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.


  1. Great and very useful post.

    Matt Badham

  2. Thanks for this. I'm just about to finish an MA in Magazine Journalism at University of Central Lancashire and am finding the thought of making inroads into the industry very intimidating! I don't feel like the corporate route in is right for me but freelancing seems like a big mystery.