How to freelance

How to be a freelance journalist

Subscribe to Email Updates

Picture of an old-style reporterThis post contains advice for anyone considering a career as a freelance journalist. I was a freelancer for five years, writing for Wired, Popular Science and some UK business magazines. You can see a list of most of my journalism on my personal site. Now I am writer in chief at Articulate Marketing and I wrote this article before I stopped freelancing several years ago. Don't take it all too seriously: it may be wrong or out of date and your mileage may vary.

Assumptions

  • You’re not already a professional writer but a regular person looking to become a writer.
  • Journalism won’t (initially) be your only source of income.
  • You want to be a freelance journalist not a poet, novelist or playwright
  • The basics like being able to read, write, punctuate, spell, use a computer, use the Internet for research etc. are not difficult for you.

Honing your skills

  • Read lots. I mean LOTS. I subscribe to about thirty magazines in my field and every time I fly I buy five magazines that I would never normally read. I also get a dozen emails from mailing lists every day and look at a lot of websites each morning.
  • Develop your curiosity: Donald Murray, my hero, says that a journalist is forever astonished at the obvious.
  • Write lots. If you want to be a writer, write. Aim for 1000-2000 words a day. (As an aside this document took me 35m to write from start to finish. It’s about 2200 words.) [PS Plus another 30m a year later to reformat for the blog and put in some links. Typing quick isn't a problem if you know what you want to say. Researching original stuff takes longer.]
  • Learn to tell a story. Control of suspense and the ability to tell a story that sustains the reader's interest in central to the craft of journalism
  • Read the books in the bibliography, especially Writing to Deadline, for more info.
  • Study different magazines’ styles and content. Collect nice phrases and see how they handle the technical stuff like attributing quotes.
  • Write 50 ledes. To see what I mean watch the (otherwise ghastly) Shipping News.
  • Watch films about journalism. All the President’s Men is one good one but, frankly, it doesn't reflect the life of a freelancer very well.
  • Read books on writing (see bibliography)
  • Go to classes, but don’t spend a bunch of money unless you can spare it.

Finding a subject

It’s impossible to be a good writer on every subject. Find one or two areas that really appeal to you and in which you feel confident that you can become an expert and concentrate on them. It doesn’t matter whether it is chicken farming or tribal politics in Mongolia, there’ll probably be a market for your work. To write about absolutely anything you need to be the greatest writer in the world. Me? I write about business, technology and planes – the stuff I know and love. You'll do better as a freelance journalist if you specialise.

What to charge

The NUJ has a ‘Rate for the Job’ website which gives guidelines for how much you can ask for different freelance journalism jobs. In my experience, UK magazine rates vary between 10p a word and 35p a word. Corporate work is typically around 50p-£1 a word. US magazine rates are $0.35-$1.50 depending on circulation but generally Americans expect more rewrites, fact checking and general fussing than British magazines. Typically, these rates are expressed in terms of ‘rate per thousand words’. This usually includes all your expenses and time for interviews etc.

Another way to tackle the problem is to work out how many days a year you want to work (240 working days a year, minus 30 for holidays, minus 30 for administration and business development is a good start), work out how much you want to earn from writing and divide one into the other to get a daily rate. Then work out how much you can write in a day, factoring in interviews and research, and charge that (if you can!).

Marketing and business development

Freelance journalism is a business. You are your own CEO and marketing department as well as your R&D department and factory. You can be the best writer in the world but if you don't sell your stories, nobody will read them.

  • Daily pitch – this is key. If you send out 240 (or even 365) pitches a year, and you get a 10% response rate you’ll get a reasonable amount of work. But send something EVERY day, even if you’re busy. The wrong time to be looking for work is when you have nothing to do.
  • Build relationships. Better to have good relationships with three editors than shotgun fifty who don’t remember you.
  • Study the publication before making the pitch
  • Don’t be put off but remember that editors are busy.
  • Keep records: pitch history, contact database (live / dead / pending), pitch targets, story ideas database.
  • Get a good website and raise your profile online.
  • Sources of possible clients: Mediabank CD-ROM at library, Writers and Artists’ Handbook. Visit WH Smiths.
  • See my article: 27 Proven freelance marketing tips.

Generating ideas

Again, read lots. I get most of my ideas by reading obscure trade magazines and insider websites and then selling the stories to more mainstream media. Keep a notebook for ideas and write down anything that seems interesting and saleable. When you come to make your daily pitch, just pick the best idea from the current crop and pitch it. That way pitching doesn’t become a creative process subject to the usual blocks and anxiety of writing. Also get in the habit of tearing out interesting pages from magazines as you read them. Go to trade shows and conferences. Chum up to companies in your field and PR firms and get on their lists. Cultivate good sources.

Organising your work and coping with deadlines

Most business professionals shouldn’t have a problem with this, but don’t be fooled into thinking that a freelance writer lives in a mound of creative chaos and thrives on late nights, whiskey and hand rolled cigarettes. Prussian efficiency is required to make freelance journalism pay. You’ll need:

  • In, out and pending trays
  • A way of storing ongoing stories with all their bumf – I use foolscap plastic folders. Once the story is done, the whole folder can be archived away easily.
  • Good financial systems for invoicing, tracking expenses etc. www.bcentral.co.uk and Business Link are useful resources for the business side of writing.
  • A to-do list, preferably electronic, preferably synchronised into a PDA.
  • A diary. Ditto.
  • Get a hands-free headset for your landline phone to keep your hands free for interviews. I use Plantronics.
  • A notebook. Some people like Moleskine. Some people like very cheap reporters spiral bound notebooks. I use a slimline Filofax so I can constantly file out notes into the ongoing story folders.

To avoid going crazy, you need to plan your time. Books like 7 Habits of Highly Effective People can be useful in starting to think about this stuff if it is new to you. Otherwise a bit of planning and thought are required to adapt what you already know to the job of writing. I use:

  • An annual business plan
  • A monthly personal development plan and at least one or two days a month allocated to self-development, e.g. training or thinking about new stuff
  • Every week I sit down and plan my work – this afternoon for interviews and research, that day for writing, this other day to finish that column. Big chunks of time dedicated to a single task is the way I get stuff done because I procrastinate and I need time in which to do it (for instance, I’m on deadline for a feature as I write this!)
  • Read my article: 22 Ways to stay focused for tips on concentration.
  • A day a month at least to long-term marketing, e.g. relationship building with new prospective clients.
  • In my to-do list I have a list of current assignments, with their deadlines and urgency. I keep them in a separate category so I can always see exactly what’s on the slate. This helps me allocate time to the urgent stuff. NEVER miss a deadline. NEVER. The way to avoid this is planning ahead and allocating enough time to the article early enough.

Writer’s Block and Editing

One good way of coping with writer’s block is to do lots of research and lots of interviews. Then just arrange the good bits of research and the good bits of an interview into an order that seems to make sense and then précis it, leaving the very best quotes and stats in place. It’s easy to generate quantity, let the quality come out in the editing. Better to chuck out 4,000 words quickly and edit down to 1,500 than struggle to write 1,500 but hope that each word is perfect. The book “The Artist’s Way” is very good on writer’s block.

One tip: I like to finish the article a day or two early and then do something else. Coming back to a piece after a break is very healthy. It gets rid of word blindness and makes it easier to do drastic reconstructive surgery if it is needed.

Another tip: I get my partner to read my articles to see if they make sense and I’ve explained everything. Since she knows nothing about business, technology or planes she can quickly spot anything I’ve missed or assume the reader knows.

Final tip: edit from the back to the front. Read the final version slowly OUT LOUD before you send it in. I find at least one howler every time I do this, even though I think I’ve finished the piece.

Business issues

Don’t forget you’re running a business. You need to get the finances right, market yourself, actually sell your work and collect the money. VAT and PAYE taxes need to be sorted out and there is some paperwork to do to become self-employed. There are good books on starting a business, lots of practical support online and from quangos like Business Link. In my (limited) experiences one-man businesses typically fail because:

  • They over-rely on one client or one stream of work
  • They totally fail to market or sell themselves, expecting clients to find them (although existing clients are your best marketing resource – most of my corporate work comes from recommendations).
  • They fail to manage their cash properly and spend too much and earn too little. It takes time to build up a freelance practice – two or three years at least – so you need other means of support.

Ethics, diligence and fact-checking

Here are the guidelines from Business 2.0, an American magazine I wrote for occasionally. They are good guidelines even if you are writing for a less scrupulous magazine. One day you’ll be able to blow an editor away by the authoritativeness of your research. It’s happened to me a few times and I’ve confounded PR companies and editors to my great credit! (However, you don’t need to send in annotated versions of your articles to most magazines – only do it if they ask). I tend to take contemporaneous written notes, typed transcript or voice recordings of all my interviews. I use templates for interview transcripts that remind me to take a note of the name, title and contact details for everyone I interview. Check my article: What's the source for more on this.

FACT -CHECKING GUIDELINES FOR FREELANCE WRITERS

Our goal is for Business 2.0, and for your writing, to be the most authoritative business journalism around. As a compliment [sic] to your careful work, all articles accepted for publication are checked for accuracy, timeliness, clarity, and context. Because facts and assertions must be verifiable, we will need to see your published sources and speak with your live sources. Please tell people you interview to expect a call from a fact-checker.

Here are the three types of fact-checking materials we require:

1) Copies of key research documents

Every fact must be verifiable from a primary source. The primary source for a given fact is the source that originally generated that piece of information, or one that is able and authorized to report on that information firsthand. Common primary sources can include live experts, company literature, analyst reports, reference books, government agencies, and official organization Websites. Please give us printouts (and the URL) of any Web page you're relying on as a primary source (Sites change and disappear).

We don't accept popular publications such as magazines or newspapers as primary sources; even back issues of Business 2.0 and Fortune are not gospel. Popular books may be used to confirm the book-author's one-time stated opinion. Please have at least one verifiable primary source person or publication-before including any fact in a story. Details that can't be verified by at least one primary source will be deleted.

Please include any newspaper or magazine articles, Website URLs, or any other material you feel would be useful as background for the editor or fact-checker, or as resources for our online readers. If a great interview was cut back in the magazine, our Web team may still be able to use information from your notes or transcripts online. We place these background materials in our files, so please make copies of anything you want to keep.

2) A list of live sources

Please include an independent list with the full name, title, mailing address, and e-mail, phone, and fax of every person cited in your story .We also need the phone, e-mail, and URL for each company or organization that garners more than passing mention. Also please provide us with your own street address, e-mail, phone, and fax. If your editor has agreed to change the name of a person in your story, we still need to check back with that person; please send the real name and phone number of every live person cited in your story .In special cases we may ask for interview notes, tapes, or transcripts.

3) An annotated copy of your story

Every fact and assertion in your story must have an identifiable source. Effective methods of annotation include using traditional footnotes or writing the names of live sources-as well as the titles and page numbers of written sources-in the margins beside each fact or factual section in the story. Your editor may want you to annotate your first draft or may have you wait and mark up a subsequent version of the story. Check with your editor before you annotate, or you may have to repeat the task on a later version.

Develop a sense of humour

Being a journalist is an honourable and important profession but in the eyes of the general public, we’re down there with estate agents and politicians. I always get an ironic laugh when I tell people ‘I’m a journalist so I’m interested in truth, beauty and justice.’ Mostly, I tell them I’m an accountant.

Useful websites and bibliography

Links are to reviews on this site.

Copywriting Secrets for Marketing Experts video

Matthew Stibbe

Matthew is founder and CEO of Articulate Marketing.