The Career Mistake That Still Haunts Me

And how I bounced back.

When I was new to the world of freelancing, it seemed like a feat to simply have my name appear as a byline on an article, regardless of whether or not I was paid. During my first couple of years I was happy to write on my friends’ blogs just for exposure. So when I finally hit the “big time” of getting paid $50 per blog article, it seemed like a miracle. I secured one, then two, regular publications and was desperately trying to figure out how to ride my small wave of success into making a living.

Despite the fact that I had freelance writing in mind as a career path, I did very little research on the job. I didn’t talk to people who were writing the kind of personal blogging I wanted to write. I didn’t seek the counsel of those higher up in the freelance ranks to see what kind of mistakes they made early on in their careers. As a result, I ended up making the most embarrassing mistake of my career when I was only a few months in.

I felt certain that I had to keep a strong hold on my first two jobs, not yet understanding that they were content mills, which are not usually the best sources of freelance work. In addition to eating up a lot of your time for only a little bit of pay, these places thrive on controversial content and rage-inducing “hot takes.”

My editors would send out absurd pitch lists, which included sexual experiments, unpopular opinion essays, and other sensational fare. By the time I read through the list and volunteered to take the most reasonable sounding essays, I was always too late. So, I started veering into the darker side of the list in order to keep getting work, and I ended up being assigned the worst story of my life.

I immediately regretted it when my editor said I had secured the story on “staying skinny for your marriage.” From the beginning, it didn’t sit right with me, and I struggled to find any angle that could possibly make it less horrific. I didn’t know that I could just throw the assignment back to the editor, who would find another writing shark to take it. So, I got down to the terrible business of writing the thing I should not be writing.

I drew on personal insecurities from my past and wrote a half-hearted, awful monstrosity on how staying fit benefits my marriage. It didn’t matter how careful I tried to be with my words. There was no way around the misogynistic, self-hating, fat-shaming garbage that was inherent in the very premise. It had no depth whatsoever, and I was thoroughly ashamed of it.

Luckily, freelance life moved along quickly, and I soon became part of an online writing community that helped guide me away from the morally repugnant content mill and toward the heartfelt, truthful essay writing I was longing for. However, a few months later, the dreaded “skinny” essay hit the internet, and though I tried to hide it under a bushel, it went viral quickly. The article was shared thousands of times, and it drew sharp criticism and hate wherever it roamed. Then, it was shared in my shiny new corner of the internet where all of the freelancers whom I had been learning from could see it.

Both the article and I were torn to shreds. Counter essays were written to refute my every word. A couple of new editors I had begun working with unceremoniously dropped me to distance their publications from my embarrassing reputation. I thought my writing career might be over.

Yet, though some of the comments in my writing group were pure vitriol, there were many other writers who gently pointed out exactly where I had misstepped so I would never make the same mistakes again. It was a difficult, but necessary, learning experience. I became more careful about taking assignments. I found more reputable publications to work with. I stopped immediately responding to pitch lists.

Over the next six months, the “skinny” essay reared its ugly head a couple more times, but I kept my head down, building back my reputation by doing solid work. I didn’t read the comments. I didn’t try to absolve myself, as badly as I wanted to. I simply held myself to a higher standard of work until my greatest career embarrassment was eventually crushed beneath the weight of a much more respectable portfolio.

I wish I had been wise enough to seek the counsel of other freelancers from the very beginning, but at least I found some help early on — before I made a name for myself as a salacious trash writer. Because of their advice, I was able to bounce back from my painful career blunder and find work I could proudly put my byline on. I know I will still make mistakes, but I also know that others in my community will be willing to help me learn from and move past my errors. That gives me tremendous confidence in the future of my career.

Do you have a career misstep that you’ve overcome – or one that still makes you cringe? Share in the comments!

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One Response to “The Career Mistake That Still Haunts Me”

  1. Carisa Peterson

    This piece resonates quite a bit with me, for reasons I won’t go into here, but that are easily searchable ;). I struggle with having enough time to write on subject matters that are unrelated to the topic of my “misstep”, but my not having time to write (among time for other things) is at the heart of what I started getting published for, in the first place. I continue to have “bites” when I pitch on this particular controversial subject & opinion, when I have a handful of other, unrelated pieces floating to various other outlets on subjects much less polarizing. It is a hard line to walk, when trying to build a portfolio.