Articles - 25th January 2019

Starting out on the road to becoming a Freelance Journalist

Words by Alice Cruickshank
Illustration by Jon McCormack

Do you ever find yourself thinking: “I’d love to be a freelance journalist but…”? The flexibility, creative freedom and potential financial success of working as a freelance writer is appealing to many, but knowing where to begin is undoubtedly daunting.

Not to fear: establishing yourself as a freelance journalist is easier than it sounds (yes, really!). Here’s everything you need to know to get started in your writing career.

Remember all writing experience is relevant

Many hopeful freelance writers are put off pursuing their dream because of a lack of bylines or formal journalism experience, but potential freelancers usually have a bigger portfolio than they think.

Securing a freelance commission is not about having an impressive CV. Instead, it’s about providing stellar ideas to editors, coupled with some proof that you know how to write well.

Emma Stokes explains how she used a personal project to establish her freelance career: “I left with a 2:1 BA Hons in Journalism Studies, but working for a newspaper or magazine still didn’t quite fit the bill for what I actually wanted to do when graduating

“A few months after returning home, I started up my lifestyle blog. It was a hobby for me, somewhere to write about my day, my pets, what food I was eating and where I was going.

“My little workspace grew enough online that I began working with PRs, food brands, companies and connecting with a wide variety of other bloggers and writers. After years of building up my own website and blog content, in early 2018 I decided to quit my 9-5 job and start up my own freelancing business.”

Suchandrika Chakrabarti seconds the idea that a creative project is beneficial to a budding freelance journalist: “I’ve been freelance since last May after my third redundancy in eight years, and by September I was really questioning if I’d made the right decision to not get another full-time job. I decided to start a podcast, which is about how the Internet has changed work, and freelancing comes into that a lot. It’s been so much fun chatting to people I’d otherwise have no reason to ask to chat to me for an hour and, even better, the podcast has helped me get work! I feel like this side project makes me more creative overall.”

Prepare for unpredictable earnings

Freelancing offers the potential to earn much more than any salaried job, but, when starting, figuring out how to pay the bills may keep you up at night.

Aimée Cumberbatch is a freelancer for lifestyle publications including Bustle. She says: “I decided to go freelance last year after a few years of eyeing it up. Because I knew I was going freelance in advance, I was able to save a portion of my salary every month so that I’d have a bit of a financial cushion to tide me over. If you can’t afford to do this, it’s wise to start freelancing while still at your previous job or line up a part time job for the early days, so that you don’t have to fret about finances.”

Alice Johnson explains that it takes time to find financial success as a self-employed writer: “I only earned £250 in my first two months of freelancing, but as I put feelers out and networked, the work started piling up.

“Try and cement regular ‘bread and butter’ work,” she advises. “I once took on a blog commission as it was set to a 6-month calendar. Even though the pay was lower than I’d usually charge, I accepted the payment in return for the client commissioning me to write the whole project.”

“Know your worth,” adds freelancer Carrie Kleiner. “Every time someone works for free, or for a few pence a word, it cheapens our craft. We work hard, we’re qualified and we’re talented – we all deserve to earn a decent living.”

Network, network, network

They say it’s not what you know but who you know, and this couldn’t apply more to freelance journalism. Networking is essential when starting out down the freelance route, though this doesn’t have to mean attending formal media events; often editors will tweet requests for pitches. Follow editors and writers from your ideal publications to write for and interact with them as much as possible (without coming across as annoying).

“Be nice!” explains Kleiner. “I work with a number of trusted freelancers, and wherever we can we share work or pass stuff on to each other if we’re too busy, or we think someone else is more suited to the task. Many freelancers move on to full time roles or new opportunities and then need to hire other freelancers – so the better your network, the more chance there is that work will come to you, rather than you chasing it.”

Learn the art of pitching

If you want to succeed in the world of freelancing, you need to polish your brass neck – now is not the time to feel afraid to contact someone you don’t know!

When you approach editors, do so with content ideas in mind. Suzie Prince is the editor of Actual Size Magazine. She says: “my number one piece of advice when getting started is not to contact editors saying ‘I’m just starting out and I’d love to contribute to your magazine’. I get absolutely tons of these emails, and what editors need to see is actual pitches. Send an email saying ‘I’m proposing an article about…’ rather than a wider list of what your interests are.” 

Believe in yourself

Twitter co-founder Biz Stone once said: “Timing, perseverance, and ten years of trying will eventually make you look like an overnight success.” When starting out as a freelance journalist, it’s easy to lose faith in yourself if you don’t see immediate results.

Aimée Cumberbatch says: “The one thing I wish I knew before going freelance is that you have to hold your nerve through the dry spells and trust that work will pick up again. When you’re alone at home firing off emails into what feels like the abyss, it’s all too easy to let the voice of doom in your head tell you that it will be like that forever. But it’s completely untrue and it’s just a matter of time before you’re busy again.”

As long as you have the talent, tenacity and self-confidence to pursue your ambitions, working as a freelance journalist is an exciting, rewarding and entirely achievable career. Now go start pitching!

We champion the freelancers and every entrepreneur who took a leap of faith with their idea.

If this sounds like you, head over to our Virtual Office and send us your best work via an UnderPinned Portfolio. We want to hear from you!

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