How to start your career as a freelance journalist

Posted October 13, 2011, by Komi Sellathurai

Writing a weekly sex column filled with metaphors and rhyming couplets will not buy you daily Cosmopolitans at lunch, let alone a pair of Jimmy Choos. Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City may make freelance journalism look glamorous, but it takes a lot of discipline to make it in the publishing world, especially if you are a new kid on the block.

If wearing office attire is not your style and you have a morbid fear of yoghurt thieves raiding the office fridge, then a career in freelancing may be just what you need. Newspapers and magazines across Australia rely on freelance writers to work in specialised fields of journalism. From science and environmental articles to music and film reviews, words are in demand.

The tricky part is getting started. A fat portfolio of published articles and a flair for networking is the key to kick-starting your journalism career. The first step, however, is learning to pitch your stories to the right people.

Where do I get published?

A young writer’s first byline is an indescribable high. Acknowledgment of your work in print is rewarding, and more motivating than any yoga class you contort yourself in. But before you start dreaming of exposing the next political scandal, you have to read, read, read! Know all the publications on the newsstands near you.

Educating yourself about the publications out there means you will always have an outlet for your story. The next time your local paper hits your door, don’t just pull out the sport or entertainment sections and dump the rest in recycling. There are opportunities aplenty in newspaper lift-outs. If you have written a profile piece about an upcoming chef, don’t just target food magazines – try the careers section of your local newspaper.

Most freelance writers write articles with a particular outlet already in mind. Your mum may be your biggest fan but you need to work out the target audience for your story if you want to earn a living. To do this, familiarise yourself with your potential publisher. Look up what stories they have done of late, note their tone and style, and read a couple of their recent back issues. Editors receive hoards of articles and requests to be published every day. To be really taken seriously, you need a game plan.

Do I pitch an idea or send a finished article?

As a general rule of thumb, you should write the article rather than just throwing ideas at the editor. While creativity is crucial, a reliable execution of the story is equally, if not more important for an unknown freelancer. The path will get easier once you’ve made a few heads turn. But whatever you do, don’t make them turn for the wrong reasons. Editors have eagle eyes, so don’t piss them off by being lazy and using they’re, there and their interchangeably. Check, double and triple-check that your spelling and grammar are immaculate. Glue yourself to a Macquarie Dictionary and never trust Microsoft Word spell check to do the work for you.

Show initiative by downloading their style guide if it is available online and make them fall in love with you. Don’t forget to check the spelling of all names, titles and quotes of interviewees that you have used in your article. A clean, double-spaced copy is your ticket to landing the job.

How do I pitch my story?

When pitching your story, write a concise cover letter with your name, contact details, a short description of yourself and the article. If you have never been published, do not expect to get paid on your first try. However, it is worth calling the publisher on their general contact line and asking them how much freelancers are paid, and if they are paid per word or per article or if it is contractual.

If you have been published, send them some of your work or links to online articles. Don’t feel uncomfortable about asking to be paid – the worst that can happen is they’d say no. Never push your story for a byline if they haven’t offered it to you. Desperation is a huge turn-off.

What do I say in my cover letter?

Imagine you are at a speed-dating event and you spot your dream date in the corner of the room. Two minutes is all you have to make them fall in love with you. Go!

OK, so you’re not going to tell your future employer that you are an Aquarius and you like long walks on the beach, but you have to make an impression as quickly as possible. Briefly state that you are a freelance journalist and describe your article in a line or two. Make it snappy and appealing so that they want to read more.

It is also practical to give a reasonable deadline for them to get back to you with a response. Weave this in tactfully of course. You don’t want to boss around your potential boss.

Who do I send my cover letter to?

Sending your cover letter to the general email address of the company is the same as dumping it in the bin. Find the name of the relevant editor of the publication and liaise directly with them. Don’t be intimidated by their title. Always remember that editors are real people and they all started somewhere. You’ll be surprised to find that most of them are fantastic individuals happy to help out newcomers. If Anne Hathaway managed to tame Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, then there is hope for everyone.

Pick up the phone

Debunk the myth that writers are loners with no social skills. If you’ve sent out a few articles and you’ve had no new emails in your inbox, pick up the phone and give them a call. Remind the editor about your article and ask about its status. Unless you sound like Fran Drescher from The Nanny, it’s refreshing for an editor to hear a voice that differentiates you from the numerous requests for publications they receive every week via email. This is your chance to be charming and sell your story. But if it’s evident that your article has no place in that publication, then graciously move on.

A phone reminder also shows your commitment and it’s easier to persuade someone over the phone than via an emotionless email. Talking to the editor also gives them a better idea of your article, and they may ask you for additional interviews or photographs to improve the story and tailor it to sit better with their publication. Like your very first interview, calling an editor to ask about your article may be nerve-racking, but you will feel a lot better when it’s done. Arm yourself to fight off the biggest enemy – procrastination. As Martin Luther said, ‘How soon “not now” becomes “never”.’

Dust yourself off, and try again

You may not remember your first step, but it was probably one of the biggest obstacles you’ve had to overcome. Over and over, despite bruised knees and twisted feet, you never gave up. Besides, the good is never great until you’ve tasted the bad. J K Rowling was rejected nine times before the manuscript for Harry Potter finally saw the light of day. There is no magic formula – it is all a matter of holding on and getting better at the game.

A rejection may not necessarily mean the article was not good. Some places just don’t have the budget to include freelance pieces, or the piece might work better for another publication. Forget the moping – get on your feet and try a different publication.

Better still, write a new article. If the process of getting started on another article doesn’t remind you of how much you love the profession, then nothing will.

Komi Sellathurai

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