Recently, a new Twitter follower tweeted me to comment on the page on my website
, where I talk about my work and experience. He had liked the page, and complimented it. Part of it describes my former, and long, career as a journalist for major publications. Some of that time, I freelanced.
He asked me to share any advice I might have for him: a freelancer just getting going.
Hmmm. I’m qualified to offer some advice. I freelanced for Businessweek
(before it was owned by Bloomberg), Salon.com
, The New York Times
, the Far Eastern Economic Review
, the Singapore Straits Times
, and other publications.
Although I could give freelancing advice, should I?
I am not a huge fan of freelancing in the modern state of journalism. So many amazingly talented journalists have been let go as their publications have crunched their budgets and their staffs. That means that the market is still lopsided in the favor of employers, or so it seems from the intelligence from my friends who are still freelancing.
My disclosure: I haven’t freelanced in more than a decade. I started a consulting practice when I left the Cleveland Plain Dealer
through a buyout offer in 2008 and doing business development is different than freelancing. Believe it or not, as unpredictable as recruiting new clients can be, it feels more secure to me than getting started in freelancing felt.
Still, it was the getting started in freelancing that was the hard part. After that, it got better. Much better.
Here is my list of what freelancers need to be (or become). If you want to freelance and excel, these traits are the minimum requirements. You either need to have these qualities now or you need to acquire them quickly.
I don’t mean for this list to sound overwhelming. But it is realistic. I supported myself as a full-time freelancer for more than two years. These are some of the tips that I wish that I had known when I made the leap from employee to freelancer.
I was blown off by at least a dozen editors. Some never bothered to return emails. Others promised to get back and didn’t. One actually stole my work. Oh, and I started freelancing after being a staff writer for major publications in major markets. In other words, I wasn’t a newbie. If you want to make it as a freelancer, you must be tenaciously persistent.
After turning in a story the day it was due at the length requested, editors would frequently tell me how rare that was. Meet deadlines. Return calls. Be responsive. Be dependable. Those habits will help transform you into the freelancer who editors call regularly.
Be worthy of hiring
You might not want a full-time “regular” job. (Although that is an aspiration freelancing can help you reach.) Nonetheless, if an editor assigns a story to you, that choice comes with a price tag. Hiring a freelancer is an extra expense that comes out of an editor’s budget. Squeezing more work out of the writers already on staff does not. So if you are going to overcome that strike against you—financially speaking—you have to be even better than some of the folks on staff the editor could assign. You’ve got to have something so good it justifies the expense.
Be a pitcher
If you want freelance work, get good at pitching story ideas. You have to learn how to pitch a story so good, the assigning editor is jumping out of her chair to give it to you.
The trick is to figure out how to report enough that you know you could source and write the story, if you get the assignment. But not spend so much time that you’ve wasted valuable hours researching too deeply—in case the idea for that piece goes nowhere.
You also want to have backups, in case one editor rejects an idea, so that you can try to pitch it elsewhere. Try to always send three ideas or so at the same time, so you offer a choice. You’re more likely to get a yes that way, I found.
This goes along with the persistent attribute, but it’s different. Not only do you have to be tough, you’ve got to learn to take rejection repeatedly and keep going. Freelancing can feel as if you are on a permanent job hunt. You need to adjust to the fact that a batting average of .500 is great. That means you’re going to hear many, many of these: “Uh, no thanks.”
This is what helps you pitch, write, and keep coming up with great story ideas. Everywhere, a possible story idea lurks. Check out quirky things. Wonder. Explore. Be curious. It will be the fuel for your stories.
You have to be totally convinced you want to do this. You can’t make a go of freelancing sort-of. I’m just giving it to you straight. Finding story ideas, pitching, following up with editors, reporting, and writing—and sometimes doing all at the same time—is a very demanding, full-time job.
Be a sales person
More than a little of successful freelancing is selling. You’ve got to sell your stories, yourself, your credibility, your ability. Phone calls and emails with editors are now sales calls. Really.
Be able to deal with lumpy cash flow
Even successful freelancers face some great months, pay-wise, and some that are not so great. If this is going to cause overwhelming anxiety or huge problems for your household budget, it’s probably not for you.
You’re going to have to pluck story ideas from a variety of things you read, see, or do. Your creativity is going to determine, sometimes, at least, whether you get assigned a piece—or not. You’ll need creativity for your pitches, your writing, your follow-ups, and more. Tap into this asset. And hone it.
Be good enough
You don’t have to be an amazing journalist to make a go as a freelancer. But you will have to be good enough. If you don’t have the chops, getting assignments will be really, really hard. It’s hard enough when you’ve got the goods. So be honest with yourself. Or ask an editor you know and respect for an honest assessment.
I hope that some of these have been helpful. It is possible to make a career as a freelance journalist. I know because I did it. But it’s not easy.
Let me know what you think. I wish you much luck and success if you decide to launch into freelancing.
Becky Gaylord worked as a reporter for more than 15 years in Washington, D.C., Cleveland, and Sydney, Australia, before she launched the consulting practice, Gaylord LLC. A version of this story first appeared on the author’s blog.