With the U.S. economy still in a vulnerable position, more and more journalists are looking for extra work to supplement their incomes. And with so many non-journalists also looking for extra work, it’s easier for those in journalism to find work on the side as a freelancer. Or is it?
As someone who has only been in journalism professionally for four years, I recently stumbled upon my first paying freelance writing gig. It’s not enough to pay a major bill or send me to St. Tropez for a week’s vacation, but any extra income — no matter how great or small — is always a good thing. Plus, getting clips with smaller publications may eventually lead to work with bigger publications, meaning bigger pay (and that trip to St. Tropez).
Jeanne Devlin, who frequently worked with freelancers, said that while many news outlets — particularly newspapers — don’t hire or need freelancers, journalists looking to break into freelance work shouldn’t expect to land their first freelancing job with a major publication. “Realize that all publications will most likely want you to start small as bigger assignments go to writers they know and trust,” said Devlin, former editor-in-chief of Oklahoma Today magazine. “Too much is at stake usually to handle freelancers any other way.”
But that shouldn’t deter less-experienced reporters from trying their hands at freelancing. Devlin says that while it’s good for Generation J’ers to freelance for online publications, taking the traditional route to freelancing is sometimes better. Successful younger journalists do their research, present good info to editors and learn from their mistakes.
“Many of the young/novice writers I worked with … got their foot in the door by being willing to go back and plug holes as I saw fit and taking the rewrites with good grace,” she said. “They often got their chance by mastering a particular topic area. They learned from the rewrites, and eventually they enjoyed the success of an article making it to print with only a few little tweaks.”
Writer/author Pam Grout has been freelancing for more than 20 years, writing for such magazines as Travel + Leisure, Cooking Light and People. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Kansas State University, where she took a magazine writing class that motivated her to send query letters to editors at different magazines. “That’s how I developed my career, one query after another,” Grout says. “My first big assignment was with Modern Bride. And then I just built on that.”
Sending out well-written queries can get the ball rolling on freelance opportunities. But poorly written ones can stall the process. I remember my first “query” sent via e-mail to Essence while in college: “I have plenty of great story ideas for your magazine. Please e-mail me back. Thanks.” Needless to say, no one at Essence responded.
It’s never easy to break into freelancing, especially for younger journalists. But here are five tips to help you ease into landing your first, or next, freelance writing assignment.
1. READ, READ, READ
“Good ideas come from keeping your pulse on the national trends, so you can feel them emerging, not finding yourself chasing them,” Devlin said. Stay current and fresh with your ideas. Read newspapers and news sites frequently to keep abreast of what’s happening locally, nationally and globally.
2. WRITE, WRITE, WRITE
“Writing is just like crafting furniture or doing surgery: You get better with practice,” Devlin said. And the more you write for smaller publications, even non-paid assignments, the more clips you’ll have in order to build trust with editors.
3. KEEP LEARNING
The industry is changing every day, so change with it. Take a photography class. Read a book on a topic with which you’re unfamiliar. And knowing different forms of multimedia will come in handy. For instance, knowing how to post stories on the Web using HTML or uploading a video with your story can set you apart from other freelancers.
4. DO YOUR HOMEWORK
If your dream is to write for Newsweek or Time, read them religiously to get a sense of what kinds of stories they produce. And don’t just read the articles for kicks. Study a magazine’s voice and style to learn what kind of writers the editors are looking for.
5. GROW THICK SKIN
Successful freelancers know that their work has to fit into the editor’s vision for the publication, Devlin said. “If an editor asks for a change, deliver that and more,” she adds. “And do it with a smile. Everyone gets edited, even Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists. And the good ones appreciate it.”
Tiffany Luckey is an editorial assistant for The Community Press in Loveland, Ohio. She’s a member of SPJ’s Generation J Committee and the Greater Cincinnati chapter. You can read her musings about being a young journalist on Gen J’s “First Draft” blog.