how to become a freelance journalist, maybe (part 3): FAQ and links for you
In case you missed it, here are the posts that brought us here:
How to become a freelance journalist (maybe) part 1: Is it for you?
OK, on with the finale.
Some of these are questions people have asked me, others are things I needed to know when I started out, clueless and confused…
Where do I start/how do I structure it/how the hell do I write this thing?!
This is one of those “how long is a piece of string”-type things. It depends on the piece you’re writing and whether it’s supposed to be objective or all your own opinion. Really, the only way to learn is by doing it and seeing what works. Expect your first features to take longer than later ones, as you don’t yet have the confidence or skills to do a great job quickly. But practice really does make
perfect you improve.
Reading some good books on structuring your work (see anything involving Wynford Hicks, below) can expedite the process and it goes without saying (well, almost) that reading the publication you’re writing for should give you some hints.
How do I find people to quote?
Most articles need quotes from someone apart from yourself — one interviewee per 500 words (and maybe one more for luck) isn’t a bad rule to write by — but finding people to talk to can be a challenge. I wouldn’t recommend pitching real-life stories (“My boyfriend ran off with my Dad”-type stuff) until you have a bit more experience or you know loads of chatty people with weird and wonderful true stories. (Although this can be lucrative, it’s difficult to find genuine people who are willing to talk.)
If you need people to quote for a story (whether “ordinary people” or experts/academics) Twitter and Facebook are now great ways to put feelers out (tag tweets with #journorequest in the UK) and use Response Source (UK) or HARO (US) to find contacts. Careful, though: you can expect to be flooded with emails (some of them completely irrelevant) using this method — many writers set up a separate email address to deal with the volume of responses.
For experts to quote, you could try Response Source/HARO again, or try Expert Sources, a directory of people happy to be contacted by the media. (The US equivalent is probably Profnet.) Universities are also a good source of potential interviewees: Just Googling a topic can often get you a shortlist, or you could even search the “invisible web“.
Remember charities too: for difficult topics they often have media case studies who are willing to be interviewed, and they obviously have official spokespeople as well.
Also try journalism forums and networking groups. And it pays to be friendly to everyone you meet online and off. The bigger your network, the more access you have to interesting people to interview. Oh, and it’s nice to be nice, of course.
Linda Formichelli has more ideas.
It’s important to check if the person you’re interviewing has been featured in a magazine or newspaper recently — this is especially true for case studies (i.e. the non-experts). If they’ve been in a woman’s glossy recently, and you’re doing a piece for a woman’s glossy, that’s going to be a conflict, as they’ll want something exclusive.
Usually you won’t find people to talk to until you get a commission, but some journalists find interviewees first, and it’s definitely worth doing so if you’re covering a sensitive issue — to reassure both you and the editor that you’ll actually pull it off.
Can you pitch the same idea to more than one place?
Yuh-huh. In my experience, it’s better to approach, say, a weekly mag, a glossy, and a newspaper with an idea than to send out the same idea on the same day to three glossies — although there’s nothing to stop you doing so and then taking the first offer that comes back (although I wouldn’t make it the exact same pitch in all cases — no publication is exactly the same as another, after all).
If they’re all interested and the angles are different enough, it might not be worth mentioning the other commission(s), but it’s often better to err on the side of caution and clue in the editors involved. When I had a piece on crafting published by The Telegraph, Prima was still happy for me to write a similar piece for them, as long as I used different interviewees (which I would have anyway).
Do most freelancers make money from journalism alone? (Thanks, Kat!)
This was something I was pretty naive about at first. I joined a journalism forum and some of its members seemed to be doing really well at freelancing. I assumed their earnings were just from journalism, but as time went on I discovered that was rarely, if ever, the case. The majority of the freelancers I know make money by other means than journalism: they offer copywriting (which is much better paid), they blog for companies, and they teach writing.
Quite a few freelancers are life coaches or counsellors, too — which has to help with all the soul-crushing rejection. Getting sub-editing shifts on magazines or newspapers is another way journalists make money, and it is a great way to get your foot in the door, but you’ll need the right skills (understanding InDesign is a start). There are a lucky few who make their living just from journalism, perhaps a regular column that keeps them in three holidays a year, but it takes time to build up to that stage (not to mention a lot of luck and a fair amount of networking…).
How do I invoice?
I was so green when I got my first commission, I didn’t even know that writers sent invoices. (Thankfully my friend Keris was kind enough to email me one of her old invoices for me to copy.)
The essential elements are a reference number (I usually go with something simple yet informative, e.g. WW1 for my first Woman’s Weekly invoice), the date, your name and address followed by the name and address of the publication, plus what you’re invoicing them for.
I also include my terms (“Payment is due within 30 days of receipt of this invoice. Many thanks!”) although (in the UK, at least) this is covered by law so you don’t have to say it; it’s already implied.
If you’re being paid by money transfer rather than cheque, remember to include your bank account number and sort code. You can see examples of invoices online, but they’re mostly PDF, so I can’t link. (Search for “sample invoice”).
What if I’m having trouble getting paid?
Oh, money. The bane of every freelancer’s life. You can work your butt off for a month, happy in the knowledge you have five grand coming your way… and then wait a year for the last of it to trickle in. (Not exaggerating.)
The most important thing for anyone who’s self-employed to remember is that you haven’t earned any money until it’s actually in your account. (I know, duh. But it’s so tempting to go overboard on stuff like food and rent when know you have money due to you.)
Check the payment terms before you write a word, so you know what you’re getting into – while most magazines pay within 30 days, a lot of newspapers pay on publication and that publication can take a while. Or never (in which case you should always fight for the full amount you’re owed).
I firmly believe you should never accept a kill fee unless your story is just not up to scratch (an editor saying “thanks, this is great!” and then turning around and offering you half what you were promised? Not happening here). I’ve only been offered a kill fee once, when a piece wasn’t used through no fault of my own. (I fought against it, and won.)
However, some US publications are more hardcore on this issue, and include acceptance of a kill fee in their contracts. It’s your choice whether you choose to write for them or not. The plus side is US glossy mags for example pay much more than UK ones, so the kill fee may be pretty generous. At the very least, try to sell the same idea on to another publication so your hard work isn’t wasted.
Sometimes your piece is published, you’re expecting to be paid in 30 days, and a publication is sluggish about it. Give them a couple of weeks’ grace period, and then chase, chase, chase that money. Be polite, but firm. If the editor you dealt with isn’t helpful, call and ask to speak to the accounts department. And remember for every 30 days they’re late, you can charge interest. (See the NUJ website — in the links section — for details.)
It should go without saying, but I know several people who’ve done this and paid the price (literally) so I’m saying it: don’t keep working for somewhere that owes you money. Bankruptcy might be beckoning (for them and for you, if you’re not careful).
How can I get some kind of cool regular columnist gig, so I can work from home in my pyjamas and still have some money coming in?
If only there was a foolproof answer for this one. It’s worth checking out Gumtree, Craigslist and more standard job sites, especially for web writing work, but usually the best writing gigs aren’t advertised, so contact the places you’re interested in working for with your brilliant ideas, instead.
It’s unlikely someone will want to take a gamble on a column unless you’ve written for them at least once already, so do that first, then write at least a couple of sample columns and pitch your heart out. It’s harder to find long-term work in this economy, but staying positive and trying hard still work sometimes.
There’s also (eek) networking, which deserves (but er, isn’t gonna get, ‘cos I’m rubbish at it) a whole post of its own. I know of writers who’ve got commissions via skillful (i.e. subtle, non-begging) use of Twitter, and others who’ve asked features editors to meet for coffee (instead of trying to “sell” those eds on their ideas, they asked them what they were looking for, and focused on building a relationship, instead.)
More questions? Let me know, below.
On to the resources:
Links for you
Rachel Hills An Aussie journalist in London, Hills’ website deconstructs gender stereotypes and provides awesome insights into life as a freelance writer, including answering reader questions about journalism. This post is great: Turning work experience into a J-O-B
Lena Chen Another fabulous young feminist who features (featured?) fellow freelancers on her blog as part of her Freelance Friday series, asking them frank questions about how they got started, what they get paid, and what the downsides of the freelance life can be. Check out Former Marie Claire web editor Diana Vilibert.
Allison Winn Scotch is best known as the author of books like The Department of Lost and Found (which I LOVED) but she’s a freelance journalist, too. She offers great insight into this (and other) aspects of the writing biz on her blog, Ask Allison. Some posts I think are especially great: On cracking women’s magazines | On never sending in a finished piece instead of a pitch | On the importance of understanding the places you pitch to | On the (lack of) value of writing on spec
Write You Are (by Anne Wollenberg) One of my online journo-pals, Anne is a very talented writer who has just gone back to full-time work after a really successful few years as a freelancer. Her posts are always written with passion and insight. Check out her misconception myth-busting.
Dollars and Deadlines Kelly James-Enger is a journalist, author and ghostwriter whose blog is for “nonfiction writers who want to make more money in less time”. (Sounds good to me.) It’s full of great advice, like The Best Place for New Writers to Pitch.
Diary of a Mad Freelancer I just discovered P.S Jones’ blog thanks to her post about Legally Blonde being a freelancing inspiration, which spread across the Twittersphere like wildfire. (Note to self: work on your metaphors.)
Getting Ink Sally Whittle’s blog about being a freelance journalist and copywriter, especially dealing with PR people. No longer updated, but the archives are a great source of info (and entertainment).
Freelance Writing Tips Again, no longer updated, but Linda Jones had some great insights while it was. Again, there’s also a book — see below.
Keri Smith is an illustrator but her Secrets of the Self-Employed is worth reading for writers, too.
Sian Meades’ post on what it’s really like being a freelance journalist hits the nail on the head.
Meanwhile Ruth Stokes wrote about her first year as a full-time freelancer…
Stacy Lipson gave some advice based on her experiences over the last six months
…And here’s what Priscilla McClay has learned since getting her graduate journalism qualification.
A couple of cautionary videos (kinda) from Xtranormal: So you want to be a freelance journalist?
Adventures in Freelancing, Part I: The Trend Story (so painfully true non-journos won’t believe it).
Women on Writing interview: Author, journalist, and writing teacher Susan Shapiro shares advice and info on getting started writing for magazines. She also had column on this topic for a while in Writer’s Digest, which I LOVED. Here’s a great one about writing opinion pieces.
Journalism.co.uk Jobs, articles about all aspects of journalism, training courses, and news. Good stuff.
Journobiz A great journalism forum frequented by some very talented people. Don’t go pestering ‘em for contacts or asking stupid questions (better to lurk for a bit before posting, in fact) and you should find them a supportive virtual water cooler.
Ed2010 NYC-centric advice, job leads, and interview help from magazine editors, aimed at newbies.
The NUJ’s Freelance Fees Guide (UK only)
Gorkana Journalism jobs, and an email service updated with journalism news (great for finding out who to pitch to). You can also send media requests for info/experts. I don’t use it much, but lots of journos swear by it.
The Renegade Writer and The Renegade Writer’s Query Letters that Rock by Linda Formichelli and Diana Burrell. UK types should note that the advice is US-based, but still hella useful, not to mention fun to read.
The Greatest Freelance Writing Tips in the World By Linda Jones. Out of print but worth trying to get secondhand, especially if you want tips on finding sources, networking, and breaking into copywriting.
Writing for Journalists by Wynford Hicks, Sally Adams, Harriett Gilbert, and Tim Holmes. A classic guide to well, writing for journalists, focusing on how to create a really good story. Hicks is also the brains behind English for Journalists and Sub-editing for Journalists.
Interviewing for Journalists by Sally Adams with our old friend Wynford Hicks is great stuff, too. (Could save you from that awkward sense that you’re not sure what you’re doing… Not that I ever felt like that, of course. Ahem.)
McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists by David Banks and Mark Hanna. Make sure you don’t libel anyone! This is the bible of British media law.
Only as Good as Your Word: Writing Lessons from my Favourite Literary Gurus by Susan Shapiro. Part-memoir, part self-help for writers, Shapiro genuinely wants to help others succeed and her own story is inspirational.
Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead: Your Words in Print and Your Name in Lights by Ariel Gore. Sometimes you need a joyous book to remind you why you got into all this in the first place. No, not fame (despite the title); the love of writing.
Cupcakes and Kalashnikovs: 100 Years of the Best Journalism by Women ed Eleanor Mills. Everything from Kate Adie on War to Julie Burchill on Thatcher, with cupcakes thrown in for good measure. A great read.
The Best American Magazine Writing 2010 [or any other year]. Shows just how brilliant and important well-researched long-form journalism can be.
Writer’s Digest Great US publication with heaps of great fiction and non-fiction tips. (A lot of their old features are on the website, so search it and see.)
Writer’s Forum Aimed more at beginners (some of the readers consider having a letter published a writing goal…) and wannabe novelists but sometimes includes tips on journalism.
Mslexia The magazine for women who write. Mainly aimed at fiction writers but when it does feature journalism advice, it’s always useful. (When I started out, I had an old Mslexia article on freelancing as my sole guide, and it served me well.)
Press Gazette Monthly media news. There’s also a free email newsletter.
Not exactly a magazine, but The Guardian’s Media section is in the paper every Monday (and you can read it online).
Mediabistro I did a great course on personal essay-writing with MB and I recommend them wholeheartedly. They do all kinds of journalism-related training in New York and online.
UK journos Johanna Payton and Olivia Gordon provide training for people who want to get into freelance journalism: both one-day workshops and online courses in ideas and pitching. I don’t have experience of their teaching, but I know both of them via a journalism forum, and can vouch for the quality of their work and what passionate and successful writers they both are.
Linda Formichelli of The Renegade Writer runs a course on how to write for magazines. Her website has a great journalism FAQ section and details of how to get free info, like her packet of sample queries (pitches). Read and learn.
Check out Journalism.co.uk for courses, too. Or there might be a college or university offering something writing-related near you. Get Googling!
Let’s make this the most resource-tastic post possible: what websites, books, and courses do you think it’s essential for freelance journos to know about?
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