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 email discussion group for freelance journalists. It is a great way of gleaning useful tips, but use these lists 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 300 members and perks such as a branded email address – yourname@freelancejournalism.com – and the freelancejournalism.com group, which currently has over 2,000 subscribers. The NUJ also operates a freelance directory for its freelance members.

There are also specialist lists such as Editorial Photographers UK and Media Women UK. 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.

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

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).

The BBC's training wing offers substantial discounts to freelancers for last-minute courses, but there are surprisingly few courses specifically about starting out as a freelance journalist.

We found one course by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) with a reassuring 20-year pedigree; 'Getting started as a freelance' works its magic on about 80 journalists each year, some moving from staff jobs, some completely new to journalism and some staff that are considering a freelance career after being made redundant.

Courses are usually held at the NUJ headquarters in Gray's Inn Road, London. The course covers five key areas: looking for work, doing deals, finances, tax and copyright.

Course leader Humphrey Evans has been freelancing since 1974 and has an impressive collection of anecdotes about unscrupulous accounts departments and amusing press junkets, which help to keep everyone's attention. He said that the flexibility of freelancing has allowed him to write about a range of things that interest him, as well as training and editing. He does not believe it is essential to have one specialism.

"Some journalists are intensely specialised and that works for them. Some specialise by outlet and will just do anything that title wants. And others specialise in not specialising because experts can be too expert. Sometimes they just want a layman's view."

Looking for work

Get yourself out there! Do not wait for the phone to ring, advised Evans.

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.

Directories like Brad and Benn's list a huge range of publications, and you can also identify potential clients by scanning the job adverts on journalism.co.uk (sign up to our email job alerts or our RSS feed).

You need to come up with ideas that will not cost you too much, and that will not date. Think in Hollywood terms, advised Evans: "Imagine you have 25 seconds to pitch a blockbuster."

It is all about making it as easy as possible for commissioning editors, telling them why their readers will like it, putting your contact details on everything and, in email pitches, using a clear and descriptive subject line.

Pitching the idea is a critical part of the process, with potential pitfalls. You cannot just give them your idea on a plate, because they might use it as 'inspiration' and get one of their own in-house writers to do it instead.

"Try to present the suggestion in such a way that only you can do it," said Evans.

Do not ever say no, say yes with gusto. One freelancer lost a £2,500 commission to write about Ray Davies because when the commissioning editor rang, he had just finished working on a huge project and did not sound enthusiastic enough on the phone.

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.

Contacts, darling

It is an uncomfortable but undeniable truth of the industry that getting work often depends on luck, and on who you know.

When you start out, email everyone you have ever worked for, said Evans.

"Tell everyone, tell your friends - you never know who knows who," he said.

Evans once got a call from an Observer section editor who gave him a job writing about a flight in a hot air balloon over Castle Howard. That was through a girlfriend of someone he once worked with.

He had a great time, but later found out that he had only been offered the job because the staff writers all thought it was too dangerous.

Doing deals

Freelancer Phil Sutcliffe led the session on deal making, and advised doing the initial business over the telephone, discussing the details and then confirming in writing with a paper contract or by email. Depending on the job, you might also need to discuss more detail like possible libel problems, blasphemy or special insurance for warzones, 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."

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."

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. Both Evans and co-trainer Sutcliffe have the enviable record of just one unpaid bill each in freelance careers spanning several decades, so they are well-placed to give advice on how to ensure you get what is owed to you.

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..."

Read our feature for more advice about getting paid on time.

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 using the CWF1 form, and get hold of the 'Thinking of working for yourself' leaflet (P/S/E/1). Also check out the Inland Revenue website or call the newly self-employed helpline on 0845 9154515.

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 £73,000 annually, you will have to register to pay VAT.

Copyright

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.

Sutcliffe advised the group of a number of sneaky tricks occasionally employed by unscrupulous publishers, so be on your guard: cashing their cheque does not mean that you accept their terms of use, and do not be tempted to agree to 'assign' your rights for a piece to publishers - hardened freelancers equate that to selling the freehold of your work for the price of a month's rent.

Getting you name out there


"Freelances usually benefit from setting up a website of their own," course leader Humphrey Evans explained. "The idea is to put some of your work on display. You can then provide a link within any pitching emails you send out so a commissioning editor can get an idea of your capabilities. A firm such as Mr Site can set you up a basic website for around £25 a year, although people do pay more for individual designs." 

Here are five great journalist portfolio sites to inspire you, plus an explanation of how to build your own portfolio site.
 
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, said Evans, 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. Stress was also a huge factor in the findings of a union survey last year into the well-being of freelancers.

"You can't make freelancing like a staff job," he said.

"The worst thing would be to do it because you're forced into it. You must enjoy it or it will be hell on earth."

Evans provides further guidance on freelancing as a sub here.

This article was updated by Sarah Marshall on 13 July 2011

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