Freelance journalists play a vital role in print, online and broadcast publications around the world, but the job can often leave reporters vulnerable.

Working with limited resources, without the support of a bigger company and full-time colleagues can be challenging, so how can an aspiring freelance journalist get started?

Liv Siddall, former editor of Rough Trade Magazine, James Manning, City Life editor at Time Out and Morwenna Ferrier, assistant online fashion editor for the Guardian, gave their advice to an audience of budding freelance journalists at the Route Talks: Modern Journalism event in London on 29 January.

Get some writing experience

Manning, who is responsible for commissioning, editing and writing stories about life in London for Time Out magazine in print and online, said he started writing a blog on London's music scene when he was 16, before contributing to his university paper and various other publications.

"By the time I decided to write professionally, I already had some experience, and I advise people starting out now to do the same – get into the practice of being able to write and turn pieces around in a short amount of time.

"If I get sent a good idea, I'll commission it regardless of whether that person has written for anyone else – but they need to show they can write, even if it is just a blog."

Find your passion

"Find out what you're really into. I've written about stuff I don't care about and it's horrible – and bad writing too," said Siddall, who works as a freelance writer, editor and content producer across print, digital and radio.

"If you're passionate, you'll go into it with a positive attitude and that energy will come across. Plus, you'll be a bit of an expert in the area from the start."

Manning agreed, explaining the value of having expertise in an area that no one else can write about.

It's good to stay in contact, show you are helpful and constantly offer work – editors (...) need us like we need themLiv Siddall

"If you're really into something, look out for a publication that doesn't have someone who does that niche, and offer to write about it," he said.

"An obscure story might not be needed straight away, but in six months you'll be at the top of their list if something in that area comes up."

Don't work for free, if you can help it

"It's very British not to talk about money – I often go for meetings where we discuss what I'll be writing for them, but there's no talk of pay, and then I have to go home and email them about it," said Siddall.

"You feel like you're being funny about asking for money, but you are working, you're not doing it for free.

"I don't get paid to write for zines, and that all helps to get your work on paper, but if it's a company you're writing for – no way."

Manning agreed, stating that journalists should not work for free if they can help it, even when they're starting out.

"These financial struggles are the perils of doing a job that's fun," he added.

"If you can help it, don't work for free. Take the brief, then ask about the price. The attitudes on work experience and internships are also better now."

But how do you support yourself when you're only getting the odd piece commissioned here and there?

Ferrier said copywriting is a popular choice for many freelancers, as it allows them to develop their skills while earning money.

Siddall added that freelancers should make the most of the situations that they are in, always taking opportunities to meet new people and gain a wide circle of contacts. Before going freelance, she was the editor of Rough Trade Magazine and host of Rough Trade Radio, as well as online editor and features editor at It’s Nice That.

"I still struggle now, but I can't imagine starting out without that experience in a work environment," she said, explaining that she is now able to use her contacts from her full-time work to help her out as a freelancer.

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Do your research

"Research not just what you want to write about, but also what publications are out there that you'd like to approach," Siddall said, highlighting the value of heading to your local news agents and scanning through the magazines.

"Start reading, understand the tone of each one, and think about what kind of things they'd like you to write about. I have a folder of things that interest me and try to find stories around those."

At Time Out magazine, Manning receives pitches every day, and appreciates when one comes through that's carefully considered the tone, format and style of the publication.

"The way I commission is through set formats, such as a certain type of interview like 'things you only know if you're...', so think about what you could do that's new but in a similar style, such as the next one in a series of articles – there's no substitute for reading the publication you're pitching to."

Get pitch-perfect

The perfect length? Keep it to a maximum of three sentences, the panel agreed.

"And don't be precious about your ego," said Ferrier, adding that when she pitched her first commissioned article, only one out of 14 publishers replied.

The panel explained that it's difficult to know what particular editors want when it comes to pitches, because depending on the magazine, their time, or what other people are pitching, it may affect whether you get the commission or not. However, freelancers should keep abreast of who they pitched to and when, which allows them to follow up, maybe at a more suitable time for the editor.

"If they don't reply the first time, don't take it personally – keep emailing," Ferrier said.

"Chances are they are on deadline. If you were to pitch to me at 9am rather than 4pm, I'd usually reply – you have to do your research."

There's a 'golden formula', Siddall said, consisting of having the perfect angle and idea at the right time, which contributes to your piece being accepted.

"I've been trying to do a feature about George Harrison's garden, but no one wants it, and I have to remind myself that what's interesting to me isn't interesting to everyone," she said.

"It's good to stay in contact, show you are helpful and constantly offer work – editors appreciate the help, they are up against deadlines, and they need us like we need them."

For more advice on freelancing, check out this article on crafting the perfect pitch and these tips from editors at 24 news organisations to help you tailor your story pitches, and join our freelance directory.

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