How to be a Freelance
by Nick Inman ([email protected])

Freelance writing and photography doesn't suit everyone and I would only recommend it if you feel you can't live any other way. Having a steady job has lots of advantages even if you have to put up with fixed working hours and a neurotic boss. To freelance successfully you will have to enjoy working by yourself from home and living on a widely fluctuating income. The job description of the average freelance calls for initiative, ideas, motivation, perseverance and luck. As well as being the creative force behind your mini-business you will need to be your own secretary, marketing expert and systems support technician when your computer crashes. If you are not a proactive problem solver there will be no one to save you.

If you want to give it a go, here is a quick guide to get you started. I prefer to work for books but you'll probably find it hard to get a commission from a publisher if you haven't had any work published before. Ditto for the broadcast media, which I know next to nothing about. This is about the press (newspapers and magazines) which has a voracious appetite for freelance work and is so varied that almost anyone competent can find a niche within it.

1) Choose a magazine or newspaper you would like to write for. Donít aim too high (eg a national newspaper) as there will be little chance of them taking something by an unknown freelance but donít aim too low either (a free local newspaper) or it wonít give you the boost in confidence let alone the financial reward you are looking for.

2) Study the publication carefully and work out what the editor wants: the key to freelancing is not writing what you want but what the market demands. You may think you can improve on the magazine but you canít: if it is in business then it is catering to a demand and what you see in it is what works. Editors want fresh ideas within the existing scope and style. Space is always tight: count the words to know how long an article should be.

3) You can write "on spec" Ė that is send in an article in the hope that it will get published Ė but no professional ever does this and you should think as yourself as a professional from day one. Instead, send the editor a good idea that interests you personally, making it clear that you are familiar with the magazine. Keep your email or letter concise (donít phone unless you have a piece of breaking news to offer): a workable idea should be expressable in one sentence. Donít send more than one idea as editors are busy people: you can always offer more ideas later when you have established a working relationship. Always address an editor by name. Having contacts helps only marginally (in the British media at least) since no good editor would commission a bad idea from his or her best friend or refuse a brilliant idea from a stranger. The Spanish media does work on contacts, however, and can be much harder to break into but then again there are not many freelance opportunities in it.

4) If you can offer photographs so much the better. But make sure they are of professional quality (sharply focused, correctly exposed and with the subject properly framed). The publishing industry prefers slides Ė 35mm colour are the norm. editors love to be offered images and, of course, you can increase your fee by supplying them.

5) If you are lucky the editor will show interest and suggest you write your article but without promising to use it. This is almost as good as a hard sell: all you have to do is deliver a professional piece of writing.

6) Read other articles in the magazine analytically to learn what contents and tone is expected of you. For general guidance on how to write for the press I suggest you read Writing for Profit by John Wade. For newspapers, the book you need is Newsmanís English by Harold Evans (which I think has been republished under another title). To write well, you must be aware of the difference between a feature and a news item and you must ensure that you do not waste the reader's time. Edit your work ruthlessly to make every word count. In particular, make sure the introduction catches the readerís interest immediately and answers the question "so what?" Some writers can toss of crisp, informative, economical prose at the first sitting but the rest of us have to have the discipline of deleting any part of their precious prose that doesnít fit the subject in hand.

7) Before you send your article double check that it is what was asked for. Is it the right length? Have you checked your facts? Does it answer all the questions a reader is likely to have?

8) If your article comes bouncing back, donít give up. try to work out what you did wrong. Think of it from the editorís perspective not your own. If the idea is a good one, try another publication. If, on reflection, it now seems a bit weak, give up on it and find another idea. An editor who has rejected one idea will not necessarily reject another: what he or she wants is to fill the magazine with material of the required quality and he knows that everyone has to learn.

9) If you are lucky over time you will find one or two clients who give you steady work but even then it is wise to have one idea casting around for other sources of income as editors move on from their posts and publishers do go bust.

10) If you are going to freelance full time then you will need to be organised: squirrel away all useful information and keep your files in order; learn book-keeping; and perhaps do a little self-publicity from time to time. The Business of Freelancing by Graham Jones gives a lot practical tips about all this.

It is very important to value yourself and, as soon as you have proved what you can do, to ask for the fees you deserve Ė you may not always get them but donít let any commissioning editor know that you will work cheap. By pushing fees up in the industry you will be doing a service to your fellow freelances. The National Union of Journalistsí Freelance Fees Guide gives you an idea of what to ask for but is, in my experience, mostly unrealistic. National newspapers and magazines (and TV, naturally) may cough up decent fees but most other publications survive by paring down their contributor budgets. By the way, when you create a piece of work the copyright resides with you and you should only grant a licence to use it. There are exceptions to this and sometimes it doesnít matter. I would never give away the copyright of any photograph but I know that if I sell copyright of a piece of text for a particular use I can always use the information in it in a slightly different way for another market.

There are many different styles of freelancing. I believe in aiming always to improve and widen my skills and to keep my standards up ĖIíd rather do an hour more on a job than have a client to come back saying they havenít had value for money. I also think solidarity between freelances is important and if I canít do a job myself I try to find someone who will be able to do it well.

Copyright © 2003 Nick Inman


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