March 11, 2020 (Updated )
As a student looking to break into journalism, you’ll get a lot of advice thrown your way. You’ll hear a lot about work experience, honing your CV or finding jobs. But we’d bet a pretty penny that you won’t hear enough about how to launch your freelance career. Yes, we mean launching it right now.
It might seem like a big jump, but once you’ve racked up a decent amount of experience on placements through your course, or on your student newspaper, there’s absolutely no reason you shouldn’t throw your hat in the ring as a freelancer.
Whether through pitching or shifting, freelancing can be a great way to get a foothold in the industry early. Even if you end up working in a staff job after your studies, you’ll have a portfolio of paid, professional work to show, more money in your pocket and a bunch of connections with journalists already working. So, how do you get started?
Start By Getting Your Portfolio In Order
Kickstarting your freelance writing career while you’re at college or university isn’t easy, but it’s definitely achievable if you follow the right steps. That all starts with having a portfolio of work to show off. Before I started looking for paid work through pitching, my writing experience was largely restricted to unpaid blogs and student media — but that’s what came in useful when I was building a portfolio and making industry contacts.
It was the same for freelance writer Bethany Dawson. Currently on a placement year as part of her degree, she’s also the Deputy Editor of Incite, the University of Surrey’s politics magazine. “I’ve written for my student paper since my first year of university,” she tells Journo Resources, “and I’ve always loved it.” It’s all experience she credits with helping her get bylines in The Independent and The Telegraph.
While it can feel daunting when you’re just starting out and having to cold-pitch editors with dozens of dazzling bylines, don’t be put off. All editors are really looking for in your clips or CV is that you the skills they need. If you’re pitching to write a story, it doesn’t matter where you’ve written before — they just want to know you can write.
Similarly, if you’re putting yourself forward for shifts, it’s both about presenting yourself concisely and showing that you’re a skilled professional with experience in the areas they’re looking for. While you might not want to sell yourself too directly on the fact you’re a student, it can provide a helpful in if outlets are looking for a younger perspective or the voice on campus.
Put Yourself In The Best Places To Find Work
But, even with a pristine portfolio, you still need to find somewhere to pitch it. My first paid commission was for VICE UK, which I snagged after I saw a call for pitches in a newsletter. To put it simply, try to subscribe to as many newsletters as possible. As well as being a great source of calls for pitches and writing gigs, you’ll often find tips for freelancing in general, and they can be a great source of community.
Some of my first subscriptions were for Sian Meades’s Freelance Writing Jobs and Anna Codrea-Rado’s The Professional Freelancer. Similarly, Hair Rollers in London from freelancer Jessica Evans has an expansive list of freelance pitches, while Sonia Weiser’s Opportunities of the Week is well worth the small fee of $3 a month. And, finally, I do genuinely find the Journo Resources newsletter fantastic.
I wish I’d discovered all of them earlier. I got my first paid commission for VICE UK after spotting it in a newsletter, and I’ve been able to write for the likes of Kerrang! and The Guardian. I’ve sent pitches and made contacts that have really helped to get my career off the ground.
Equally, you’ll find plenty of editors posting for freelancers on social media as their first port of call. Put editors you’d like to work for in private Twitter lists and plug in key search terms into your Tweetdeck columns. Facebook Groups like No 1 Freelance Media Women, Women in Journalism, or A Few Good Hacks are also worth joining to see last-minute requests from editors.
“I responded to a call from pitches. I was a little nervous but I pitched a story on sex and arthritis as a young person. And I got the commission!”
It’s worth adding that while this kind of stuff is important, it’s still a relatively small part of networking. You might have heard a lot of people say journalism is not about what you know, but who you know. There’s an element of truth there — but one you can work to your advantage. While you’re studying, make the most of university facilities and events, and do your best to get involved with local media and politics if you can. There’s an excellent opportunity to reach experts and professionals, as well as find stories other outlets wouldn’t be able to reach.
The second piece I wrote for VICE UK wasn’t one that I’d pitched – I’d reached out to an editor because I saw another writer had covered a local campaign and briefly introduced myself. A few days later I was asked to write a piece, and was able to get in touch with local political contacts I’d already made.
LinkedIn is also a fantastic tool. I use it to showcase my work, look for jobs, and make contacts with people I admire. It might seem like a network which isn’t built for journalists, but you can actually use it to your advantage. If there’s a guest speaker at university, I’ll go up and say a quick hello at the end, before sending a request on LinkedIn later.
All in all though, just give it a go. The first paid piece Bethany had commissioned was for American site YourTango. “I responded to a call for pitches from one of their editors,” she tells Journo Resources. “I sent a DM to the editor who wanted stories on sex and relationships. Being used to writing about politics, I was a little nervous, but I pitched a story on sex arthritis as a young person, and I got the commission.”
Know That Rejections Will Be Incoming
One thing to make clear at this point is that you will get rejected, probably on a regular basis. You won’t walk straight into your dream role at your favourite publication, and it will take a lot of commitment and dedication. Meera Navlakha, a freelance writer and student, tells Journo Resources: “Since my first year at university, I’ve grown so much as a writer through both acceptances and rejections.”
Equally, after Bethany wrote for YourTango, she says she just “kept pitching”. She tells Journo Resources: “I’ve lost count of the number of cold pitches I’ve sent to editors, and I’ll be honest, most of them don’t work.”
It’s something I’ve found too – you’ll often get rejected, or even hear nothing back. But, now and again you’ll pitch the right story to the right editor at the right time. It’s an amazing moment when you see a reply land in your inbox that doesn’t start with ‘sorry, we’ll pass on this’.
Although it can be daunting, Meera adds that “students shouldn’t be afraid of at least trying” to get their writing published. “There are opportunities and willing eyes and ears everywhere.”
Even for full-time freelance journalists, rejection is a part of the job. You just need to keep persevering and the hard work will pay off.
“There are opportunities and willing eyes and ears everywhere. Students shouldn’t be afraid of at least trying to get their writing published.”
Writing a pitch in itself can seem like a daunting prospect, but take inspiration from pitches other writers have written and had accepted. CityMetric Editor Jonn Elledge tells Journo Resources some common mistakes from students. “Being too long is one,” he says. “You want something that you can get a sense of immediately. Then, not being clear on why something’s interesting or why it’s relevant to the particular publication’s readership.
“Sometimes, I think, when you’re starting out there’s an impulse to write just a generic pitch and then send it to lots of different places. For some of those places it’s just not going to be appropriate. You do need to give a little bit of thought to who you’re sending it too and why it’s relevant to them or their audience, rather than just going for the scattershot approach.”
Make Sure To Manage Your Time
And finally, it’s worth stressing that you are still a student, and you will have other things on. Bethany and Meera both agree that it can be hard to balance freelancing with your university work. Ultimately, you should put your degree first, but working on your time management will help. Make sure to keep track of your assignments as best as you can, and remember that your career will last lot longer than your degree, so just do what you can.
“You want something you can get a sense of immediately and you need to give a little bit of thought to who your sending it too.”
At the end of my second year I threw myself into freelancing as work had died down. But now I’m in my third and final year, I’m finding it intense. There’s no sugarcoating that. It feels like I’m always sat behind my computer and the lines between paid work and study often get blurred. I have to manage the time entirely myself, and it’s not always easy.
That said, I wouldn’t change anything, and I enjoy the challenge of freelancing while coming to the end of my degree. As Meera says: “At the moment, I consider freelancing to be truly fun – it gives me the licence to write about things that matter to me outside the academic sphere, and this is motivating in itself.”