Lily Canter and Emma Wilkinson are the authors of a new book, Freelancing for Journalists, which is an authoritative, practical, and engaging guide for both current journalists and those looking to become one. Here they share their top ten tips for making a success of working for yourself, based on more than 20 years of collective experience.
When you start out as a freelance it can feel like a bit of a secretive unknown world so we made it our mission to uncover some of those secrets and arm everyone with the knowledge to make a success of it. That led to writing a book and launching the Freelancing for Journalists podcast. Here are ten things we have learnt along the way that every freelancer needs to know.
There Is Work Out There If You Know Where To Look
Ignore the naysayers, there is definitely a future in journalism and editors continue to rely on freelance journalists to provide content. The trick is just knowing where to look. Exploring options outside mainstream media is a good place to start – online platforms are often keen to give new writers a chance and editors are getting very savvy at putting calls for pitches out on social media. Getting yourself organised and keeping track of commissioning editors on Twitter is a great way to find out where the work is.
Not sure what search terms to use to when looking for work on Twitter? Our handy guide lists all of the things we search for when we’re on the job hunt. You can also sign up to our free weekly newsletter here.
You Can Work For Anyone, From Any Part Of The World
With an internet connection and a laptop you can literally work anywhere or, if you don’t want anywhere to be somewhere static, become a digital nomad and travel whilst working.
Editors want good ideas and the confidence that you understand their audience but they are not bothered whereabouts you live. It is a myth that you have to live in London to be a freelance journalist in the UK. We live in Leicestershire and Yorkshire and work for titles in the UK, Hong Kong, America, and Australia.
Ideas Can Come From Anywhere
It might be a chat with your hairdresser (talking of which, have you managed to get an appointment yet?), a passing comment on a Facebook post or a communal rant in a WhatsApp group, but ideas are everywhere.
It is about tapping into conversations in person and online and making a note of them straight away. That might be in a notepad, Google Doc or on an app like Trello, just use whatever works for you. Spotting stories becomes intuitive very quickly and it is important to remember there is no such thing as a bad idea.
There Is A Knack To Pitching To Editors For The First Time
There is no one perfect way to write a pitch – you will have your own style and will need to tailor it to the publication or outlet you are selling your idea to. What we can say without a shadow of a doubt is there is a clear list of what not to do. This includes not sending an 800-word essay, never sending a completed article, and please whatever you do don’t send the pitch as an email attachment.
Want to see some real examples of real pitches? Here are a few examples we’ve collected from various writers who’ve managed to seal the deal and nail that commission.
Your focus needs to be on what the story is, why it needs to be told now and why you’re the person to write it. Make it clear to that editor that even though you have not written for them before you understand their audience and why this article would be a good fit for them.
It’s Normal To Not Hear Back From Editors
Editors receive hundreds, if not thousands, of emails a day. So, if you don’t receive a response to your pitch this is perfectly normal. Experiment with sending pitches at different times of day or days of the week to see what works best and try to find out when an editor wants to receive pitches.
Don’t worry about resending a pitch a week later or following up several times. Often an editor will have missed your pitch the first time, so it never hurts to send it again. You can find out more about pitching in our podcast episode “Pitching and providing the goods“.
Getting Yourself In The Right Networks Is Very Important
Working on your own can be an isolating experience. You may feel like things are happening elsewhere and you’re just not hearing about them. Freelancers are a resourceful group and to overcome this hurdle they have set up a whole host of networks.
Facebook communities, Slack groups, newsletters and podcasts offer a wealth of support and flag up opportunities. You’ve already found Journo Resources and another good place to start is our Freelancing for Journalists Facebook Community.
Make Sure You Understand The Brief You’ve Been Given
In order to get repeat commissions you need to deliver what the editor wants, which means you need a clear brief of what they expect. If you have questions about a commission don’t be afraid to ask at the start. This will help you avoid problems down the line if anyone turns around and says this isn’t what I asked for. As a minimum you should be clear on the deadline, word count or length, and what type of article, piece or report you are expected to deliver and, if relevant, what section it is destined for.
Always Agree A Fee Upfront And Expect To Be Paid
Do not be afraid to talk money. This is no time to be shy. A professional freelance will always pin down a rate before agreeing to a commission and it is also perfectly reasonable to negotiate. There are several resources to help guide you on a fair fee including Journo Resources’ newly updated Freelance Rates Guide.
While as a student or newbie you may have done one or two pieces for free to build up a portfolio, you need to nip that in the bud pretty sharpish and know and value your worth. ‘Exposure’ does not pay the bills and be suspicious of anyone who says they don’t have the budget to pay you.
You Need To Brand Yourself
This is not necessarily about having a specialism but it is about consistent branding across all your online presences. Use the same imagery and wording on your website as you do on Twitter and make sure you have a professional looking photograph of yourself.
Don’t be afraid to present yourself as a generalist – remember you are the brand, not the topics you cover. However if you do have a strong niche then use that to sell yourself. Also remember to use SEO keywords to help people find you online.
Having A Well Thought Out Work Space Can Make A Big Difference
Clearly not everyone will have a spare room they can turn into an office (although if you do, you should) but you need to have a desk and comfortable chair and space where you can work undisturbed. Most importantly you need to be able to step away from your work at the end of the day.
A laptop in bed may seem a romantic ideal but do that for eight hours a day, multiple days a week and you’ll be heading for some expensive chiropractor bills. Even if it’s a corner of your bedroom or living room, make sure your work space is practical and inviting. You will be more productive in the long run.
Freelancing for Journalists by Lily Canter and Emma Wilkinson is out now published by Routledge. Journo Resources has teamed up with them to offer one reader a free copy of the book – just head to our Instagram page here to enter.