Coaching ‘Creatives’ — Artist Offers Wisdom to Journalists

December 15, 2021

Jessica Abel, above, coaches journalists, especially freelancers, on how to manage a multitude of simultaneous stories and projects by setting clearer priorities. Photo: Maria Teicher. Click to enlarge.

Freelance Files: Coaching ‘Creatives’ — Artist Offers Wisdom to Journalists

By Chris Woodside

Jessica Abel entered many journalists’ radar in 2015 with her graphic nonfiction book “Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio.” The pages of comic strips inspired me to take notes on how to be a better journalist, and I became an Abel disciple.

In that book, Abel follows the producers at “This American Life” around, interviewing them on what makes each of their stories unfurl so effortlessly every Saturday: compelling characters, a big problem and a resolution (even if the resolution amounts to someone making peace with tragedy.)

Like Abel, I have applied lessons from “This American Life” to my work since the 1990s. Its stories even pushed me onto a New York Moth story slam stage in 2014.

Abel, who directs the illustration department at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, understands that storytelling works across genres, including her medium of comics, fine art, creative writing and journalism.

She also knows many journalists through her coaching business that helps “creatives,” as she calls them, take command of their careers. Her coaching work started around 2017 with an online workshop called Creative Focus. She leads writers and artists to identify their main goals and take daily steps to realize them. Also in 2017, she published “Growing Gills: How to Find Creative Focus When You’re Drowning in Your Daily Life.”


Enterprise environment stories might

start with the flash of a creative idea,

but then take a long time to put together.


I talked with Abel by Zoom a few weeks ago. Our discussion centered on how to identify important projects and know if you should pursue them or not. Enterprise environment stories might start with the flash of a creative idea, but then take a long time to put together, with months of interviews to identify a character, then tell the story.

We also talked about how — and if — journalists, especially freelancers, should manage many stories and projects at the same time. The answers to both of these center on setting priorities, she said.


Knowing whether a story will work

“The key to making good decisions is knowing what you’re deciding,” Abel told me. That can be any number of things, she explained, adding that “if you can’t find a character who is the center of the story, then you can’t tell the story.” (Although she acknowledged that if you’re more data-oriented, this won’t be as much of a factor).

Then, said Abel, consider criteria that may be unique to you. How much time do you have for the story? How much money do you want or need to make from it? Has anyone hired you to do it yet? Is the outlet you would write it for someone you enjoy working with?

She suggested making a list of important criteria that help you decide whether to pursue an idea. “Some of the things are going to be the same every time,” she said. “Some will shift, probably, based on: Is it timely? Is there a need? Is my work going to make an impact in the world?”

Don’t let the sense of obligation to the public that many of us feel derail the importance of the more practical criteria like money and time, Abel advised. “I know journalists,” she said. “ It’s easy to let the sense of public need overcome your ability to judge” the merit of a potential project.


How to juggle much pitching, many projects

To juggle, Abel said, learn to say no. “Freelance journalists, in particular, do have to have multiple pitches and proposals out at least, if not be working on multiple pieces at the same time, in order to have things in the pipeline. And you also have to maintain relationships with editors, and that takes time,” she said. “There’s no easy solution to this, because it is difficult and there is a scarcity of good opportunities.”

Abel talked about this with essayist and novelist Alexander Chee on her podcast, “The Autonomous Creative.” His solution: “He has a schedule around pitching: When is he going to pitch?”

Prioritize particular days and weeks, she suggested. Consider due dates, and don’t try to do too many other things on the same day something is due. “You have to find ways to physically store stuff so you aren’t looking at it all at the same time.”

Also, try to look at email only at certain times you set for yourself. “Write less email so you get less email. If it doesn’t need an answer, don’t email.” Abel said, adding, “I have not figured out yet how to not have email at all.”

But she said if you can move communication to other platforms that are more efficient (such as Slack or texting), then do it. “I encourage everyone to take all notifications off your phone,” she said. The exception is if you’re covering something breaking like an oil spill or hurricane.

A business mentor once advised Abel to distinguish between “boundaries” and “guardrails” in work. Boundaries are individual rules we define ourselves on people and things we won’t do. “Guardrails are systems you put in place to prevent people from testing your boundaries,” she explained.

Guardrails protect a writer from weak spots. For example, you can place an autoresponder on email, she said, or use programs like “Inbox Until Ready” that will hide the contents of the inbox during set times. “Maybe a guardrail is a sign on your door,” she said. “You don’t have to actively enforce your boundary. It enforces it for you.”


How to get out of “the dark forest”

In her 2017 book “Growing Gills,” Abel navigates through an especially common problem: how to keep going when a story seems overwhelming, when all the material and interviews seem too much.


A good way out of

the dark forest is seeking

feedback from trusted colleagues.


“The number one thing for me about the dark forest was realizing that there was one. Telling myself in the moment that I’m in it,” she said. Recognizing that this is part of a process helps Abel contain the project.

A good way out of the dark forest is seeking feedback from trusted colleagues. Abel said not everybody has a list of people who will help them by understanding the big goals. It can take time to find the right people to consult. Some people are “internal processors,” she noted, but if talking to others for perspective works, “it’s not cheating. It’s totally fine.”

For more, explore Abel’s Creative Focus Workshop and rolling-admission courses she’s developing on how to develop bigger audiences for work. She also offers free trainings.

Journalist Christine Woodside, Freelance Files co-editor, specializes in environment, American history and mountain adventure. She is the editor of Appalachia, a journal of mountaineering and conservation. Woodside writes for the Connecticut Health Investigative Team and many other outlets. Her book “Libertarians on the Prairie: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rose Wilder Lane, and the Making of the Little House Books” (Arcade) traces the influence of the early libertarian political movement on the iconic children’s pioneer books. She teaches a journalism history course at UConn.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 45. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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