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Making it as a freelancer?

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by STLIrish, Sep 30, 2008.

  1. STLIrish

    STLIrish Active Member

    To you freelancers out there: What does it take to be a successful one?

    I'm growing very tired of watching my current ship sink, and would like to find a new boat before I get tossed overboard. But I can't move cities at the moment, and I'm not sure I'm ready to give up the writing life. So I'm thinking about freelancing and other, more entrepreneurial approaches to journalism, of building my own boat, if you will. I'd love to break in to steady magazine work, but I don't know many people in that part of the biz.

    I know freelancing is extremely competitive, and a tough nut to crack. I'd imagine it's even tighter these days. So I'm wondering what it takes to be successful, to make a living that even begins to approach what I make now. And how you all do it?
    For what it's worth, I'm not really a sportswriter - more business/public policy - though I do have some sports experience. I'd probably try to write a little bit of everything.
  2. In Exile

    In Exile Member

    There are already several good threads about this topic from the last year or two (sorry, but I don't know how to put in links). Do a site search on "freelancing" however and they pop right up.

    But the short answer to your question is this:

    Have a financial cushion when you start - I cashed out on my retirement from the day job fifteen years ago. And a wife or partner with health insurance.

    Have a steady gig or two lined up if possible - makes the transition easier.

    Don't be too picky, particularly at the start. Small crummy jobs can lead to bigger ones.

    Hit EVERY deadline - and be early if you can.

    Work harder than everyone else.

    Don't confine yourself. I've done articles for newspapers, magazines and programs, columns, books, edited books, helped write book proposals, done ghostwriting, ad work, consulting, etc. Never did stringing.

    But understand in this economy that many opportunities are also drying up.
  3. Kato

    Kato Active Member

    Don't be too picky -- I have to emphasize that one. My wife's a full-time freelancer (she makes more money than I do at the paper) and takes almost every gig she can, even a few that make my eyes roll. But it adds up in a hurry and does lead to opportunities you never knew were out there.

    As for the economy drying up opportunities, I'm not so sure. I think more places are hiring freelancers and having more contract-for-hire gigs -- no full-time pay, no insurance, etc.
  4. playthrough

    playthrough Moderator Staff Member

    Here's one thread, there are others if you do a search:


    In Exile hit the main points. Not confining yourself is a good one. Four years ago I knew I wanted to freelance full-time, but if you told me then that I'd be writing the stuff I'm writing now, I wouldn't have believed it.

    Never would have done this without my regular-job (and benefits) spouse. Single people who freelance full-time have my utmost respect. Though I hope they're not doing it without health insurance.
  5. lono

    lono Active Member

    To survive as a freelancer, you have to do three things well:

    1. Find the work.
    2. Do the work.
    3. Get paid for the work.

    You have to do all three all the time. Lots of freelancers fail because they land a big job and forget to be looking for the next job after that. You can write like Hemingway, but if you aren't constantly after the next gig, you'll go broke.

    Some other semi-random thoughts, some of which others have already said.

    1. Have some cushion - savings or a part-time job - when you start, because it'll take you a couple of years to make a decent living.

    2. Work for people with money. Sounds obvious, right? Well, you aren't going to get rich doing gamers for $25 a pop for the Bumblefuck Gazette. An ad/p.r. agency, on the other hand, might not balk at charging them $100-$150 and hour for top-notch writing.

    3. Diversify, diversify, diversify. If you have all your eggs in one basket and your editor leaves, his or her replacement might have their own freelance star already. And then you are screwed.

    4. Create a professional appearance: Build a website with good-looking, well-presented clips you can show people. It's a solid investment for the future. While you're at it, get nice business cards.

    5. When you make the leap, contact every friend you have and tell them you're freelancing now and looking for work. You never know what's out there until you ask. And contact them every 3-6 months to remind them you're still in business.

    6. Understand every job before you start and then deliver it. The truth is, most assigning editors are already up to their asses in problems. The last thing they want is you to add to the list. So if they assign you a 500-word story on poodles and it's due Thursday, give them a 500-word story on poodles no later than Thursday. Don't give them a 1200-word story on small pets turned in two days late.

    Give editors exactly what they ask for and they'll give you lots of love in the form of repeat business.

    7. Don't be needy. Most editors are too busy to spend a lot of time chit-chatting, so don't pester them with non-essential e-mails and phone calls.

    8. Always ask for referrals and a letter of recommendation — it can be a simple e-mail that reads, "STLirish has been assigned 12 stories by me and has always turned in top-notch work, on time." — Suzy Smith, Editor

    I would explain to editors that because you are a freelancer, referrals and recommendations are part of your compensation.

    9. Agree to payment terms beforehand. Sometimes, the biggest and richest companies are the worst about paying you. I've had plenty of folks take 90 days.

    10. Be nice to everyone. You never know when you'll need help or where. There are a lot of talented people out of work right now in my line of work, and some of them aren't even being considered for great jobs because they are toxic personalities.
  6. STLIrish

    STLIrish Active Member

    Thanks for the thoughts, and I'll check out the older threads, too.
  7. da man

    da man Well-Known Member

    When I was a full-time freelancer, I'd estimate I spent 75-80 percent of my time beating the bushes trying to drum up work and 20-25 percent actually doing the work. The sad fact is that as a freelance reporter and writer, reporting and writing is a small part of what you actually do.
  8. MU_was_not_so_hard

    MU_was_not_so_hard Active Member

    Lono, I'm still doing this full-time, and I have to say, that list is about 99 percent spot on.
    Damn fine job, sir.

    My issue, and I can't stress this enough, is not to piss off your potential editors. I've heard too many horror stories about this (and from people trying to get full-time gigs) and all it does is make hearing your voice or seeing an email from you grind their gears.

    And yes, having a bit saved up in advance helps, too. I'm 13 months into doing this full time, have moved half-way across the country twice and am just now getting into a good flow.

    If I wasn't lucky, I'd be delivering pizza again.
  9. FishHack76

    FishHack76 Active Member

    I'll echo the praise for lono's list. As someone who has done this full-time and didn't really know what I was getting into, I will put multiple exclamation marks on this point.

    1. Have some cushion - savings or a part-time job - when you start, because it'll take you a couple of years to make a decent living!!!!

    I had some cushion, but it ran out during a couple lean months. That was my biggest mistake, and one that led me to have to ditch freelancing full-time.
    I would say get a part-time job to start or a different full-time job and use the freelance money as extra. Then slowly make the transition if you can. I would make it like getting into a hot bath tub.
    It's not easy, but I had fun in my eight months of trying it.
  10. BB Bobcat

    BB Bobcat Active Member

    Hope this isn't a threadjack, but I had this question which seems relevant here...

    Is it kosher to use the same story for two non-competing papers?

    Hypothetical: Joe Blow football star grew up in Florida and went to LSU. Now he's having a bustout season for the Seahawks and I live in Seattle. Can I pitch a feature on him to both his hometown paper in Florida and a paper in Louisiana? Obviously I'd tailor the two stories slightly for the appropriate paper, but what if the stories are otherwise the same?

    Can I do that without telling the two papers? Is it OK if I do tell them?
  11. In Exile

    In Exile Member

    Nothing wrong with turning the work you do on one subject into two or more stories for different markets, but lots wrong if the stories are essentially the same. The stories should be markedly different, and no duplicated quotes of any substance.
  12. Stitch

    Stitch Active Member

    If you take the advice here, make sure you have the terms of the deal in writing. Make sure that exclusivity is mentioned. If it isn't, there's nothing wrong with filing the same story for two publications.
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