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 thought. I’m qualified to offer some advice. I freelanced for Business Week (before it was owned by Bloomberg), Salon.com, the New York Times, Barron’s, the Far Eastern Economic Review, the Singapore Straits Times and other publications.
But, though I could give freelancing advice, should I?
See, I am not a huge fan of freelancing in the modern state that is journalism. So many amazingly talented journalists have been let go as their publications have crunched their budgets and their staffs. And that means that the market is still lopsided in the favor of employers — or so it seems from the intel I get from friends who are still freelancing.
My disclosure: I haven’t freelanced in more than a decade. And while I started a consulting practice when I left the Cleveland Plain Dealer through a buyout offer in 2008, 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 did.
Still, it was the getting started in freelancing that was the hard part. After that, it got better. Much better.
And I had learned some useful lessons as a freelance writer. So, I decided to collect several of those tips and turn them into a blog post of advice for freelancers who are, themselves, starting out.
Here is my list of what freelancers need to be (or become). If you want to freelance and really 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. And I supported myself as a full-time freelancer for more than two years.
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.
I lost track of how many times I heard from an editor — after I turned in a story the day it was due at the length requested — 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 here 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. And 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. You not only have to be tough, you’ve got to learn to take rejection over and over 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’re not going to have to be an amazing journalist to make a go as a freelancer. But you will have to be good enough. If you really 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. And these are some of the tips that I wish that I had known when I made the leap from employee to freelancer.
Let me know what you think. I wish you much luck and success if you decide to launch into freelancing.