Friday, 29 July 2011

Eight Ways To Survive As A Freelance Journo

I've been self-employed for the best part of 23 years, having spent only three as a staffer on Kerrang! magazine.  This week, I was a guest along with journo-novelist Danny Leigh at the July In Development drinks in London, chatting informally about juggling the transition from journalism to fiction work.  Besides discussing that topic, though, I reminded myself of a few principles which seem to hold true, when it comes to keeping work consistently coming through the door as a long-term freelancer.  So here they are:

1) Work For More Than One Title
Fairly obvious, this one.  Don't put all your eggs in one basket.  Today's magazine and newspaper world is so volatile, that it would be unwise to merely write for one.  Slowly build up a network of publications to which you contribute. That way, if one sadly collapses or decides your contributions are no longer needed, you won't feel the impact quite so keenly.  When I was working full-time as a journalist, I would be writing for five or six titles at any one time.

2) Be Utterly Dependable
This touches on what I was saying in my earlier post How To Write For Magazines.  It's all very well to build up that network of publications, but you need to maintain it.  Do this by building trust and by never failing to deliver.  Some journalists can get away with continually missing deadlines, but they're in a real minority and almost certainly possess images of their editors shrieking while molesting swans.  The importance of delivering on time, time after time, cannot be overstressed.  Editors understandably want the least bother possible, and chasing you up for copy ranks high on their list of pet peeves.  You should also observe word counts religiously, as it's not the editor's job to perform cuts.  Needless to say, you also need to write well.  That helps.

3) Have A Regular Thing
Financially-speaking, the best thing about freelance writing is that there is, theoretically, no upper ceiling on what you can earn in any given month.  The worst thing?  The lower limit is zero.  Sometimes work just doesn't come in and yet your landlord strangely still insists on receiving rent.  Once upon a time, publications could afford to splash out on retainers for their favourite writers, guaranteeing them a certain amount of work each month.  I gather this is now less common.  So more than ever, you need a Regular Thing - and preferably more than one.  This can be a column, a regular feature or some section of the publication which you specialise in and/or handle.  Study each publication and pitch a Regular Thing to them.  Then stand exultant on your plinth of guaranteed work.

4) Be Pro-Active
As much as we all love the romance of waiting for the phone to ring - or these days, for the inbox to ping - with an offer of work, the reality is that you can't afford to sit around waiting for that to happen.  Try to maintain a balance between work which people come to you for and work which you pitch to publications.  Suggest articles, interviews and/or enthuse about things you'd love to review.  Don't be too ludicrously persistent with this: no-one wants to receive more than a few pitches a week.

5) Be Nice
It really helps if you're a personable character who gets along well with the people who can give you work.  Try and meet commissioning editors wherever possible - even socialise with them if possible.  While I think the expression "It's not what you know, it's who you know" is over-cynical and all too often cited by folks who can't seem to 'break in', there's no denying that editors are more inclined to commission people they like.  It's not about schmoozing and craftiness: it's just about being nice and easy to work with.  How hard can that be, eh?  You'd be surprised.

6) Don't Mess Up
Quite a broad topic, this, as the most casual of glances at the unfurling media scandals will attest.  Obviously, don't hack phones.  That's a given, right?  But on a less sensationalist level, try to avoid things which will get your publications into trouble.  Do your best not to damage ongoing relationships with interviewees, for instance.  Make sure you're well-versed in your country's libel laws - and if in doubt, leave it out.  No single quote on Earth is worth a libel case against your publication.

7) Manage Tax
Hire an accountant and make sure you're not over-paying.  Familiarise yourself with the things you can claim against tax, including 'capital gain' items such as that digital recorder, for which you can continue to claim over a period of time, albeit at a reduced rate.  Ensure that you're registered with the correct tax code for each company.

8) Establish A Niche
Obviously, being a freelancer means embracing as much variety and flexibility as possible.  You want to get as much work as possible, which can sometimes mean taking on work which doesn't exactly blow your skirts up.  That's all fine.  But for each publication, it will help if you're the 'go-to person' for something or other.  Maybe you love a certain type of film, or music, or book - and more importantly are something of an authority on it.  When editors have their meetings to decide what gets covered, you want them to immediately think of your name when it comes to certain things.  So establish that authority and you're more likely to receive regular work.

All good common-sense stuff, then.  If you're a freelance journalist, feel free to post your own thoughts on maintaining longevity and work-flow in the Comments section below!

Read about Jason Arnopp's new e-book, How To Interview Doctor Who, Ozzy  Osbourne And Everyone Else, here.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Twitter Feed Established!

Yes, this site now has a dedicated Twitter feed at @JournoZone, right here.

It will handily update you about new blogs/pages on this site (apart from this one, otherwise a never-ending loop would be formed which could destroy all of time itself) and also present/RT job opportunities in the heady world of journalism.

Follow!  Follow!  And thank you for doing so.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

How To Write For Magazines

Lately, a few people have dropped me a line, asking how they go about approaching magazines for journalistic work. This year, I will celebrate (or, alternatively, be depressed by realising I've done) 23 years of freelance journalism, so may be able to shed a bit of light over what can seem like an intimidating, impenetrable fortress, but is actually fairly simple. So here's a potted guide which, clearly, shouldn't be taken as gospel. Like anything else, your success at securing journo commissions will be partly influenced by luck, the changing moods of office-bound, bleary-eyed staffers and possibly the moon. So here goes...

The first thing to do, when preparing to approach a mag, is know its style from top to bottom. Both in terms of tonal style/attitude and its literal formatting, right down to whether it prints album titles in inverted commas. Detail counts.

Next, single out the appropriate Section Editor from looking at the mag's masthead (you know, that column with all the staff names on). I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s best to approach the Section Editor rather than The Editor, for a very good reason. If you approach the Editor and they like your work, and pass you on to the Section Editor, then there’s a chance that the Section Editor will feel bypassed and resent being handed a new writer (I once had the editor of a UK film mag happily telling me to contact the Reviews Ed, which I did, only to never hear back). But if you go to the SE first, they’ll be happy to scamper over to the Editor with their new discovery. Politics and ego are rife in this area, just like anywhere else. People always want to put their own stamp on things, or indeed freelancers. Incidentally, yes, it does help if you know the Section Ed on some level before approaching them. So check and see if they're on Facebook. If they're not stalker-phobic and accept you as a friend, then buy some fish for their fishtank. Hey, can't hurt. Just don't ask them for work via Facebook. Business, pleasure and all that.

So. Write the Section Editor a brief and to-the-point e-mail, or a letter (don't phone them, or you'll invariably be greeted like an annoying ear-wasp - in this cyber-age most people hate phone calls from strangers) casually asking if they are looking for new writers - perhaps in a certain field which you specialise in. If an Editor has a gap of knowledge on their team, you can bet they’ll want to plug it. If they're open to new contributors, they may ask for exactly what kinda sample material they want to see. If they're more vague, just send them some sample work - not too much - in the exact same style as the mag, in every way. 

Here’s the absolutely vital, yet fiendishly simple, bit. Editors, whether Reviews, Features or anything else, want two things more than anything else:

(1) Work they'll have to do the minimum of editing on. If your stuff arrives good-to-go, they'll love that. You may even get a Christmas card.
(2) Work that's delivered when it's supposed to be. Miss deadlines, and you can guarantee the Section Ed won't miss you.

These things add up to an easy life for the harassed Section Editor. So consistently deliver them, and you’ll see the re-commissions roll in…

Read about Jason Arnopp's new e-book, How To Interview Doctor Who, Ozzy  Osbourne And Everyone Else, here.