Writers Worth: An Interview with Jerry Nelson

This has been a fantastic month, hasn’t it? So many great writers, who are also great people, have shared their words with us. I hope somewhere in all of the guest posts and interviews, you’ve found something to take away from this month that will help you improve your freelance writing business.

That’s the goal, isn’t it?

Just because the calendar page is about to turn doesn’t mean we’re done with the awesomeness. Not a chance. Each day is just as awesome as the last, in my opinion.

Today is no exception. I got a message via Twitter from Jerry Nelson a few weeks ago. Jerry, a photojournalist, had seen a guest interview tweet, and he wanted to be included. Hey, who wouldn’t want to get to know one more person in the profession? So I responded.

Jerry did not disappoint. He has a fantastic background that includes things like covering presidential candidates to covering a Mexican drug cartel. He’s done more things than most of us can dream up (and since we’re writers, that’s kind of amazing). And he’s a fan of Field of Dreams.

Writers, please meet Jerry Nelson.

Q: How long have you been freelancing?

Jerry: A long time. I started freelancing, as a photographer, when
I was in the U.S. Navy — that was back in the 70s and 80s. I started
freelancing full time after my divorce in 2006. The transition from
photographer to photojournalist to writer has been slow and driven by the fact
that everyone who owns a camera thinks they’re a photographer.

The change has also been age-driven. I’m 60, and I can’t go
charging into oak trees — or the police — like I used to.
When I began freelancing, photography was 80% of my work and
writing was 20%. That has slowly reversed and now 20% of my income comes from
photography and 80% from scribbling.

Q: What’s your area of focus?

Jerry: I cover a lot of travel destinations — I’ve been to and
worked in 155 countries so far — but what “gets my juices flowing is
social justice issues. The environment, immigrant rights, LGBT rights,
homelessness and so on. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to write about Bora
Bora, but it demands a special something — deep inside — that many people don’t
have, to cover social justice issues.

Q: How were those first few years of freelancing?

Jerry: They were great. Every day was a learning experience. 
It was scary as well. Many times I labored under the fear of possibly never
being able to leave my 9-to-5 job and follow the dream.

Q: What’s been your toughest challenge? Why?

Jerry: Wow. Great question. Are we talking about challenges in a
physical sense? If so, then it might be the six weeks I spend with the Sinaloa
Cartel in the Mexican desert. Or it may be walking the Appalachian Trail. Or it
might be getting caught in a Buffalo stampede in Washington State. Or it might
be….

If we’re talking about a “professional” challenge,
that’s easy. My toughest challenge is working with twenty-something editors who
feel their job is to treat me as their professor, in college, handled them. I
actually had an editor send me a 153 (I counted) character email to blast me
for leaving out a comma. I’m old school, so I prefer old-school editors that
understand the value of an editor-writer relationship and realize it is not a
student-teacher one.

Q: What was your a-ha moment – the event or circumstance that shifted your perspective or had you changing the way you do things?

Jerry: I’m not sure I ever had an “a-ha” moment. There’s
been no sudden twists to set me on a different path. Each day I try to build on
what I learned the day before. For me, there haven’t been any sudden, 90-degree
course corrections; rather it’s been a steady, incremental move; one degree at
a time.

Q: If you could tell new freelance writers one thing to help them build a better business, what would that be?

Jerry: Just one thing? That’s not fair. There’s a bunch of actions
new freelance writers could take to build a better business. But, if I’m put in
a dark room, tied to a chair, a single bare light bulb hanging over my head and
a guy named Smitty holding a baseball bat threatening to break my kneecaps if I
don’t come up with just one thing, then marketing.

Freelance writing is not a “Field of Dreams”. If
you build it, they won’t necessarily come. The greatest website. The best
writing. That innermost orgasmic sense of accomplishment that happens when you
know you’re written the perfect piece; none of it matters if a person can’t
market.
Since Smitty is looking the other way, let me slide in a few
more:
1. Stop writing listicles.
2. Stop writing for content mills.
3. Learn how to properly monetize your work.
The list could go on, but Smitty’s back.
Jerry Nelson is an American freelance writer and
photojournalist. Busy on assignment in South America, Jerry is always
interested in discussing future work opportunities. Email him at jandrewnelson2@gmail.com and join
the million-or-so who follow him on Twitter @ Journey_America. 
http://jerrynelson.org http://twitter.com/journey_America

About the author

Related

JOIN THE DISCUSSION

Comments

  • Sharon Hurley Hall May 26, 2016 at 11:41 am

    There's nothing like having a good relationship with your editor, for sure. Thanks for sharing your story, Jerry. Following you on Twitter now. 🙂

    Reply
  • Cathy Miller May 26, 2016 at 11:55 am

    What a fascinating life, Jerry. Sure puts our grumblings in perspective. I will never say my toughest challenge was spending six weeks with the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico or escaping a buffalo stampede in Washington state. Okay, there's still a chance for that last one. ☺ Great meeting you, Jerry, and I hope you drop by between your travels. ☺

    Reply
  • Jerry Nelson May 26, 2016 at 3:10 pm

    Thanks Sharon and Cathy for the kind words!

    I look forward to following both of you on this site. Have a great day and stay in touch.

    Reply
  • Paula Hendrickson May 26, 2016 at 4:24 pm

    I've been to Canada (before I was old enough to remember) and England, so I can't even fathom traveling to 155 countries!

    Nice to "meet" you here, Jerry. And like Sharon, I'll be following you on Twitter.

    Reply
  • Lori Widmer May 26, 2016 at 5:32 pm

    Jerry, once again, thank you. I'm so happy you reached out, and I'm excited that your guest post is yet to appear (Memorial Day, everyone — please come back and give Jerry some comment love!).

    Reply
  • Jake Poinier May 26, 2016 at 6:31 pm

    Fascinating career, Jerry! Interesting to see how you've changed your business ratio. I have tons of photographer pals from my magazine-editor days, and I know how brutal the environment has gotten. Freelance writers have it comparatively easy.

    Reply
  • Ashley Festa May 28, 2016 at 2:48 am

    Those are some seriously tough challenges, all of them. From "I nearly died" to "I nearly slapped my editor" and only one of those situations have I ever been in (bet you can guess which!)

    Since transitioning to more writing than photography, have you noticed that everyone who speaks English thinks they can write, too? But thankfully that's not true, or we would all be broke.

    Thanks for your insights, Jerry. I also deeply enjoy writing about social justice issues, and I've had the opportunity to do it a few times. I'm heading over to your website now to check out your portfolio!

    Reply