When freelance journalist Caroline Harrap wrote a year-end Twitter wire about his 2022 experiences, he’d like to “bin,” struck a chord with freelancers everywhere.
Here, he reflects on what he’s learned, with tips on how to survive (and even thrive) in the autonomous world of 2023.
1. Stay healthy
There’s no doubt that life as a freelance journalist comes with its own unique set of challenges. In what other industry do customers decide what they are willing to pay and then not cough for a month? And that’s if everything goes well.
Then there’s all the other craziness to contend with, from pitching ideas and beating deadlines to pocket calling your publisher at 1am (ok, that last one is me…)
On the flip side, though, there are no expensive commutes or office politics, your time is yours to manage as you see fit, and the world really is your oyster (well, nobody can afford an oyster, but the question remains…)
From taking a day off to work on a story close to your heart or launching a dream post, it also helps to remember the good things about staying (relatively) sane.
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2. The art of pitching
One of the most important aspects of being a freelancer is pitching. Fortunately, there are some great resources on the subject, from helpful articles like this one from Writer’s Digest to helpful YouTube videos from the BBC to excellent masterclasses from National Geographic Traveller.
My own two cents: There is no magic, universal formula, but here are some of the things that have worked for me… Be sure to set the subject line to “Freelance Program: And then the suggested headline,” so they can imagine the story right away.
Keep the pitch snappy: Commissioning editors are always ridiculously busy, and be specific. Mention why the article is of value to your readers, why it should be published now, and why you should be the one writing it. Finally, make sure they haven’t done it before. Then pray.
3. Navigation of rates
Talk to any freelance journalist and one of their biggest mistakes will be fees, and how they have barely risen since 1985. This topic has already been covered quite extensively in the Press Gazette, such as the famous case of writer whose daughter did more. of the nanny than covering a trial for murder; so let’s focus on what can be done to mitigate medieval pay levels.
First, it’s almost always worth asking for more money, since the worst they can say is no. Second, there are publications that still pay a reasonable price: usually trade/specialist titles, tabloids, and certain magazines, and there are some outlets in the US that pay a dollar or more per word. Thirdly, it is always worth checking resources such as the NUJ working rate and then negotiating accordingly.
4. Chasing invoices
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that life as a freelance journalist will involve spending an inordinate amount of time chasing modest amounts of money. And that’s not to mention navigating Kafkaesque levels of complication when setting up payment systems.
The best strategy to take here is to bypass the assignment editor (the last thing they want to think about is the admin) and make friends with the account department. As for me, I’m now swapping vegan recipes with an accountant in hopes that this will help cash in (I’ll let you know as soon as we figure it out…) Not something I’d necessarily advocate, but you get the idea.
5. Dealing with ghosts
A phenomenon most often associated with dysfunctional relationships, ghosting is something most freelancers will experience at some point. One particular editor ghosted me last year, after they told me they wanted a story, and now I have a kind of weird, inverted Stockholm syndrome where my only final desire is to get their attention one last time.
Anyway, the key here is to be less like me, chase once or maybe twice, and then move on. Life and bank balances are too short to wait. Also, a trick I learned from another freelancer is that one last email, politely explaining that you’re taking the story elsewhere, can sometimes be the push they need to decide they really want to.
A regular side gig can help provide some much-needed security to offset the rollercoaster of fees. I mean, sure, there will always be the freelancers on Twitter who say they make all their money from journalism and are doing great, thanks and good luck. But when the pitching process can be so hit and miss, I find knowing that I have at least some guaranteed income each month helps me sleep at night.
In fact, if you look at those who claim to make over $100,000 a year, dig a little deeper and they often make some of their money from newsletters/copywriting/book editing/training/public speaking, etc. So it’s worth a look. also for opportunities in adjacent fields.
7. Find your tribe
Whenever I’m asked what I wish I knew early in my freelancing career, it’s the power of community. Freelancing can be a lonely job and even the most introverted of us miss those water moments every now and then. So finding kindred spirits to share in the general craziness of it all, such as the Society of Freelance Journalists (SFJ) Slack channel, can really help.
For full transparency, this was a group I helped create, along with three other journalists, at the start of the pandemic. But everyone in our community is so generous with their help, advice, support and solidarity, and I don’t know what I would do without them. There are also other notable organizations such as Journo Resources, Freelance for Journalists and Freelance with Tim to name just a few.
8. Stay connected
Another thing to mention is the importance of staying digitally connected to the freelance world, whether through newsletters, social media or online resources. There are several newsletters that share pitch calls, including Sian Meades-Williams, Write at Home, and again, Journo Resources, and job opportunities can also be found on our SFJ Slack channel.
Being on Twitter (for better or for worse…) can also be very helpful in finding calls for proposals, building relationships with editors, and securing case studies or complicated sources. There are also many online resources available, such as the Headlines Network who are doing great work around mental health in journalism.
9. Get story ideas
One thing new freelancers often struggle with is coming up with story ideas. Everyone has their own ways of doing it, but when I was a rookie reporter, I was always taught the value of contacts, and I think that’s still the case today. Therefore, it pays to meet people in your area of interest and talk to them.
Also, subscribing to any relevant newsletters can be a good source of inspiration, and birthdays, events and anniversaries can be a useful hook. Naturally, reading as many posts as humanly (and financially) possible is the best way to get an idea of what they’re looking for and what’s currently missing. Lastly, just chatting with friends and family can also generate story ideas and, more importantly, keep you from going crazy.
10. And if all else fails…
Keep in mind that even the most experienced journalists still have submissions ignored, often ghosted, and often don’t get paid as much as they should. The whole freelance model is a little crazy (dare I say, broken?) and there are a lot of talented people out there who deserve to be commissioned a lot more. And this without even going into the diversity (or lack thereof…) of our sector.
But as long as you keep pitching, filing on time and delivering accurate copy, it’s possible to survive, and even thrive, in the frenetic world of freelancers. And at least you can take solace in the fact that you didn’t pickpocket your editor at 1am.
- Caroline Harrap is a freelance journalist and editor who has written for The Guardian, The Observer, Euronews, France Today and Culture Trip, among others. She is also a co-founder of the Society of Freelance Journalists
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