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Be in no doubt about it – freelance journalism is a very tough gig.
In theory, anyone can call themselves a freelance journalist because there are no rules or qualifications for entry. Generally though, talent will prevail and those with the appropriate experience and skills are most likely to succeed. If you have already put in some seriously hard graft for your career and are ready to start out on your own, we’ve set out a few tips…
Firstly, the best people to give you advice are those that have been freelance for a few years. If you already know some freelance journalists, consider it an investment to take one or more of them out for lunch (freelancers are not likely to turn down a free lunch) and ask them for their insight and experience.
Consider joining an online community for freelance journalists. It is a great way of gleaning useful tips, but use them wisely. Posting a question about how to get work or the name of the Independent’s commissioning editor could get you shot down in flames. If you are a serious journalist, you won’t have to ask.
Generally, groups are friendly and supportive and if you ask intelligent questions, you will be surprised by how much effort and detail people are prepared to put into their replies. One day when you are hammering away in a bedroom office miles from anywhere and anyone, you will really appreciate being part of a chatty, professional network.
Journalism.co.uk runs a freelance database with over 400 members and perks such as a branded email address and discounts on our training courses. The NUJ also operates a freelance directory for its freelance members.
There are also specialist lists such as Editorial Photographers UK, and specialist groups and chats for mobile journalism, open data, journalism education and more. Here is a detailed list of online communities for journalists.
Even if you just lurk in the background without ever making a contribution, it is still an excellent way of learning about the industry and the hot topics of the day. Here’s how to make the most of these resources.
And of course there are no shortage of websites, including journalism.co.uk, that offer news and information about the practice of freelance journalism.
Training courses and resources
It is never too late to learn. Journalism.co.uk has a comprehensive list of short training courses on its site, which cover all areas of journalism (and some others too). We also run one day courses in London and evening courses in Brighton to help you get up to date with digital and essential journalism skills.
Check out this collection of podcasts highlighting the skills needed to succeed in the industry today, as well as pitching and finance advice for freelancers and student journalists who want to see their work published.
Looking for work
Get yourself out there! Do not wait for the phone to ring.
Target some suitable publications, look at the kind of thing they publish and identify what they might need. Many freelancers aim too high to start with, hoping for work on the national papers. But there is much more chance of getting work on specialist titles, especially if you have relevant knowledge and experience, and business-to-business (B2B) titles often pay well.
Find out the name of the commissioning editor at the organisation you are pitching and don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and give them a call – even if it seems easier to tweet them.
“It’s never as bad as you think it’s going to be,” Tim Holmes, senior lecturer in magazine journalism at Cardiff University, told Journalism.co.uk.
“If you do manage to get the commissioning editor’s number then have your pitch ready to hand and be direct with it.
“It may be that they then ask you to email your idea, which is fine and just make sure that your email is direct, to the point, business like,” he said.
Make sure you double-check the spelling, even if the names look simple at the first glance. “You don’t want to be sloppy in your pitch or you’d be sloppy in your journalism,” explained Ellie Levenson, freelance writer and journalism trainer.
It is an uncomfortable but undeniable truth of the industry that getting work often depends on luck, and on who you know – so when you start out, email everyone you have ever worked for.
Finally, you will inevitably receive knock-backs. Take them on the chin; remember that author JK Rowling was rejected by 16 publishers before Bloomsbury published her Harry Potter novel.
Freelancer Phil Sutcliffe leads an NUJ course on deal making, and advises doing the initial business over the telephone, discussing the details and then confirming in writing with a contract.
Depending on the job, you might also need to discuss more detail like possible libel problems, blasphemy or special insurance for war zones, for example.
But usually the basics are the subject, angle, number of words, deadline and interviewees.
“It’s about being clear, and firming up anything that’s important to you,” said Sutcliffe.
“Making deals is important whatever stage of your career and whatever the medium.”
Even if this is your first professional byline, do not be afraid to ask for payment. “This is a really difficult thing to ask when people are starting out, [but] I think you should include a question about what you will be paid in your pitch,” said Holmes.
Making an offer they cannot refuse
Before negotiating rates, do your research. Find out what the publication pays others, be clear about how much time you will spend and what your expenses will be.
The magic phrase is: “What are you offering?” said Sutcliffe.
“Don’t be timorous – be positive and humorous, and open up the topic in whatever way is comfortable to you.”
Commissioning editors usually have some amount of flexibility – so whatever rate they suggest can probably be increased. Do not be afraid to point out your own expertise, your unique contacts and how much work is involved. By negotiating confidently, said Sutcliffe, you could up your rate by as much as 150 per cent – and if they like your idea and approach you already have the upper hand.
“Don’t think you’re an underdog that should be grateful for the work,” he said.
“This is a business relationship and you are providing a service they want. It’s about confidence. And smile – it will help your tone of voice.”
You can find out more about the rates certain titles pay – as well as who actually pays in the first place – in online communities such as JournoAnswers.
Finances and tax
The good news is you do not have a boss. The bad news is you do not have a salary either, and you will spend a staggering amount of time chasing unpaid invoices.
Variously due to incompetence, inefficiency and occasional downright theft, chasing money from elusive publishers and accounts departments is the bane of a freelancer’s life.
It is quite understandable that, as someone with talents in writing, editing and journalism, you may not be a natural accountant but to survive as a freelancer you must be able to manage your money.
Aim to set a 30-day limit for both delivering your work and getting paid. Keep in touch with the accounts department and develop a good system for chasing up unpaid invoices – every Monday morning, for example. One useful trick is to state in the contract that copyright for your work does not pass to the publisher until the bill has been paid.
Payments are likely to come in spasmodically, but at home your bills will go out regularly so you will need a financial cushion to help bridge any gaps. You may also need to look at health insurance and sickness cover because, as a freelance, a long stretch of illness would mean no income.
And in the distance, you also need to consider setting up your own pension – something else that would usually be provided in a staff job.
“You don’t want to be out there still cranking out work because you didn’t make any plans for your retirement,” said Sutcliffe.
“But then freelancers never retire…”
The tax-man cometh
Tax need not be as horrendous as you might think. Before you do anything else, tell the tax office that you are now self-employed, and get hold of the ‘Thinking of working for yourself‘ leaflet (SE1). Also check out the HMRC website or call the newly self-employed helpline on 0300 200 3504.
As a freelance, you will pay tax on your profits – what is left after expenses have been deducted from your earnings. Expenses include things like the cost of office space, consumables, advertising and travel.
It means getting into the habit of keeping all your receipts and records for six years and grappling with an annual self-assessment tax form.
You will pay your tax in two lumps the following year, so if you have a good year remember to put enough aside. You also need to pay national insurance contributions and, if you earn more than £81,000 annually, you will have to register to pay VAT.
Copyright is what Sutcliffe calls “a bread and butter kind of thing”. Whatever you make or produce – not the idea, but the actual piece of work – belongs to you, so when you create work for someone else, be clear about how they are allowed to use it.
It is normal to agree the right to use your work once in one medium and one territory – first British serial rights, for example. Anything beyond that, such as if the publisher wants to use your work online as well as in print, should cost more.
The culture shock
If that does not all seem too daunting, there is still a health warning: freelance journalism is extremely tough. Freelancing requires a certain aptitude, and it will not suit everyone. If you like a regular wage and paid holidays – think again!
Working freelance means learning to live with uncertainty, even though a staff job is not necessarily more secure. Freelancing can lead to psychological strain because of the constant deadlines, money worries and the pressure of having to perform consistently at your best when interviewing and writing.
Additional useful reading:
This article was originally published in April 2006. Updated by Sarah Marshall on 13 July 2011 and by Catalina Albeanu on 14 April 2016.