18 From the Field: How to Get and Keep Gigs as a Freelance Journalist
From the Field
You can take the freelance plunge soon after tossing your cap in the air or envision it as a future turn in a semi-seasoned journalism career. My path was the latter.
After 12 years in daily and weekly newspapers, I was looking for something new. I loved what I did and freelancing gave me the opportunity to continue doing that with the perks of flexibility with regard to the kind of writing I’d be doing and the topics I’d cover.
By the time I went freelance, I had been in the Phoenix journalism market for 10 years. Word got out about my career decision quickly and I got offers immediately. That was in 2006, and I’ve been busy ever since. My experience covering just about every beat from movie and restaurant reviews to breaking news and courts came in handy and expanded my potential client pool, which includes newspapers, magazines, online publications, and special print projects, i.e. coffee table books and bios for award luncheon programs. None of this work, however, has been in public relations or marketing.
First, the good stuff: I love calling the shots, from the hours I work and when I work them to the kind of jobs I take and leave on the table. The commute from my bedroom to the living room couch, patio, or wherever I want my headquarters to be can’t be beat.
It feels good to skip the full makeup and hair routine every morning, and keep the grown-up clothes in the closet. My dry cleaning bills decreased immensely, as did stress amped up by occasional rush hour road rage. Running errands on a Tuesday mid-morning is definitely more relaxing than battling the crowds on a Saturday afternoon.
Of course there are a few comforts I miss. A steady and predictable paycheck is one of them. Paid vacations are another. If I’m not working, essentially I’m not getting paid. In a newsroom, I was compensated for downtime spent chatting with co-workers, perusing the Internet, the cake celebrations for co-workers’ birthdays or last day at the office, and pretty much every non-work activity that consumed 15 minutes or less. That compensation no longer exists. I do budget time into my day for non-work tasks — checking my social media channels, dentist appointments, laundry — but I maintain an efficient schedule that allows me to complete all my assignments on deadline each week. Is this perfect? No. But it has worked just fine for me for more than a decade. Here are some tips to make freelancing work for you.
Look for new magazines or newspapers around town or in your neighborhood. Those stands outside of grocery stores and local magazines in the waiting room at medical offices are filled with potential clients. Also, search writing websites that offer jobs. The neat thing is that you can take work based in any city as long as the company will allow you to work remotely.
Being new on the freelance scene, I felt the need to generate clips and credibility as a solo writer and get on people’s radars. Taking as many jobs as possible to get your name out there is key. I took pretty much any gig that was offered to me, regardless of the pay, for the first two years or so. Also, pitching ideas does the same. Often, one leads to another. And never underestimate the power of word-of-mouth. When you do good work, word travels. When you do bad work, word travels.
Be open-minded. You may think you know exactly the kind of stories or projects to which you want to dedicate your career, but leave the door open to discovering something new. It may be a subset of a topic you initially don’t care for that you discover excites you. It could be something you never thought of that requires you to indulge a creative or pensive side. Being willing to do anything is an asset to any writer, especially at the start of a freelance career. Stretching your limits also keeps you learning, while keeping burnout at bay.
Network with other freelancers in the industry — writers or PR people. Your peers are a great resource for jobs, support, and skills. They also know what you’re going through and, if need be, can commiserate with you about wacky editors or demanding clients. I can’t tell you how often a fellow freelancer has provided insight and talked me off the ledge.
These connections also can create a positive job domino effect. An example: a fellow freelancer did occasional work for US Magazine. One day, an editor there needed a Phoenix-based writer for an assignment but she was unavailable. My colleague gave her my contact info and the next day I was scouring the Valley on a hunt for Tiger Woods. My searching came up empty, but I got paid well for my work and it led to more assignments chasing down leads and rumors involving celebs, which was a fun — although frustrating at times — new experience. When that editor left the magazine and took over at an online publication, she needed writers. She reached out to me and I was able to do more projects that paid equally well.
There are two really important things you can do to please your editors.
Deadlines — always, always meet them. I cannot stress this enough. About halfway through my freelance career, I was surprised to hear from editors that a significant number of freelancers did not meet their deadlines. I thought this would be the easiest requirement to meet since it is really the only factor completely within your control from the start. I believe that my ability to meet deadline — I only blew it once and it was by 30 minutes — has been a huge factor in keeping jobs and getting new ones. An editor can always clean up copy or ask you to tweak the project, but their hands are tied if they don’t have anything to work with.
Deliver clean copy. If deadlines are the most important, this is second. Learn what style your publication wants — AP style or one developed just for the company, for example — and follow it to the T. If it’s their own style, take a good look at their published articles so you have an idea of what it entails. And this may sound like a given, but you’d be surprised at how many people overlook spelling (beware of auto-correct), punctuation, and basic grammar before hitting “send.”
The Business Side
OK, here’s the practical reality check.
If your spouse has employer-provided benefits, then you can skip this paragraph. If not, employer-provided health insurance is one thing that freelancers miss. Quality healthcare is tough to get on your own without a steep price tag. If you’re healthy or have a hefty savings account that you can access if needed, you may be OK. If not, you may need to consider taking a job that offers benefits until your freelance business is up and running on all cylinders.
Figuring out a monthly budget seems like a no-brainer, but having one that’s specific that you will stick to is crucial when you’re not guaranteed a paycheck. It also gives you an idea of what you’ll need to make each month and therefore a rate to offer potential clients. About half of my clients come to me with a rate, but the other half ask for one. Coming up with a standard rate that made me happy without scaring off potential clients was one of the most difficult aspects of settling into being my own boss.
You may not be receiving a set amount every two weeks, but it’s possible to generate a base income. Try to get regular assignments that provide steady income that you can count on. If you know that you’ll be getting at least $800 a week for two or three assignments then it’ll be easier to craft a monthly budget and determine what other jobs you can and should take. For the last five years or so, I’ve had three assignments that are due every week, which gives me a predictable minimum “salary” through the busy and slow times.
The Long View
Speaking of money and success, determine what that means for you on a priority scale. Over the years, I found that money has moved down from the top priority position in my life to the fourth — after enjoyment, fulfillment, and time and effort. If pay remains at the top for you, that’s perfectly fine. Just know that you’ll discover how that affects the rest of your priority list.
That said, try to get a diverse project folder going that is balanced with jobs that pay well and those that may not pay as well but that you find fulfilling. Throwing in a pro bono job for a cause that you believe in or for a good friend every now and then will give you a fresh perspective too.
Try not to pack your schedule so tight that if a neat opportunity comes along that you would love, you are unable to take it. Early on, I wasn’t comfortable keeping a workload with wiggle room. But after a couple of years of kicking myself over opportunities lost because I simply didn’t have the time, I managed to find that sweet spot between steady busy and not too hectic. Eventually, you’ll find that sweet spot too.
Georgann Yara has been a freelance writer in Phoenix since 2006. Reach her on Twitter at @georgannyara.