Sean Knox is a freelance journalist and a graduate student at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. He writes about science, the environment, and anything else that comes to mind.
Journalists become freelances for any number of reasons. Some like the flexibility of being their own boss and setting their own hours, while others want to be sure they can dedicate time to covering stories that matter to them. With ongoing layoffs and newspaper shutdowns reducing the number of staff positions available, freelancing is also becoming an increasingly common fallback plan.
The thought of starting out as a freelancer can be daunting, but there are great pieces of advice out there that can help you prepare for the journey ahead. We spoke with freelance journalists Jen Monnier (freelancing full-time for one-and-half year), Jane Hu (full-time for three years), and Ashley Braun (full-time for four years).
Be prepared to budget
While freelancers can make good money, remember that there will be no payslips to rely on. Your rates and commissions will vary and you may have to wait a while to receive payment for completed work.
It helps to know what to expect so you can prepare for uncertainty. "Getting used to being anxious about where my next paycheck is coming from has been an adjustment," said Monnier, who mentioned that saving and budgeting have been key skills she has developed as a freelancer.
Hu, like many journalists, was drawn to the career by her interest in writing. But she emphasises that all freelancers need to manage the financial aspects of the job.
"I feel like I’ve had to learn a lot about business - how to manage your work flow over time, and then also just doing some pretty careful financial planning and trying to be realistic about how much work you can get done, in what time frame, and then figuring out whether those assignments actually pay enough to make sure you have enough money to live on from month to month."
Be bold, even if you are an introvert
Many aspects of freelancing can be intimidating, especially if you do not consider yourself to be particularly outspoken. But to succeed as a freelancer, being able to ask for what you want is key.
"You have to instil that confidence in yourself, even if you don’t have it," said Monnier. For her, this has included asking for gigs, reaching out to editors to let them know when she was available for work, and not worrying about whether a solid pitch is 100 per cent perfect before sending it out.
Monnier also said that it is important for new freelancers to become comfortable with reading and negotiating their contracts as soon as possible, particularly when it comes to issues like rates, story rights, and liability. Although this can be a challenge, freelancers should trust that good publications worth working for likely will not turn a freelancer away for asking these questions, and it is a skill that freelancers can build on over time.
"Just start googling, do your research, and the more you do it the easier it’ll become. The earlier you start, the better off you’ll be," advises Monnier.
Similarly, freelancers should be comfortable with saying no when an assignment offer does not meet the goals or contract requirements they have set for themselves. Publications will not always be able to meet some or all of a freelancer’s requests, and it is up to you to decide whether or not the opportunity is worth your time and effort.
"I think that you should keep in mind that you’re running a business, and you can’t lose sight of that," said Braun. "You have to know the value of your work and be able to walk away from opportunities that don’t meet your standards."
Build up your peer network
When new journalists think about networking with colleagues, it is easy to focus on all the writers who are doing exactly the kind of work you hope to do one day. Often, these are writers who have been refining their careers and writing for many years. While following the work of more advanced writers has its benefits, focus your networking efforts on your peers too.
Monnier recommends reaching out to people who are closer to where you are in their professional careers. Although social media can be full of drama and distractions, platforms like Twitter can be a great way to engage with early-career journalists.
"You don’t want to drop into people’s DMs regularly, but if there is someone who’s also sort of new at this who’s written an article that you really liked, it’s great to comment on it and say that, and just start to develop those connections right now," said Monnier.
Away from social media, covid-19 has made networking a little more of a challenge but it is still possible. Many conferences are being held virtually and national groups like the Society of Professional Journalists or the National Association of Science Writers can help freelancers to connect with other writers and writing groups. Along with national organisations, you can also go local.
For students, one great way to build your peer group is to stay in touch with the people in your cohort.
"I would say one of my biggest supports as a freelancer has been a group chat with two people who were in my grad program," said Monnier.
"We’re all still figuring this out, so I have no hesitancy asking them super-elementary questions."
Expanding your peer group and building relationships with friends and colleagues can also open up unexpected opportunities, including discovering potential future clients.
"I had a friend who had been fact-checking previously for Discover Magazine, and recommended I get in touch with their copy editor who ran the fact-checking department to let them know that I was interested in fact-checking. So now I have fact-checking as one of my tasks in my repertoire of journalism skills that are marketable to a range of publications," said Braun.
Embrace a side hustle
Freelancers will often have to develop one or more side gigs to ensure a steady stream of income if writing opportunities slow down. These can take many forms, from audio production, to editing, to writing for trade publications. But one of the best skills to develop is fact-checking.
"I feel like it makes you extremely accountable to where you’re getting all of your sources and the credibility of the sources," said Braun. "It helps you learn from other writers and reporters because you’re basically deconstructing and re-reporting their stories, so it’s just a great opportunity to learn from others in your field."
Bonus tip: prioritise wellness
It is all too easy to find yourself feeling anxious and overworked as a freelancer. You might not give yourself sufficient breaks and the nature of freelancing can make you feel like you should be pitching and writing and working all the time.
Monnier said that self-care was actually her number one recommendation for new freelancers.
"Being able to take care of yourself and give yourself time off and know when you’re approaching burnout [is important] because if you burn out and you aren’t able to work as well, that’s [just] bad for business."
Looking for more? Learn about where to find work and how to pitch your ideas along with getting paid, developing contacts and building your brand at the How to become a successful freelance journalist course.
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