how to become a freelance journalist (maybe). part 1: is it for you?
First, the caveat:
This isn’t my usual type of blog post. A lot of bloggers these days are trying to establish themselves as “experts” (and many of them are wonderful at it) but I’m not sure I have the clout. Or the wisdom. (I didn’t get a single wisdom tooth, so…)
It’s not like I’m a jaded hack of twenty years, accustomed to smoking cigarettes while typing with one hand, phone in the other as I beg my editor to hold the front page ‘cos boy oh boy, have I got a scoop! (Although I may have pieced that image together from His Girl Friday and Woman of the Year…)
I haven’t been doing this a long time, and I only spent 18 months doing it full-time, but I do get the odd email asking me for writing tips, and I have been published in a few places in the UK and the US in the last four and half years. I’ve also thought about this topic a lot.
So here are some of my thoughts, for what they’re worth. Please remember it’s just one perspective, and your results may vary.
And now… Diane Shipley’s steps to becoming a freelance journalist (maybe):
Be honest with yourself. In fact, be brutal. Answer the following questions (in your head, silly):
Are you good enough?
As anyone who has seen The X Factor can attest, it’s hard to strike the right balance between delusion and self-belief. In other words, often the least talented people are the cockiest, and the best writers can have zero confidence. If you’re telling everyone you meet how Cosmo should give you a column even though you’ve never written anything apart from your journal, you might have joined their ranks. What we’re aiming for here is a love of writing, a feeling that you’d rather write than anything else, and the quiet confidence that maybe, just maybe you might be kind of all right at it.
Are you experienced enough?
Freelance writing is an egalitarian profession — more about how good you are than what qualifications you have.You don’t have to have ten years on a regional newspaper behind you before you get published in The Guardian.
But if you have no writing experience at all, except for your blog (which can be a great showcase and certainly get you noticed, but doesn’t count as a publishing history ‘cos anyone can have one) it’s probably a good idea to get some clips before you start sending your ideas to big-time editors.
How to get clips:
— Contact every magazine, paper, or website that you love and ask to do work experience. (Different media companies have different guidelines for work experience, and places are hotly-contested, but be enthusiastic and optimistic, and give it a try, even if deep down you’re quaking.) To find work experience application info for magazines, Google the publisher (Conde Nast, Hachette Filipacchi etc) and search their website; most post guidelines and contact info.
— Contribute to a blog. Writing a guest post for a top-quality blog with a large readership will boost your profile and give you some extra kudos, especially if it covers a topic you’d love to be a specialist in.
And there are still some pro-blogging opportunities out there, although this part of the industry attracts rip-off merchants by a ratio of about 10:1, so tread carefully. If there’s a blog you like, it’s always worth emailing to ask if they’re looking for writers (this is how I got my Popgadget gig back in 2008). If you have no clips at all, sending a couple of great sample posts in the style of the site (in the body of your email, never as an attachment) is a great way to show initiative and stand out.
— Try smaller, local publications and trade magazines, where the competition is less fierce. But if you’re not a regular reader, research the publication before you approach them. Never have the attitude that ‘cos they’re small, they should be grateful you’re interested.
—Also think about contacting charities, to help craft or proofread their newsletters. My first articles and reviews were published in charity magazines, because I have a chronic illness (which was finally useful for once). You may have something wrong with you (yay!) or be a member of a professional organisation, or part of the parent-teacher committee at your kid’s school. Newsletters abound, and a lot of the smallest are looking for content. It’s a great pressure-free way to practice your writing and get your name out there (some published writers have started this way, you know. Seriously.)
— Read. I know that doesn’t technically get you a clip you can pop in your portfolio, but it may save you a lot of mistakes along the way. Read journalism forums (join them too, but spend several days reading before you make a post so you get the lay of the land), read blogs about journalism, and read some of the excellent books available. [I'm putting together a list of resources for a future post, so you'll have no excuse.] Don’t get bogged down in all the info out there, but do learn as much as you can, and find writers who inspire you to keep going.
— Take classes. Again, not a direct approach. But consider enrolling on an online course or evening class. A journalism degree can be a little insular but can also give you great contacts and experience if you use your time well.
—Twitter. Someone I know just got a writing gig on Twitter this week. But the way NOT to do this is to contact feature editors on there and ask for work. Instead, be your charming social media self and get to know them as people. Read and watch Marian Schembari’s fabulous advice on internet connecting to make sure you don’t make a fool of yourself.
How not to get clips:
— Twitter beg. (See above.)
—Answer one of those ads for an unpaid internship where you’ll be a total dogsbody for three or four months. Chances are, you’ll only be fetching tea and feeling exploited. These posts should be advertised as first jobs, not work experience. I know they’re tempting if you’re super-keen and full of energy, but don’t sell yourself short. The more people who accept this kind of treatment, the more companies can get away with it. Work experience should be short, snappy, and involve at least a little actual experience.
—Write for a content aggregator like Suite 101 or Demand Studios or anywhere else that pays a pittance ($15 for 1000 words is not a living wage). It can be hard to get good clips when you’re starting out, but these sites devalue journalism and are a total waste of time: trust me, reputable editors couldn’t be less interested.
Are you enthusiastic enough?
If there’s anything else you think you might like to do, pursue it. It’ll probably be easier. (Unless it’s acting or dancing or being a professional athlete, or something else with the constant threat of failure and rejection hanging over you every day.)
I’m serious about the rejection: it may get easier to handle as you get more work, but the rejection will always keep coming, and unless you’re an automaton, it will always be disappointing. You need to be prepared for it and find a way to deal with it. (Coming up with new ideas and ice cream both help.)
Also, I know I said you have to love writing, and you do, but if you’re thinking you’ll do this as your only source of income at some point, you also need to be willing to deal with the business side of things: invoicing, spreadsheets of commissions and expenses, the dreaded tax returns. You need to be registered as self-employed, and have the attitude that you’re a business, including an appreciation of the value of networking and pitching your services. I don’t want to put you off, but you need to know this before you give up your job and jump in. Speaking of which…
Do you have any money?
Sure, you’ll put “payment is due within 30 days” on all your invoices, but how many of your clients do you imagine will pay you promptly? I’ll tell you: the minority. (And do everything you can to hold onto them…) Anyone who jumps into freelancing with no savings, overdraft, second job or rich benefactor is likely to be living on ramen, credit cards and pure panic for several months. If that anxiety isn’t for you, save up, write on the side, and get some regular freelance work lined up before you make a move. (This is even more important if you’re reading this in the US or somewhere else healthcare isn’t free/cheap, obviously.)
I have more (much more!) to say about pitching and writing articles, but your head may be spinning by now, so let’s save that for part 2.
Any questions or comments? Let me have ‘em, below.