After the award-winning freelance journalist Donna Ferguson had her daughter nine years ago, she decided to become self-employed and never looked back. Writing regularly for The Guardian and The Observer, she still enjoys the freedom and flexibility that her career offers.
"Many people assume that you cannot freelance for nationals if you never worked there as a staffer but it’s not true," she says.
"Everything I achieved was through cold pitching."
And she has certainly achieved a lot. With eight awards for her journalistic work under her belt, Ferguson went from being a specialised personal finance writer to covering anything from arts to celebrities to investigations. It was only after she became a freelancer that she was able to start working for the publications she was always dreaming of.
Accept the feedback
Her first networking experience with a commissioning editor at The Guardian was pretty unorthodox - she bumped into her at a children's party that both of their kids were attending. Ferguson took the plunge and introduced herself, and followed with a story pitch.
"The first article I wrote for her was so rubbish that she sent it back to me twice," she laughs. But, she adds more seriously, if someone takes the time to give you feedback and send your work back, it is very valuable because you can learn how to improve. "You can’t take everything personally."
She learned from this experience that constantly pitching to one editor and getting to know their section pays dividends.
"Once you show them how keen and enthusiastic you are, they notice you," she adds, "But ideas are not precious gems. If no one gets back to you on a pitch, let go."
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When you work solo, no one comes to tap you on the shoulder and offers you a job. You have to seek out new opportunities and invest time in understanding what editors want.
"You don’t write for yourself - editors have a page to fill and you want to be the one to fill it," says Ferguson who admits to having struggled at the beginning of her freelancing career.
She wanted to write for a section of The Guardian and kept on pitching to its editor until, after the sixth time, he told her he is not the right person and asked her to contact his deputy. There was a happy ending - after receiving and taking on some feedback, she was commissioned more than 20 times.
Nowadays it is much easier to find commissioning editors than in the past. You can try to Google their name and title of the magazine to find their email address, or follow them on social media where their contact details may be published. You can also try and guess their email by looking up the email format the publisher is using, or try one of the many email finder tools available online to figure out how to structure their email address. If the message bounces back, try something else.
Twitter, however, remains the best platform to network with commissioning editors since it is here they often post calls for pitches. Many share tips on how to pitch to them and you can also chat about topics that are not work-related (but be gentle with comments about their Wordle score).
"Keep on pitching even if it doesn’t work out," advises Ferguson. "It’s one of the best ways to network and whatever they reply, be polite. Chase and if they still don't reply, pitch something else again. If you keep on pitching, they will end up giving you feedback because you are constantly in their inbox," she jokes.
Award ceremonies are another great networking opportunity. Do not hesitate to apply, even if you doubt you could win - after all, you never know. Freelancers can often benefit from discounted application fees and if you get shortlisted, make sure you attend the event and talk to fellow attendees. It is also a precious opportunity to get your work in front of prominent editors who may be judging the entries - you never know who will like your work and contact you with a commission.
Although you may feel like there is a gulf between you and commissioning editors, remember that they are humans, they have an ego and they are all very busy.
"You can stroke their ego, why not, but always be polite and rise above frustration if they don’t get back to you," says Ferguson.
She stresses that you should never burn bridges. For example, if your piece gets published elsewhere, there is no point going back to them and showing them how wrong they were about not commissioning you.
"You don’t want them to feel bad. It may still not have been the right fit for their audience and now you even seem like an annoying person."
[Read more: How to make good money as a freelance writer]
Freelancers also often get paranoid about having their ideas "stolen" and are reluctant to pitch again to an editor if, after a rejection, a similar story was published in their section. Although Ferguson admits that "idea theft" may sometimes happen, more often than not this is a coincidence and by not pitching again, you only undermine yourself.
At the end of the day, the more you pitch, the more chances you have to get commissioned. The best way to find new ideas is to talk to people. This can be your sources, fellow journalists and editors - talk to whoever you can contact. Also read publications cover to cover, even the sections you do not normally follow. Any new information or background can give you ideas for fresh angles on stories you would like to write about.
Sometimes though, all you need is to give yourself a break. Even if you do not have commissions every day of the week, you can just take a day off - you are your own boss.
Donna Fergusson leads a masterclass series for women freelancers in collaboration with Women in Journalism.
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