One of the (many) common messages and emails I receive is from budding journalists or writers who either want to get into editorial or leave their magazine job to go freelance but have nowhere to start. And I completely sympathise because I myself have found myself in both positions. I’ve now been a freelance writer for three years and it’s only in the last 12 months that I’ve started to find my feet and truly love my job.
So I thought I would put together a few pieces of advice that I wish I’d known when I went freelance.
THERE’S NO RIGHT TIME BUT THERE IS A WRONG TIME
I left my job at the worst possible time for me. We were getting married and about to embark on a very expensive house renovation. Money was tight as it was and I felt like I was contributing to a very big, unstable problem. I’d thought about going freelance a lot and had already started taking on side projects to my full-time job but was a good 18months away from feeling ready to take the plunge.
But plunge I did and it was the most stressful time of my life. With no financial buffer, I didn’t have the luxury of writing what I want, I wrote to survive. There’s always a reason NOT to go freelance but what I will say is, get your ducks in a row financially. Start saving so you have at least 3 months of your current salary saved because, for me, I didn’t make much money at all that first year.
GET YOUR NAME OUT THERE
The saying “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” has never been truer for a freelancer writer. Getting your name out there is tough but it will be the best thing you do for your career. Whether this is through going to events, emailing weekly to catch up or pitch, or having meetings with key figures and PR’s, I was very mindful of creating my own ‘brand’ and digital footprint. Otherwise, you’re out of sight, out of mind.
PITCH THOUGHTFULLY AND OFTEN
Some freelance writers make their bread and butter hot-desking for magazines and newspapers (covering holiday, maternity leave or just an extra pair of hands temporarily) but, because I don’t live in London, I pitch! Ideas have always come easily and frequently for me thanks to my marketing background so it’s a lengthy process but one I enjoy.
Once or twice a week I’ll dedicate a day or an afternoon catching up on the news. I don’t mean the world news (although you can if that’s your remit), I mean health, beauty, fashion, wellness news as this is where my expertise lies. From reading, watching, and seeing what’s going on, ideas spark and pitches are formed. From here I ask myself: Who would want to read this? Who would find it useful? Who would publish this? Out of perhaps, 15 ideas, I’ll hone 5-7 and expand on those, gathering information, experts, and statistics for a feature outline to send out.
Next, I’ll cherry-pick the publications I think it could work for, emailing the commissioning editors (always find out their names) and telling them why this idea will work for them. Depending on how much work I have on, I usually pitch once a week at least.
GET USED TO CHASING
Chasing editors or accounts departments is my second job! Everybody’s busy, emails go to junk, freelancers are not top of the priority list, get used to it! I usually chase an editor twice per pitch but no more and ALWAYS politely.
LEARN TO LET IT GO
I won’t lie, you have to develop quite a thick skin to be a freelance writer. You will be ignored and rejected but never take it personally. An idea you love and are desperate to write about will get declined multiple times, you have to learn to let it go. Or, keep it aside and 6 months later, pitch it out again. I’ve had countless pitches picked up this way, it all depends on what that magazine/website has already published if there’s something in the news that makes it relevant again or perhaps if budgets have been renewed.
REMEMBER YOUR PORTFOLIO
The work is written and published. Now what? Promote, save, and keep the momentum going. Your portfolio is all a freelance writer has. It’s so, so important to your reputation and conditional on getting another job. Set up a website (mine is here) to keep all of your work, create keywords and SEO to ensure your name is easily found on Google, and keep a spreadsheet of when everything is coming out so you can get PDFs, issues, or links.
TRACK YOUR MONEY
Say goodbye to paydays and monthly planning. Freelance life is uncertain but can be very lucrative. Get used to keeping a very close eye on your money and making saving a priority. With every payment, I set aside 20% for tax and NI and 15% for savings – this will be your buffer for rainy days. Whether that’s quiet months (and there will be those), a broken boiler, or late payments. I use the Quickbooks app to sync my accounts and track late payments – it’s a must for freelancers to make life so much more efficient.
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