For the inaugural installment of A Typical Workday, a periodic interview with freelancers about how they get the job done, AHCJ’s freelance community correspondent Barbara Mantel interviewed Jen A. Miller. Miller is an award-winning freelance writer and author and a frequent contributor to The New York Times and Supply Chain Dive. She has also written for The Guardian, SELF, BuzzFeed, The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer, among others. She also shares insights and advice about how to build a successful freelance career through Notes from a Hired Pen, her newsletter and e-book series.
Favorite recent assignment
I wrote a piece for Oprah [Daily] about how I learned to surf at 40 years old that I think encapsulated COVID stress. I learned to do it in 2020, when you couldn’t really be around people. I had a surfboard that was 8 feet long so nobody could get near me. I’m awful at surfing. And I wrote about it and how I appreciated trying to do something that I’m really bad at.
I live in southern New Jersey, in the suburbs of Philadelphia. I can see Philly from the end of my block. I work mostly at my kitchen counter on a stack of cookbooks in the morning because the sunlight is really nice, and then in the afternoon, either in my office, which is a deep, rich blue, or at my dining room table. I bought this house for the light. It’s perfect.
It changes a little based on the season because I’m an ultramarathoner. When it’s warm out, I wake up with the sun because my dog wakes up. I take her on a walk, feed her and water her, and then I go run, come back in and have breakfast. My mornings are dedicated to writing. I have always been a morning person because my brain is sharper then. After writing, I take another break, walk my dog again and make lunch in the kitchen that was just my office. In the afternoon, I try to do phone calls, interviews, administrative paperwork, collections, that kind of stuff. And I have a 4 o’clock sharp cut-off time.
I check my bank balance every morning. A lot of my clients who were still sending paper checks switched at the start of the pandemic to direct deposit because people weren’t going into their offices. I also get informed delivery notifications from the U.S. Postal Service, which are scans of your mail coming that day. And I play Wordle.
Those hours in the morning that I set aside to write are pretty much untouchable. I don’t have any notifications set up on my Apple watch, on my phone or on my laptop. I put on WRTI, which is the Philadelphia classical music station, and I just write. I pretty much write until 10 o’clock without stopping. And then I check my email, and if I’m not done with my story for the morning, I keep going until I have to walk the dog before lunch.
Favorite tool for tracking story ideas and assignments
I use Excel. I know that’s not sexy, but I have the same Excel worksheets from 2006. It’s very helpful when I’m going back to figure out who I wrote for and where, to see if somebody is still there. I have a Google calendar with all my assignments, the same information as in the Excel worksheet, as a backup. I also keep a giant wall calendar on my kitchen door. Nothing is written on it. It just helps me visualize dates and spaces in time.
Recording and transcribing interviews
I use my iPhone to record, and I type while I’m interviewing. I’m a really fast typist. Then I check the call against what I have typed.
I have a daily to-do list that I try to put together at the end of the day. It’s in a steno notebook. I buy them in bulk. I put the date at the top, and the first thing is what my workout will be for the day, and after that, it’s usually what I have to write that day and then anything else I have to do.
I don’t really pitch anymore. I’ve gotten to the point where my clients come to me, fortunately. In my recent story, “Why Are Public Restrooms Still So Rare?,” for The New York Times, they came to me. I work for a lot of business publications where they have their own editorial calendar. I write for a lot of science publications, for example Clinical Laboratory News, where they send me a PDF of what they want me to write, and then I go from there. When I do pitch, I wish I had a better way of keeping track of pitches, but it’s in Excel. I put where I sent the pitch, who rejected it and then where I sent it next. I think I sent that Oprah essay about learning how to surf to seven different places before it was assigned.
If you would like to nominate a freelancer to be profiled for A Typical Workday, please email Barbara at firstname.lastname@example.org.