Working as a Freelance Journalist
Journalism is a very popular career choice and one I am often asked about as a careers advisor. This spotlight interview gives a different spin on the usual career path of a journalist, as Anne works from home as a freelancer.
In this interview, Anne tells us about the benefits and the challenges of working freelance in the competitive world of journalism.
So, briefly, what is your job?
“I’m a freelance journalist. My clients include a design magazine, several universities, a charity and a marketing agency.”
How did you get into it?
“I wanted to be a writer but didn’t get good career advice and also never did any kind of journalism course. I studied English and sociology at university, then did an MA in English.
I got my first job at a magazine publisher after impressing them while on work experience – I asked questions, made myself useful and was the first workie to pick up the phone and find something out. I moved to a bigger company after 18 months and started writing some freelance articles in my spare time, with my employer’s permission. After a year, my job was under threat and I decided to try freelancing full-time. I got some work by sending ideas to editors, making contacts at press events and responding to adverts, and some people contacted me through my website, but more work came through word of mouth recommendations than anything else. Reputation is really important in this business – good freelancers are surprisingly hard to find.
After three years as a self-employed writer and editor, one of my freelance clients hired me full-time. I thought I’d enjoy the security, but realised I preferred freelancing and left after eight months. I had built up good relationships with my freelance clients so I was able to line up work from the first day back.”
Describe a typical day.
“My work varies hugely but I work from home a lot and try to keep to a vague routine. I start by checking emails and doing admin, such as invoicing and updating my accounts. I’m not a morning person and can’t think creatively early on.
The bulk of my time is spent interviewing people, often on the phone, doing research and chasing people for information. The actual writing is a small part of my job and it’s often the quickest, easiest part. I work very fast to some quite tight deadlines. I also spend time researching ideas to suggest to editors as some only hire me if I pitch to them, while others simply provide me with a brief.”
What do you enjoy most about your job?
“I love the variety and the fact I can always try new things. I don’t have to find a whole new job if I want to branch out into a new area, It’s great being able to pursue topics or issues that particularly interest me by suggesting feature ideas in those areas and I’ll also never tire of seeing my name in print.
I also love the freedom of being able to control my work environment. I work in offices sometimes but in all honesty I prefer the peace and quiet of working at home alone. I particularly resent having to make tea for other people whenever I want a cuppa. I did try working in an office with some other freelancers, but it drove me crazy.”
And the least?
“It’s really hard to turn down work as it means refusing extra cash, so I frequently overload myself. It’s infuriating when I’m delayed by people failing to send me information they’ve promised. And sometimes I have to chase payment, which is infuriating and time-consuming.”
What are the common misconceptions that people have about the work you do?
“People think freelance writers swan around writing one article a week like Carrie Bradshaw. I wouldn’t eat if I did that. People also seem to think I must get writer’s block. Journalism isn’t an art and there is rarely time to hang around, you just have to get on with it. It’s usually other people that slow me down, not a lack of inspiration.
The other common misconception is that you should send off finished articles. That’s the equivalent of Domino’s just sending you a pizza instead of the menu! Ultimately you are running a business and you need to ask people if they want to buy your product. It’s also a mistake to ignore the feedback you receive. When I worked on staff, I sometimes sent guidelines explaining what I was looking for, yet a lot of writers ignored them and sent more unsuitable ideas.”
What are the main skills you need to be a Freelance Journalist?
“You need to be very thick-skinned because a lot of your ideas will be rejected or simply ignored. You also need to motivated, determined, good at talking to all sorts of people, and very, very personable. If you are rude or offhand, people simply won’t hire you again.”
Tell us a little about the benefits that come with the job.
“Earnings vary wildly in freelancing and in journalism full stop, and it’s not something you should go into for the money. However, I earn a good living and I love the fact I’ve turned writing, which used to be my hobby, into my profession.”
What advice would you give someone wanting to break into this career?
“ There’s no set academic path. Journalism degrees aren’t well-regarded by some employers and expensive postgraduate courses are something of a risky investment when there are few job openings. You’re better off looking into fast-track NCTJ courses. If you want to be a freelance writer, consider doing a short course e.g. via the NUJ. You’re trying to start a business so may need to invest time and money in this.
Blogs and websites are great for self-promotion, but only if they’re well-written with no typos – first impressions are everything.
Don’t see other writers as the enemy. You’re in competition, but they are your colleagues and may recommend you or pass on work to you. A lot of people wanting to break into journalism ask for advice, then fail to say thank you. Never, ever do this. It’s a small world, manners are everything, and journalists have long memories.”
Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?
“I don’t know what I’ll be doing in a year, never mind in ten years. I imagine the media industry will have changed beyond all recognition and I’ll be doing a job that doesn’t even exist right now. I don’t really think ahead too much. Freelancing is hugely unpredictable and you just have to take it as it comes.”
AND JUST FOR FUN…
First in the office or last to leave?
“Working from home means I can never really leave.”
Tea or coffee?
“Strong coffee or chai tea.”
Staff canteen or packed lunch?
“Whatever I find in the fridge.”
The lift or the stairs?
“Stairs, so long as there aren’t too many”
Out after work or straight home to bed?
“It depends. Sometimes I work in bed!”