January 9, 2019 (Updated )
Working 9 to 5, what a way to make a living. But one of the beautiful things about working in journalism is it doesn’t have to mean punching the clock, dreading Monday morning, and that 19.09 Southeastern service with the world and its dog on it.
While freelancing might offer a little less job security, it does present you with a myriad of options when it comes to when, where and who you work for. And, also, myriad is just a great word.
Organised just right, a career in freelance journalism could be just as rewarding for you as a regular one. Curious, yet? Before you go running off, here are a few things you should know, courtesy of veteran freelancers Alex Ekong and Eve Livingston.
1. Ask Questions. Even The ‘Stupid’ Ones
When you’re starting out or working with a new editor, it can feel daunting to ask for clarification. What if your question is something you should already know? When is the right time to ask it?
The truth is that while editors are busy, they all have different ways of doing things. It’s better for everyone to get total clarification on how and what you’re doing rather than trying to clear a mess up further down the line.
2. Your Area Of Expertise Is Vital (And Who Caters For It)
What do you know more about than anyone else? Probably more than you think. You may have thought that an intimate local knowledge of your tiny, rural Northeastern home town, or an ability to name the entire cast of The Office in height order wouldn’t be useful, but who knows when you might be able to tie a national news story to it? Then, editors have no choice but to come to you for your unique take.
Want to see an example of this in action? Here’s a great piece by freelance journalist Jessica Murray. Following Arethra Franklin’s death, she wrote about her unusual legacy on a North East school.
What’s more, publications, much like people, have their own personalities too. In essence, your style of writing is just an important as what you’re proposing to write about. If your voice, writing style or opinions match a publication’s, it increases your chance of getting published – and getting repeat business afterwards.
3. Always Secure A Deadline, Word Count, And Fee Before Writing
These are the three things you have to have confirmed before you even open a new document. No ifs, no buts, no maybes.
Never forget them. And, while we’re at it, never work for free – not just for yourself but for your fellow journalists who you’ll be undercutting.
4. Learn How To Invoice And Manage Your Finances. No, Seriously
Being self-employed comes with a number of challenges and this is definitely one of the bigger ones. Freelancing affords you a lot of creative freedom, which is awesome and all, but it also means the onus is on you to ensure that you’re getting paid on time, you’re paying the right amount of tax, and that your books add up.
That’s less awesome – but needn’t be a huge challenge. Use spreadsheets to keep track of your open jobs and what you have and haven’t been paid for yet (and how much!). Journo Resources also offers a nifty template for invoices which you can customise for your own use. We’re nice like that.
5. Don’t Get Hung Up On ‘Productivity’
It can be easy to feel guilty if you get up late or don’t work solidly from 9am-5pm. But that’s the benefit of being freelance – people in offices don’t work solidly from 9-5 either, they just have to pretend that they do.
Work to goals and deadlines rather than filling time for the sake of it. If you’re looking for some inspiration, Anna Codrea-Rado’s excellent newsletter explains how she used this trick to earn almost £15,000 in just 90 days, which is a true inspiration for us all.
6. Fantastic Leads And Where To Find Them
See what we did there? Hence the dragon picture, ya know. Job leads are what keep our freelance ferris-wheel spinning when you don’t have any open projects to be getting on with. Getting a steady stream of them will be an important part of your success.
These can come from a number of places including online journalist communities like Facebook groups and subreddits to email newsletters directed at freelancers – you can even find pitching guidelines and going rates for a multitude of outlets right here. Also, turn Tweet notifications on for your favourite publications and editors – often they will put the call out for new writers directly.
7. Learn How To Pitch
Pitching is probably the most important skill a freelance writer needs and also the thing you’ll spend the most time doing. Pitch much more than you think you need to, find someone who can look at and refine your pitches, and persevere even when you’re not hearing back.
Want more help on how to craft the perfect pitch? We’ve put together a couple of successful ones so you can see how yours could look.
The art of a good pitch email is something you’ll be constantly honing and improving through your career as a freelancer. There’s no one right way to do it because you’ll always need to customise it based on your audience and publication to get the best results.
Some good general advice is to make your subject line extra snappy and outline your idea in as precise a way as possible. Editors get tons of these in a day and can’t spend all day looking at their emails.
The easier your idea is for the editor to understand and integrate, the more likely you are to get commissioned. You’ll also need to get across why you think your story needs to be told and why you’re the one to tell it.
8. Sell Stories, Not Yourself
Because of lots of vacuous career advice about ‘reaching out to people’ and ‘connecting’, it can take a while to realise that your work is vastly more important than you are, and that sending general enquiry emails or meeting people for coffee doesn’t really get you anywhere if you don’t have the ideas to back it up.
If an editor puts a call out for new contributors, send story ideas even if they don’t explicitly ask for them. If you’re applying to a journalism job, include story ideas in your cover letter. When you’re pitching, spend one line talking about yourself and the rest talking about your idea.
9. Gather Editors And Useful PR Contacts
It isn’t always about who you know, we promise, but editors who you’ve interacted with are generally more likely to commission you. And getting to know PR people can lead to getting more personalised opportunities emailed to you, which can also help you get that scoop you’re after.
Of the editors that I’ve written for, the majority are people I met at an event one time or had a random interaction with on social media so don’t be afraid to get yourself out there. Go to free events, network, and join conversations with people online too. It’s much harder to say no to a face than to a screen.
10. Build Up That Brand, Pal
You wouldn’t buy something from a business you’d never heard of before, right? Same goes for freelance journalism – the higher your profile, the more work you can expect. This can be tough-going before you get the big bylines, so build your brand up in other ways.
Getting a portfolio of your work online publically and buying your own domain name is a good place to start. Be sure to share everything you write and don’t be afraid to tag the subject(s) of your piece if there are any. People love press coverage, especially if it’s particularly positive or thought-provoking and those extra shares are a good way to get eyes on yourself and your work.
Furthermore, don’t just talk about your work online – talk about yourself, what makes you tick and the skills and knowledge you can offer more than anyone else.
11. Becoming Your Best Self
Just as important as any of these things is the fact that freelancing leaves you in charge of your own working well-being like nothing else.
It can be hard to get into that perfect productivity bubble and stay there, especially if working from home isn’t your thing. You’ll face obstacles like frustration, distraction, rejection and general lack of progress but the game is to keep your motivation up while also balancing your mental health.
The other danger is getting after it so hard that you forget to do basic things like take breaks, eat lunch, and go outside from time-to-time! Remember, all these things are key to getting your work done so structure your day, put your working environment together just the way you like it and most importantly, have patience with yourself.
Alex Ekong is a freelance writer with bylines in Noisey, Huck, The Overtake, London in Stereo and others. Eve Livingston is a freelance writer who has bylines in The Guardian, BBC, The Independent, Vice and others. She is also a committee member for Women in Journalism Scotland.