Being a freelance writer is exciting, terrifying, diverse, badly paid, well paid, rewarding, and the best/worst decision you’ll ever make. It’s mixed emotions basically. One week you’ll be worrying about bills, the next you’ll have a fat lump of cash thrust in your general direction and all will be well again.
If you’re just setting sail on the good ship freelance, it’s always best to talk to other captains before you embark, the oceans can be treacherous and experience counts. We spoke to a few talented freelance writers (ones who would never persist with such a tortured metaphor), to find out how they navigate the choppy waters themselves.
Nicola has 14 years experience of writing for a range of corporate and nonprofit clients, including The National Trust, Shell, BP, Arup, and Microsoft. She has extensive experience as a journalist, editor, copywriter and proof-reader which has ruined her eyesight but improved her vocabulary. Her favourite words end in ‘umble’ like grumble and crumble. We asked for five bits of advice, she gave us 14 (thereby demonstrating one of her own golden rules; challenge the brief.)
1. Keep a notebook of all your ideas – use it to write down anything that strikes you as interesting. You might have a chat with your neighbour about why puppet shows are scary, or hear something on the radio about nudist beaches, read a tweet about a 17-year-old feminist taking the world by storm – anything and everything that interests you can be turned into a pitch. The trick is to write them all down.
2. Think laterally. Don’t go for the most obvious hook or angle to a feature. Think of the more obscure elements to a feature that others might miss. For example, if there’s a big story in the news about why we should all cut out sugar, try to think of another way to write topically – can you find factory workers who work for Cadburys? “I work with sugar all day long and I hate the sight of it” – or interview dentists “I’m constantly having to tell parents how to brush their children’s teeth.”
3. Write from experience, write personally, write about yourself, if you want to, and you’re prepared for the judgement you might get. It’s very rewarding and when you’re just starting out, it can help you build a portfolio. But unless you’re Caitlin Moran, learn how to write about other people too.
4. Find other journalists you like and stalk them on twitter and read everything they write. You’ll be subtly influenced by their brilliance and ideas and this will encourage you to pitch and pitch and pitch again. Don’t compare yourself to them—yet. Remember, they had years and years of making mistakes too. To paraphrase Sting, let their soul be your guidance (Can we also suggest never quoting Sting’s advice? – Ed)
5. Don’t take silence personally. Editors are more busy than ever. Be persistent, but BE POLITE. Nobody likes a dick. The jury is out about whether to chase editors about your commissions, but generally I say yes. Perhaps with a phone call. You can build a relationship better by phone, and also ask: What other stuff are you looking for’ which they’ll find easier to reply to on the phone rather than by email. So make sure you have tones of honey and perfect your charming phone manner.
6. A very good journalist once told me that if you get a ‘no’ from an editor at a publication you want to write for, THIS IS AMAZING. A ‘no’ from a busy editor is basically a ‘I like your approach, sorry this idea is a no, but keep pitching.’ Don’t be disheartened by no’s – see it as an encouragement to come back with a better idea.
7. Read the publication you want to write for. There’s no point pitching a brilliant idea that won’t work for their audience—and they’ll be impressed by your research and be more likely to read your email if you can explain why it’s suitable for them.
8. If you can afford it, try a Guardian Masterclass on journalism (and claim it on training expenses.) They’re brilliant and encouraging and will give you impetus.
9. Start a blog and keep writing to demonstrate your writing style and keep up the practise of writing. Write about the sort of things you want, ultimately, to be commissioned for.
10. Celebrate your achievements, no matter how small.
11. When you’re starting out, cast your net small. Don’t pitch the same idea to 50 people. Identity four or five titles you want to write for, and keep pitching to them. Once you get a commission, pitch to them again. Build up your portfolio then use what you’ve written to leverage an opportunity with another title you like.
12. Develop an unhealthy appetite for coffee, solitude, a bad posture, and an unhealthy complexion.
13. Failing that—try to get some fresh air every day.
14. Good luck!!!! It can be simultaneously the worst and best job in the world. You’ll soon find out if it’s the one for you.
Editor of TechSPARK. Jamie Middleton is an editor and writer with a keen interest in technology and innovation. He was previously the Digital Communications Manager at the Technology Strategy Board – the UK government’s innovation agency – and the Operations Editor for TechRadar.com – the UK’s biggest technology review site. More about Jamie here.
1. Don’t say yes to everything – Freelancers, especially new ones, find it very hard to say no. Fears like “What if I say no and this is them trying me out for a regular contract?’ or ‘They’ll find someone else if I say I can’t do it’ can force you to overcommit, and this is a mistake. You definitely won’t keep new clients if you don’t have time to do their job to the best of your ability. However, if you give yourself time and do everyone’s job as briefed and to deadline, you will have a long line of people wanting you to work with them, which is a very nice place to be.
2. Have a separate working space – When starting out it’s tempting to start working from your bed or your kitchen table, because, hey, you can! And this works very well for some people, but it can make it very hard to separate your working and home life. A lot of employees can leave all their work worries when they log out and leave the office (although I’m not saying they all do!), homeworkers can find that very difficult if they are surrounded by constant reminders of the work they still need to do. Try to keep your work stuff in one place where you can shut the door on it when you need to relax.
3. Use a diary – There are mornings where I genuinely don’t know what I will be doing that day and that is why, after a variety of red-faced apologies to people I have meant to be meeting in the past, I am now very good at noting things in my Google Calendar the moment I am invited to a meeting or event/booked for work. Even if it seems a long way away, or you are not sure if you are going to say yes, a calendar entry saying ‘Meeting Steve to chat about blog?’ works as both a placeholder to avoid being double booked and a prompt to follow up on that invite if you haven’t when you see it later.
4. Capture your work – What do people want to see when they are hiring a freelancer? Proof of what you can do. An online blog or portfolio is a very useful thing to show people. Now you may not be ready for a portfolio yet, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be gathering materials for it. Nowadays, in the fast-moving world of technology, the publication you slaved so long for may not be around for as long as you think it might be – magazines and their websites close down, website domains move and pages are lost, companies have restructures and that feature you are so proud of is no longer part of what they want to shout about. The point is, there are very big clients I have worked for in the past where I can’t show off what I did for them as it no longer exists. A quick screenshot saved in a sensible place at the time, means you’ll be able to show off what you did years or even decades later. Like I do here: http://jamiemiddleton.com/
5. Remember why you became a freelancer – Finally, remember to enjoy all the things you said you would if you ever went freelance. It’s easy to forget why you left or chose to avoid full-time employment, but if you did it to make time for other things – make sure you do them!
Julian writes weekly for the Big Issue, alongside work for publications including the Daily Telegraph, Observer, Word, Simple Things, Musician, and The National (Abu Dhabi). Previous to this he was music editor at Bristol’s Venue magazine for eight years. Experienced in feature writing, reviews, opinion columns, copywriting and sub-editing, with work covering everything from music to theatre, travel to current affairs, and plenty more besides. Musings on his blog, here.
It’s probably worth just printing our Facebook chat verbatim.
To be fair, he had offered me this piece of advice a few months before:
1. Avoid cliche. If you’ve seen these words enjoined in sentence before – achingly beautiful, cool hard cash, golden age, etc – then so have others. Ensuring you don’t repeat them is your quickest, easiest path to showing an editor you’ve a distinct, original style. You’ve a language of infinite possibility at your fingertips – take the time to use it.
Freelance Journalist. Features in The Sun, Grazia, The Telegraph and many, many more.
1. If you can, try and spend some time working away from your usual home office; take your laptop to a coffee shop or a library. The change of scenery will do your concentration levels the world of good, and you should find you can focus better without the distractions at home.
2. If you find yourself procrastinating at your desk – log off for a few hours and go for a walk, watch a film, read a book – do anything but work. You will come back to your desk refreshed and ready to go again, and should end up being a lot more productive in the long run.
3. Try to give yourself regular time off and dot get sucked into the trap of being ‘on call’ all the time. If you’re stopping work for the evening then don’t check your emails on your phone – leave it until you’re sat back at your computer in the morning.
4. Don’t panic if work dries up for a short time – it is often feast or famine with freelance work so enjoy the quiet times knowing that at some point soon the work will build up again – and you will be nice and refreshed and ready to take on all that extra work. Use the time to sort all the boring admin bits if you can.
Whether you’re just starting out or an old freelance hand, Future Content is interested in you: we want great writers. Head to our content writers page and drop us a line. Or email firstname.lastname@example.org directly. Follow on Twitter blah blah blah.
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