So, you think you can freelance? Tips for n00bs

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A story in The Atlantic about how to pitch stories got me thinking about a post I’ve been wanting to write for a while.  When I started freelancing, I didn’t have a mentor or a guide, so to speak. I still don’t and I really wish I did. I learn a lot from the people I work with, but there is no great authority I can go to when I feel stuck, confused or hate every single word I’m writing.

After about a year and three months of freelancing,  I find myself in the curious position of people asking my advice. It’s weird because I still can’t spot my own typos, my career has largely been a culmination of some dogged persistence and lucky breaks. Alas.  People seem to think I know stuff. I don’t know anything, but I can only share my experiences.

Firstly, it’s important to remember that there are people who don’t want you to be working in the industry. This ranges from people in the same industry who are precious over “their work” to people who want to abolish all “fans with laptops”. The latter is only relevant to bloggers looking to break into sports journalism. Fan with laptop types are apparently the reason journalism will have its eyes gouged out and be strangled by its own esophagus.  That’s alright, if you can ignore it. These people can be find everywhere and they work for everyone from administrators to publications. It’s just one of those things best left ignored.

When it comes to actually getting work, this is where things become a bit trickier. I cannot recommend having your own blog enough. My old cricket blog is the reason I first managed to write for Sports Illustrated. Write, write, write as much as you can, especially if you’re still in limbo between working a full-time job and doing bits and pieces of work. Self-promote, but don’t shove it down people’s throats.  You don’t have to be the first with a story, you just have to be different. Once you’re earning a bit of cash, start a portfolio. This makes it easier to direct editors to a body of work, should they ask for it. And, if you’re really crafty, it might even land you some gigs via people on the interwebs searching for people like you.

Don’t stop pitching to people and asking them to employ you. There is no point in asking somebody: do you know of anyone looking for writers? Not only is this lazy, but it’s also bad for your own brain capacity. Identify publications you like to read. Pick two or three of those and make it your goal to write for them in a set period of time. Find the editor’s e-mail and pitch stories to them. Read the Atlantic Piece above on how to pitch stories.

Don’t ever stop reading other people’s work. It’s amazing what you can learn just by reading. Read as much as you can. Especially words of the publications you want to write for.

Do not pigeon hole yourself. I still do some “corporate” work. I write about dating and project management and a bunch of other stuff for whoever needs me to write for them. This keeps your bank account ticking over and will come in handy during “dry months”.  These gigs are easier to find on blog  job forums and such – Google and Craigslist (yes!) is your friend here.

Don’t be afraid to help people – and don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s a two way street. I help you, you help me and I’m not a selfish arse once you’ve helped me. Don’t try and exploit people you don’t know, either. I am happy to help people finding their feet with contacts. That is done on the understanding that those same people will one day help me out too. When I am a bit full up on work and somebody asks me to do something, I happily recommend others I know who are looking for gigs. It works if it’s a two way street. What doesn’t work is messaging somebody you never speak to demanding contacts.

Freelancing is about building relationship. Relationships with editors and content managers. This happens over a period of time. If you do good work and an editor likes what you do, you get more work. Don’t miss your deadline and, if you’re going to, let them know in advance and make a plan for an extension. It’s also about building relationships with fellow freelancers, colleagues, if you will. You might not all be working in the same office, but you might share a press box one day and you certainly share the same web space. It’s a small world, even smaller thanks to social networks. People talk. Word spreads fast and if you are an arse, people will know about it sooner or later. Be nice to each other.

The truth is, there is enough work to go around. And, if you are good at what you do, you will get more work and your position will not be threatened.