing gig with WDW Cast Communications, writing articles for Eyes & Ears (the Cast Member news publication). At the same time, I was writing more articles for other magazines. From time to time, one of my old film school pals would ask me to write a training video script. So I was doing a lot of little writing jobs. But, like you Will, I had always longed to be an Imagineer. Alas, WDI was not in a hiring mode during that period. Nevertheless, I decided to supplement my portfolio with sample attraction design manuscripts and spent months composing a small pile of them to add to my portfolio. Eventually, a friend gave me the name of a contact at one Orlando-based attraction design company. We set up a meeting, I showed them my portfolio, and they gave me my first freelance attraction writing assignment. Tiny amount of pay and ridiculously tight deadline. But I took the job eagerly and they were pleased with my work.
The next freelance attraction writing gig did not follow quickly. Instead of waiting around, I found out about a charity design project that one themed design company was working on. I promptly offered them my writing services for free and they accepted. I worked my tail off on that charity project, donating literally hundreds of hours of my time as a writer. The quality of my work earned me a fair amount of professional respect, if not any actual money. The gig also gave me ample opportunities to hang around the design company’s office where some of the charity project meetings were held. I made friends with the folks there and became a familiar face. Occasionally, since I was already in the building on charity business, they’d call me into one of their other project meetings and the next thing you know, they were giving me paying assignments.
Over time, some of the folks from this first design company left to join other firms, or sometimes they started their own. They all remembered me along with the quality of my work, so whenever they needed an attraction writer, they would call me. In this way, I managed to cultivate a growing list of entertainment design clients. It took years, and some of those were very lean and hungry years! To make ends meet, I had to continue taking occasional journalism gigs. Once, I even took a gig writing an employee benefits manual for a local construction supply company! Eventually, as the market and US economy in general improved, the flow of work became quite strong. At times, it even became a flood, and I occasionally had more work coming in than I could handle–almost. It was during one of these busy periods that one of my top clients–ITEC–offered me a full-time gig. After some quick negotiations, I accepted their offer. And the rest, as they say, is history.
So what are the lessons to be learned from my experience?
- Do whatever you must do to get experience as a writer, even if it means writing free articles for some organizational newsletter. You may not have any desire to be a journalist, but the skills and habits you will learn doing that kind of writing will serve you well for the rest of your career. It’s also a good way to get yourself published and thus build up your portfolio.
Today, there are also many Web-based venues that will gladly accept free submissions from aspiring writers. Find a topic that interests you, find a Web site that addresses it, and make your move.
- Be on the lookout for opportunities and be prepared to seize them if they come your way. They don’t have to be attractions-related. Any chance to get yourself published is worth taking–especially if someone’s offering you money for the privilege.
- But don’t turn up your nose at volunteer writing work–especially if it gives you a chance to prove your talent in front of potential clients. Success often hinges on being at the right place at the right moment, and a volunteer gig that puts you into contact with potential design employers will improve those odds immeasurably.
- Be nice to everyone you meet in the field and keep in touch with them. You never know when they might throw you a writing gig.
- Make yourself reliable, someone the clients know they can always depend on to deliver. You should earn a reputation as a perfectionist who always submits his work on time and gives them exactly what they had in mind–even if they didn’t know what that was. And yes–spelling, grammar, punctuation, and neatness DO count!
- Don’t quit your day job anytime soon. Until you build up your client list, writing alone will seldom pay your bills. You may often have to take writing jobs that have nothing to do with your ambition. Accept them with enthusiasm.
- Use the slow periods to build up your portfolio with sample manuscripts–especially if you don’t have a lot of real ones to show off.
Will, I’d like to clear up one misconception that I perceived in your letter. You didn’t say it in so many words, but it sounds like you are under the impression that freelance writing is a sort of “stop-gap” profession–something a writer does until a full-time (i.e. “real”) writing job comes along. The truth, however, is that for many writers, freelancing is their entire career. True, it may sometimes turn out to be a “stepping stone,” as it was in my case. But that doesn’t mean that the freelance world is a mere training camp for aspiring writers. Yes, it’s a good learning experience. But it is also extremely demanding work, often requiring more effort and concentration and energy than a full-time writing job. I even know a few writers who voluntarily gave up full-time employment in the attraction design field to become freelancers because they wanted a greater challenge and more variety. They also wanted to be “their own boss.” (Surprise! As a freelancer, I had more than A DOZEN bosses!)
As for your question about what “those companies” look for in a freelance writer:
- Track record. Your clients will count on you to deliver what they ordered, well written, and on time. They’d rather not have to take it on faith that you will come through. They would much prefer it if you have proven yourself in the past with other companies. The better your track record, the more interested they will be in you.
- Quality portfolio. They will want to see actual examples of your work. If you don’t have enough professional examples, show them exercises. But everything you show should be as close to perfect as possible. Quality really does count.
- Knowledge of the profession. Know your stuff as a writer and as a designer. Most of your design clients won’t have time to explain all the design basics to you, so you should go in with an understanding of their “language.”
- Knowledge of the world. Often, you won’t just be asked to write down something someone else has thought of. Rather, you’ll be required to contribute your own ideas. The more you know about the worlds of science, art, architecture, music, nature, literature, theater, etc., etc., the more you’ll be able to involve yourself and the more valuable you will become in their eyes.
- Versatility. You may be asked to write all sorts of different types of manuscripts. One client might need a script for a 4-minute simulator ridefilm. Another might need a guest experience for a themed restaurant. A third client might need you to write captions for displays in an interactive museum exhibit. And a fourth client might want you to write a marketing sheet describing a recent technical project they just completed. If you can switch gears and capably handle all the above and more, you will become quite popular with your clients.
- Affability. There are plenty of prima donnas out there. A few get hired; most don’t. Be prepared to get along with your clients and colleagues. Design is a collaborative profession, so be prepared to see things from many other points of view.
- Proximity. In this wired world, you’d think it would be easy to do business by long distance through faxes and e-mail and never have to sit down face to face with your client. This, in fact, does happen from time to time. While living in Orlando, I occasionally did gigs for clients in Missouri, North Carolina, Alabama, and even Japan. But it was often difficult at best. Clients like it a lot better if you are based in their vicinity. This way, they can call you in for meetings, show you story boards and models, get you involved in group brainstorms, etc. So the best place to be if you want to freelance in the entertainment design field is wherever the design companies are located. Like Orlando, or L.A., and I think there are a few others around the US.
I know a lot of this advice may sound like “paying your dues.” And I guess that’s true. My experience tells me that clients always prefer a “known quantity.” There’s too much at stake in this business to take chances on someone unproven. Folks just don’t want to risk giving some newcomer “a break” when there’s so much riding on each project. So if you can show them that you’ve done it before and delivered, the clients will take you much more seriously. You need to get professional experience wherever you can. If you aren’t writing every day–even if it’s for charity–you are passing up an opportunity to build your credibility and expertise.
I’m not trying to discourage you. But the truth is that success seldom comes overnight. If you are truly serious about a career as an attraction writer, you should be prepared to devote YEARS to achieving that goal. The good news, though, is that IT’S WORTH IT!
Adam Berger Attraction Show Writer
ITEC Entertainment Corporation (theme park design)