A woman approached me at a Christmas party. I’d never met her before, but she told me she’d seen my byline in the Free Press, a paper I’d started writing for almost twenty years ago. Then she cut to the chase:
“I’d like to freelance, too. Can you give me the number of the editor I can call to make this happen?”
You will not believe how many times I’ve been asked that question. I’m not Batman, and there is no magic Batphone that will turn you into a successful freelancer. That said, freelancing can be a wonderful way to make extra money in your spare time (I don’t recommend it as your only source of income, unless you have a steady, well-paying contract and plenty of savings to support you in lean times).
If you’re serious about becoming a freelance writer, here are a few things to keep in mind.
- First, anyone who can write anything–be it a short story, poem, or university paper, thinks they have what it takes to be a freelance journalist. But that’s not the case. Journalism is a learned skill. It’s a trade, and it has a very specific formula. You can forget about the fancy sentence structure. You can forget about all the ten-dollar words you use in your literary novels. You’d better know what an inverted pyramid is, and how to use it, and if you don’t…you’d better learn.
- Very few people walk off the street and start writing for a big paper or magazine. When you’re starting out, editors want to know two things: your education, and your experience. You can get away without the first, but only if you have quite a bit of the second. Be prepared to email an editor your previous work, or come with clips in a portfolio if you meet in person.
- If you want to write for a national or international paper or magazine, your best bet is to send the appropriate editor a query letter outlining your fabulous idea. This query letter is very much the same as what you’d send to an agent or publisher for your novel.
- When you’re starting out, your best bet is to approach smaller, community publications and offer your services. You will have to work cheap in order to gain experience, but never, EVER work for free.
- Once you agree to a deadline, stick to it. If the deadline offered is completely unrealistic, say so (often, editors will give new writers a very short deadline so that they have time to commission another writer if the resulting story is unusable or doesn’t show up). Yes, there are such things as deadline extensions, but use only in case of emergency, and never as a beginning freelancer. Once you’ve written for a publication for some time, you have a bit more leeway.
- Make sure your copy is clean before you submit. Spelling mistakes and grammar errors are a huge no-no.
- Make sure your copy is accurate. Recording your interviews is always a great idea, as long as you know you have technology you can trust. I’ve had a recorder shut down in the middle of an interview without realizing it–not fun. Cleaning up quotes in order to make your sources sound intelligent is fine; changing the meaning of what they say or using it out of context is not. This may sound like a no-brainer, but many journalists have knowingly used quotes out of context. You can be sued for this.
- Make sure your copy is interesting. I once gave a friend the opportunity to write an article for a major newspaper. He sent me his story to review before submitting, and I was disappointed to see that all of his source’s quotes were dreadfully dull. When I pointed this out, my friend’s response was: “Well, he never said anything interesting”. Part of your job as a journalist is to make people say interesting things by asking interesting questions.
- Are eager to take on stories about any topic. As a freelancer, you have to be adaptable.
- Meet their deadlines. It sounds so simple, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t.
- Can work quickly. Otherwise, the pay isn’t worth it.
- Can wait to be paid. Expect to wait a month after publication for that cheque, or even longer. It’s a scandal, but there are thousands of people willing to take your place, so this business definitely favors the editor, not the writer.
- Can make anything interesting. Don’t find plumbing that exciting? It’s your job to make it exciting. If you try, you can find something fascinating about almost any topic. Trust me.
- Submit clean copy.
- Are reliable. If you promise to do something, do it. If you’re having trouble, let your editor know right away, not the day before the story is due.
- Can write to word count. Bigger is not better. If they ask for 1,000 words, give them 1,000 words.
- Never work for free. It hurts the entire industry–never do it!
- Don’t expect to get rich. When I freelanced full-time, I made a very nice living. I met interesting people, was exposed to wonderful opportunities, and was able to work in my bathrobe at home. But Bill Gates, I was not. Usually, a good rule of thumb is this: higher pay cheque = higher level of BS. The amount you’re paid often directly correlates to how much time you spend in boring meetings.
Good luck! Feel free to ask questions if there’s anything I haven’t covered that you’d like to know.Thanks for reading!