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
- 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
- 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
Attraction Show Writer
ITEC Entertainment Corporation (
theme park design)
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