Click around the interactive above, created using Mattermap, to explore some of the questions and answers given during our live Q&A on Friday 9 May.

We recently hosted a live Q&A on freelance journalism, where those experienced in the world of freelancing shared their advice on subjects from pitching and getting paid to building your brand in real life and online.

The experts on hand in the liveblog were Deborah Bonello, a freelance video journalist based in Mexico City, Marc Leverton, a Bristol-based freelance writer, editor and lecturer, and also the author of How to work as a freelance journalist, and John Thompson, managing director of Journalism.co.uk.

A copy of the key questions and answers are also copied below, organised by subject theme:

  • Getting started

How do you come up with good ideas? Grace Clarke

Eat the local newspapers for breakfast and stay on top of current affairs. Come up with novel ideas and angles on issues that are constantly in the news. For video, securing great access can also really MAKE a story.
Deborah Bonello

Ideas are indeed the lifeblood of a good freelancer - I carry a note book at all times to catch them. I suggest reading a lot of media. Plus read outside your comfort zone. Often you can take something like a NIB and turn it into a deeper feature, or take a feature and regionalise it to your area, or visa versa. International publications can trigger ideas….Twitter can trigger ideas…Facebook…CONVERSATIONS…talk to EVERYONE!
Marc Leverton

Do I need an NCTJ qualification in order to make a living as a freelancer? Hefin Jones

Well the NCTJ qualification is good if you have no experience of journalism and you need to learn the skills. Some newspapers still insist on it as an entry level qualification. I was lucky in that I got a job at The Big Issue magazine and so got a lot of 'on the job' training which allowed me to make the transition to freelance later. So, the answer to your question is ultimately dependent upon your skills and experience. I hope that helps.
Marc Leverton

  • Pitching

Tips for getting started on pitching? Isabella

I usually suggest 3 point pitch - introduce yourself, outline your idea, and provide a link to something you have done beforeMarc Leverton
I usually suggest 3 point pitch - introduce yourself, outline your idea, and provide a link to something you have done before.
Marc Leverton

Generally, I try to keep my pitches short with as much detail in them as possible. What it's about, who may be the main character (always important in video pieces), what the visuals would be and the estimated expenses. Then provide past inks if you're pitching cold to editors you've not worked for before.
Deborah Bonello

The pitch - quantity of pieces or quality of pieces? Victor Valle

Always quality, IMHO.
Deborah Bonello

Probably a bit of both. I interviewed a chap for my 'How to work as a freelance journalist' book who used to do a 'pitch a day'. That is a good habit to cultivate, and one I wish I could get the hang of myself!
Marc Leverton

Quality, definitely. But always good to have more than one idea or back-up plan. If a pitch fails, find out why, listen to the feedback, and hone your next pitch accordingly.
John Thompson

The other thing is if an idea is continually rejected, you can recycle it and refine it for the next publication.
Marc Leverton

And remember that pitches get rejected for alot of reasons - timing, 'we just did that story' etc.....so don't lose heart.
Deborah Bonello

Should I write news stories and send them on spec to nationals or send query letters? Cris Brooks

'News' and 'letters' raises a question on timing to me! I'd say email them asap for news pieces. Or call their news desk.
Marc Leverton

I would NEVER send finished articles or pieces. Pitches should be ideas and proposals.
Deborah Bonello

A finished piece means a 'yes' or more likely 'no'. An idea gives the publication a chance to influence the angle of the piece - thus increasing your chances of getting commissionedMarc Leverton
Yes, I was assuming you meant idea rather than finished piece. A finished piece means a 'yes' or more likely 'no'. An idea gives the publication a chance to influence the angle of the piece - thus increasing your chances of getting commissioned.
Marc Leverton

If you have a news story, you are more likely to get paid for the tip than get commissioned for it (I would have thought). No point in writing it up first.
John Thompson

Would being rejected put you off pitching another idea to the same editor? Gabrielle Linnett

One thing which is important for any prospective freelancer to remember is that no two editors are the same. I have had very encouraging ones who have helped me develop my ideas and encouraged me to make more pitches, and have been apologetic that they couldn't commission more. And then there are those that find you irritating and will hide from your every communication! Largely, if you aren't getting a response I'd say give it 10 goes and then move on if you don't hear anything at all. If you do get a reply ask ' do you take much from freelancers?' at least that way you will know if you are on a hiding to nothing,
Marc Leverton

Is it ever worthwhile following up an email pitch to a commissioning editor with a phone call? Mark

Again, depends on the publication. Never call when they are on deadline as you won't get far. The day after a deadline when everyone is more relaxed is good. The day, hours, before an editorial meeting can also be a good time to pitch. But you have to be persistent to find out this kind of stuff! But the journalists should be persistent…
Marc Leverton

How do you make your work get noticed? Melody

You just have to have a good story, and keep suggesting good stories. I wouldn't say I am an amazing journalist, but I do have a good eye for a story. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses you just have to play to your strengths I think.
Marc Leverton

  • Making contacts

How to start a career as a freelancer journalist, when you don't have a big experience? @e_atti

I refer you to my website point for those starting out. And forget online portfolio's - build your own online media!
Deborah Bonello

Also, tag onto and ask for help as many industry pros as you can - they're all been where you are and most should be willing to help.
Deborah Bonello

There is always some kind of starting point - student magazine, blog, local newspaper, listings magazine. These places are easier to get to published and can give you a spring board for bigger and better, and more well paid, opportunities.
Marc Leverton

I think it's pretty tough to start out as a freelance journalist from scratch, unless you are already expert in some in-demand niche. Much easier to work full-time first and build your contacts network, knowledge, online presence and portfolio.
John Thompson

Also use your strengths, if you know about music or theatre or teaching. These niche interests can also give you an advantage.
Marc Leverton

What are your top tips on building up contacts when starting from almost nothing? Lucie Mitchell

Try and meet editors esp if you're going off to foreign climes. And I've made good contacts at journalism events that I've followed up on later.
Deborah Bonello

Start local and work out from there I suspect is the easiest thing to suggest. I have found that people I used to work with have gone on to do really interesting things so always keep friendly with people!
Marc Leverton

  • Online branding

How important is it to have your own website, blog or online portfolio as a freelance?
Kathrin O

Start your own online media. Teach yourself basic website management - I manage and run the website and have complete control of itDeborah Bonello
I can't say enough on this subject about how important an online presence is. As I said early, I started mexicoreporter.com back in 2007 when I arrived in Mexico as a blog and now it is an advert for what we do and brings in loads of work. But I would say don't treat it as a portfolio - start your own online media. Teach yourself basic website management - I manage and run the website and have complete control of it.
Deborah Bonello

I'd say it was important, but don't get too distracted by it. I have seen some of my students spend weeks agonising over things. Keep focused on the main thing which is getting your work out there.
Marc Leverton

What is the best way to build up an online portfolio as a travel journalist? Mengfan Chen

I'm going to refer to my book again here as I interviewed Simon Calder, editor of the Independent Traveller magazine for it. He said that lots of travel journalist pitched the same thing - 10,000 words on a place they have just returned from. But he had columns in his magazine that he struggled to fill. The trick is for the aspiring journalist to spot these little opportunities and use them as your road in. He also said that pitches were better whilst you were travelling, rather than once you came back. Up to date information is vital.
Marc Leverton

  • Getting published

How do you get published by someone big and respected like the Guardian or BBC? Is it all about contacts? Oliver

I work for a lot of the big names; the Guardian, I'm the BBC's shoot edit, the FT's Mexico video person etc. I used to be staff for the FT. I've always made sure to compliment not compete with existing correspondents and work alongside them on video elements to their stories rather than competing with them....
Deborah Bonello

I have been published by The Guardian and that was just an email pitch like any other. I think you need a bit of luck, and to know the right editor to pitch it to. Timing also helps. Of course the main thing is whether it is a good enough story!
Marc Leverton

You've produced a great piece of work, but you're not sure the best place to get it published. What next? Oliver

I think HOW the piece of work appears always depends on the media outlet, in terms of style and approach etc, so even when you have your story in mind be flexible with media on how you're going to tell it - I don't think you want it to be too produced up front.
Deborah Bonello

It's been a while, but I found that packaging a feature with supporting images would often help, especially if the imagery is good.
John Thompson

Re second part of the question, I would say getting the piece published is most important so that you can get it done and move onto the next piece. Waiting for The Guardian could leave you waiting for a long time, which isn't the best of your time as a freelancer.
Marc Leverton

  • Getting paid

How do you make freelancing pay? Are there @NUJofficial pay rates? @inglian

Pay rates in my case depend on the client. I do know that the rates for video tend to be higher, mainly because there is the use of expensive equipment involved. I either work on a dayrate basis or a per-piece agreed in advance basis. But always agree money upfront.
Deborah Bonello

A very important part of the job of course! You can look here: http://www.londonfreelance.org/rates/. It isn't incredibly accurate as it relies on posts from journalists, but it can give you a guideline.
Marc Leverton

You can also just ask 'what are your rates'? It is less awkward to talk about if there is a 'set rate' rather than having to negotiate.
Marc Leverton

Making freelancing pay has always been about persistence, innovation and importantly - having a thick skin. You will get pitches rejected and mustn't get disheartenedDeborah Bonello
Making freelancing pay has always been about persistence, innovation and importantly - having a thick skin. You will get pitches rejected and mustn't get disheartened.
Deborah Bonello

How do you cross that elusive bridge between working for free for exposure to eventually getting paid? Kayleigh Groves

I have only worked for free when I really felt I had a lot to learn. Otherwise it is, in my view, a slippery slope. I think you have to aim high but also be prepared to work for titles that aren't the big ones......you have to start somewhere and published work is published work. But have high standards - don't LOOK like a rookie even if you are one and make sure your work looks as good as it can.
Deborah Bonello

The best opp I have had was when the LATimes here in Mexico offered to take me on as a 'news assistant' and train me up in video. Best training ever. the pay was crappy but the training and people were awesome. I think crappy pay is different to no pay.
Deborah Bonello

Better to build a portfolio on paid work, even if it is not especially well paid or in a particularly high-profile publicationJohn Thompson
My students ask me this practically on a daily basis! Persistence is the main thing. Getting out of the 'free ghetto' too, lots of publications are relying on young journalists for copy. But there are lots of others too, just keep knocking on the doors of the ones who have some budget. They will answer eventually.
Marc Leverton

I agree with Deborah. Better to build a portfolio on paid work, even if it is not especially well paid or in a particularly high-profile publication. It's important to approach freelancing as if you are already a professional. If you work for free, you create an expectation of free.
John Thompson

I agree with John - persistence, a thick skin, and good, well-researched ideas. Plus be in tune with the publications that you're pitching to and stories that are really their style.
Deborah Bonello

... What legal support do freelance journalists have to make sure we do get paid? Where do freelance journalists go to get freelance contracts checked to verify they are legit? When is the best time to negotiate pay? Stacey Lucas

Ask other freelancers what they charge for reference. And be prepared to wait for payment - even the best and biggest media companies can drag their feet sometimes.
Deborah Bonello

I'd say you have to start some negotiating at the commissioning stage, you don't want to get too into the work if they aren't going to pay you.
Marc Leverton

Agree all terms in advance. There are boilerplate templates you can use. A signed contract goes a long way if you end up in a small claims court. The NUJ offers a lot of support in this regard but a lot it is just common sense that would apply to any business.
John Thompson

I have threatened a poor payer with legal action before, I was never going to but it put the wind up them enough to pay me after waiting 4-5 months. NUJ does offer some legal protection for its member, but thankfully I have never had to find out how far that extends!
Marc Leverton

And in the case of production and video work, make sure you know what work is involved before committing - things that seem like a piece of cake can take a lot of time to set up and pre-produce.
Deborah Bonello

  • Organising your business and finances

As starting up as a freelance I'm concerned about the taxing system, how does the tax-return work?
@J_RKeith

In a nutshell you keep a record of all that you spend and all that you earn, the difference is your profit. Declare that profit to HMRC with a self-assessment online thingy and they will tell you what tax to pay!
Marc Leverton

Sorry, that was a bit brief but that it the gist of it! The HMRC self assessment online forms are super easy to use. I went from fearing it to quite enjoying it. You get a 14 day window in case you have incorectly submitted it.
Marc Leverton

Keep receipts for everything that could conceivably count as a business expense and enter the payments in a spreadsheet or accounts packageJohn Thompson
Keep receipts for everything that could conceivably count as a business expense and enter the payments in a spreadsheet or accounts package. The more outlays you can account for, the more you can use to offset your profit and therefore your tax liability.
John Thompson

Yes, and keep a good record of all your earnings - when did you invoice, for whom, and when you got paid.
Deborah Bonello

Personally I would recommend using an accountant, especially if your work consists of mixed, taxed paid shifts and untaxed freelance commissions.
John Thompson

Are there any things as a freelancer you can get deductions for? Alex Blake

Allowable expenses: www.freelanceuk.com
John Thompson

Should you have a business name or use your own name? Lucie Mitchell

I think always go for an editorial brand on your website rather than yourname.com. I think online portfolios are a bit dated, and wouldn't you rather than if someone types your name into google they come up with a great story you've worked on rather than your url?
Deborah Bonello

If you have a business name that implies you are a Ltd company, as a freelancer you can be a sole trader. This is less paperwork at the end of the day. Which, to me, can only be a good thing!
Marc Leverton

Re: creating a company - some advice here strat-talking.com
John Thompson

Would you recommend getting an accountant or doing it yourself? Lucie Mitchell

A accountant will cost you a couple of hundred pounds before they even open an email from you. Having said that they can save you hundreds of pounds. I have taught myself how to keep a simple spreadsheet and to do my own online tax return, and that knowledge has been really useful.
Marc Leverton

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