"Bad Language"

A column about writing in business

How To Be A Freelance Journalist

I used to be a freelance journalist. I gave up and went over to the dark (corporate) side where I am now a copywriter for big tech companies. This is a summary of a longer post on my blog that tries to sum up whatever lessons I can remember about being a freelance hack. Your mileage may vary.

  1. Hone your skills. Read lots (LOTS!). Write lots. Try to write 1,000+ words a day. Learn to type fast. Read practical guides, like Writing to Deadline. Concentrate on figuring out how to tell a story and how to write a killer lede (opening sentence). Go to classes, but only if you can spare the time and money.
  2. Find good subjects. It's impossible to be a great writer on every subject. Find one or two areas that excite you and where you can become an expert. Figure out how the insiders get their inside knowledge and cultivate sources.
  3. Charge enough money. The British National Union of Journalists has a freelance fees guide. For UK magazines, expect to get between 10p and 35p a word. US magazines pay more but expect more. If you plan on working 180 days a year, i.e. weekdays minus a month for holidays and a month for admin, training and marketing, and you figure out how many saleable words you can write a day, you'll get an idea of your likely annual income. Frightening, huh!
  4. Market yourself. The daily pitch is key. Send out 240 good pitches a year and you'll probably get enough work. But send something every day. Keep track of relationships, ideas, clients and try to study magazines carefully before pitching. Better to have a good relationship with three editors than shotgun 50 who won't remember you.
  5. Generate ideas. Again, read lots. I like obscure trade magazines and websites. Trade shows are good too. Try to find information that your client's readers won't know and then figure out what they should know about it. Keep a notebook for ideas and write everything down.
  6. Organize yourself. Deadlines are going to be part of your every waking minute. Get over it. Plan ahead. Organize your working environment. Keep a proper diary, to-do list and notebook. Get a Dictaphone, a hands-free headset and a way to record phone calls. Every week, plan ahead so you know how you're going to get all the work done in time. Don't miss deadlines. Editors expect writers to be late so being on time is a good differentiator. It also means they'll call you if they need something urgently.
  7. It's a business, stupid. Write a business plan. Get business advice -- an accountant and a friendly, cheap lawyer. Get professional indemnity insurance. Try not to rely on a single client or contact for all your work -- things change, people move on. Bill people promptly and stay on their case if they don't pay you on time (they won't). Keep proper accounts. Pay your taxes. Floss. Wear sunscreen.
  8. Be your own editor. Proofread your work properly. Use the tools in Word to help. Try to allow time to leave a piece for a day or two and then come back and tidy it up.
  9. Fact-check in advance. Document your sources and record your calls. It's much, much easier to answer a fact-checker's question if you've done this than if you have to go rooting around in piles of old notes. Proper sourcing also makes it easier to reconnect with old contacts and dig up useful facts again for future work.
  10. Develop a sense of humor. Being a journalist is an honorable 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.

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Columnist Matthew Stibbe is Writer-in-chief for Articulate Marketing, a specialist copywriting agency. His clients include Microsoft, the British Government and leading magazines like Wired and Popular Science. Matthew also writes a blog called Bad Language. Click here to read more articles by Matthew Stibbe.