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Freelance journalism

Many journalists freelance at some point in their careers, and there are many appealing aspects – home working, writing about topics which interest you - but there are challenges to going it alone too.

Lee Bell, freelance writer and editor, offers his seven tips for aspiring freelance journalists.

1. Use your contacts

Lee Bell

Lee Bell

A lot of freelance journalism is about who you know. If you already have some contacts in the industry, whether through work placements, internships or friends – use them. Don’t be afraid to ask for favours or feel like you’re being a burden. For instance, if a contact knows someone you want to know – get them to introduce you – it only takes a few secured commissions in the right places to help get your name out there.

If your contact book is a little thin, don’t worry – network the best you can to fill it up, even virtually. LinkedIn is a great place to start if you’re not able to get to physical events. Add commissions editors for publications you want to write for and don’t hold back on messaging them or pitching them an article idea – but keep it brief.

2. Find a niche

I was lucky enough to have spent four years working for a technology publication, regularly covering an area which was already quite specialist, so when I went freelance I was pretty much seen as an expert in that particular field. This worked to my advantage when pitching nationals, as they wanted a writer who understood a complex topic well enough that they could relay it in layman’s terms.

If you’ve no experience in the niche you want to go into yet, at least make sure you have a passion for it. In my experience, enthusiasm and personal knowledge was half the battle. People can smell a mile off if you’re not interested or aware of a subject you’re writing about. Of course, there have been times where I’ve taken commissions on subjects I haven’t the foggiest about but that’s when that good old journalistic research comes in handy.

3. Prepare but don’t think too much

Going freelance can be very daunting. Especially if you don’t have much experience yet. But if you’re confident that you can get enough work, you just need to bite the bullet and not worry so much.

Nearly everyone I know who’s gone freelance hasn’t regretted it. If you’re unsure if there’s enough work there, then perhaps go freelance part-time around your current job and once you’ve built up enough regular work, jump straight in – you won’t look back.

4. Have a portfolio to hand

Be sure to have a few examples of articles you’ve written because if the editor you’ve pitched hasn’t worked with you before they’ll probably want to see examples of your work.

Make a website and upload your clippings to this. Not only will it be easier to find them when you need them, but it makes you look a lot more professional and serious about what you do in the eyes of anyone potentially paying for your services!

5. Pitch, pitch, pitch!

Contact publications you’d like to write for and don’t feel disheartened if they don’t reply or don’t like any of your pitches. It’s not personal – it might be that they’ve already covered that area recently or the editor has already planned to write one similar.

Establish good relationships with PRs who may give you exclusives on product launches or interviews, then you have something unique to offer the publication in question and are more likely to score a commission. Also – never work for free. If they offer you this as an option, politely decline. This is your job, not a hobby!

6. Retaining regular work

Once you’re established – you’ll be relying a lot on your contacts/regulars to give you work. But remember, they’re under no obligation to give you regular work so if their budgets get cut for any reason, freelancers are the first to lose out.

Have backups and constantly be on the lookout for new opportunities.

7. Be open to all types of commissions

While it’s good to have a niche and be known for having deep knowledge in a specific topic, don’t limit yourself. As a freelancer you’re going to have to be flexible, especially at the beginning when you’re finding your feet.

The journalism world is changing and there’s a lot more sponsored content and copywriting around than ever before. Be open to taking on this type of work. It usually pays well, which will help take the pressure off the amount of work you’ve got to reach your monthly pay goal – thus freeing up some time to send some good quality pitches to your dream publications.

Lee Bell

About Lee Bell

Lee received a bursary from the Journalism Diversity Fund in 2009 to complete his NCTJ diploma.

Lee now has over a decade of journalism experience in both digital and print, writing for online, magazines and newspapers with ongoing project work in copywriting, branded/commercial content, media consultancy and content strategy.

He kickstarted his career at the now defunct B2B tech site The Inquirer and, since going freelance in 2017, he regularly writes for a host of British and international media such as The Metro, The Mirror, The Times, CNBC, GQ, Esquire, Men’s Health, Shortlist, Stuff, Forbes, Wired and more.

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