EDITOR’S NOTE: One instructor who was adopting the News Reporting and Writing book mentioned to my editor that she would have loved to see a section or a discussion of freelancing in there somewhere. The minute I found out about that ask, I set off to find some really smart people who could help me deliver on this.
Thus, here comes a multi-part series on how freelancing works, how to become successful at it and some general suggestions to consider for anyone planning a freelance career. I hope it’s more than enough.
Do you have a “I wish your book had included X” element? Contact me and I’ll see what I can do to make it happen.
Freelancing is a pretty good gig if you’re not tied to a steady paycheck, have a lot of inspiration and some good street smarts. The goal is to find topics that matter to you, meet the needs of a specific audience and find venues that will help you reach those readers. Some of my favorite former students have made a really good living by doing it.
When I started working on this topic, I reached out to a couple of them who work in vastly different niches but all work in the same basic freelance ecosystem. They provided me with some key information about the way in which they got involved in freelancing, how they work within their areas of interest and how to make a living as a freelancer. Throughout these posts, I’ll be weaving in their comments as we go, so let’s meet them up front:
Charles Choi began freelancing in 2001 after completing his master’s degree in journalism. He has worked primarily as a science writer and his work has been published in a variety of outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsday, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Scientific American, Wired, National Geographic News, Popular Science, Popular Mechanics and Science magazine. He is a member of the National Association of Science Writers and the Asian-American Journalists Association. His main base of operation is the New York City area, although he has travel the world in pursuit of stories, including trips to Russia and Antarctica.
Nick White has spent the last 15 years as a freelancer on the West Coast. He has worked on a variety of topics, but tends to publish heavily in entertainment media outlets. His work has appeared frequently in People, Us Weekly, Entertainment Weekly, TVGuide.com, Infinity, and AOL, as well as being published in The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter, E! Online, Celebuzz, InStyle.com, Alternative Press, Wetpaint, iVillage, and OC Weekly.
Tony Rehagen began freelancing in 2009 when he was on staff at Indianapolis Monthly magazine, writing a few pieces for Men’s Health. Since then, he continued to work staff jobs while freelancing on the side. He is currently a contributing editor for St. Louis Magazine in Missouri as well as a freelance writer for magazines and online publications. He was named a five-time finalist for the City Regional Magazine Association’s Writer of the Year award and his work has been included in the book “Next Wave: America’s New Generation of Great Literary Journalists.” His freelance work has appeared in GQ, Pacific Standard, Popular Mechanics, ESPN The Magazine, espnW, MEL Magazine, Southwest Magazine, Bloomberg Digital, SB Nation and others.
Publications usually have a robust staff of writers and editors who cover the basics the readers have come to expect from them. A freelancer’s goal is to find news that nobody else knows about and pitch those ideas as stories. Choi noted that freelancers are like a staff’s enterprise reporters: They don’t do the day-in, day-out pieces, but they fill a niche that matters to the readers in a unique way. So, what makes for good freelancing? Here are some thoughts on how to come up with some good freelance pieces:
Develop a sense of wonder: If traditional journalism is about a standard “who did what to whom” approach, freelancing tends to dig into the “how” and “why” a lot more. This sense of curiosity can yield a wide array of interests that will let you find interesting things in a variety of places that other people tend not to examine.
When we are little kids, we desperately want to know everything about everything we see. That sense of wonder manifests itself in about 10,018 questions that range from how a license plate gets made to who is responsible for the voice in the phone’s GPS directions. Eventually, we stop asking those questions aloud and then we just stop wondering. Tony Rehagen said his sense of wonder has led him to all sorts of experiences as a freelancer.
“My strength (and weakness) is my insatiable curiosity for just about damn near anything,” he said. “I always joke that I know a little about a lot of things and a lot about very few. For instance, over the past month I’ve written about ethnomusicology, mass extinction of megafauna due to foreign pathogens, NBA basketball, the science of whiskey distillation, a personal essay on when to leave your job and a travel piece about St. Louis. That’s part of the reason I got into general interest magazines in the first place.”
Find a niche: The wide range of topical wonder can be helpful in keeping ideas fresh, but it also helps to have a home-base topic that will make you an expert in an area. If you develop a niche, you will work repeatedly with publications and establish relationships with editors. It will also make you a “go-to” freelancer for publications seeking coverage on that topic.
“The fact that I largely work in a specialized niche — science journalism — greatly helps focus whom I pitch stories to, where I get story ideas from, and what the pitches should look like,” Charles Choi said. “Freelancers usually have at least one specialty for this reason…There are many other kinds of stories I can write other than news-focused ones. For instance, I can pitch profiles of scientists, or explainer pieces, or stories delving into the scientific aspects of major news events, or stories focusing on the business or political sides of science, and so on. However, I personally enjoy writing news-focused stories, and it makes up the brunt of my workload — everyone has a specialty.”
Choi’s point about having a niche also raises an important element of freelancing: Find something you like to do.
“When I was first starting off as a freelancer, a key way I made a living was finding interesting stories in areas that few other freelancers worked on — for instance, physics and chemistry,” he said. “I found these niches because I had a personal interest in physics growing up — I was fascinated with the science of things like black holes because of years reading and watching science fiction.”
All three writers noted that they liked the idea of finding new topics and writing stories that go beyond what they could do as staff writers. They also noted they enjoy the fields they cover. If you don’t like what topic you are covering, you will be less motivated to find stories of interest and you will be less likely to pitch them successfully. Even worse, if you ARE successful in your pitches, you will end up writing stories you hate and that vibe will come through in your pieces.
Dig in and dig deep: If you want to make a living at freelancing, you need to find out what sells and who is buying. Staff writers can have an “off” week when it comes to finding content, but freelancers live off of their labors, so knowing what works and what doesn’t in terms of getting pieces sold will matter.
“Essentially, I find the model is to immerse yourself in different aspects and coverage areas of your given industry and stick with the one that pays the most reliably or gets the best response from the boss, readers, or click numbers,” Nick White said.
In some cases, you’ll locate a particular area within a niche, such as biology or physics within the field of science. In other cases, you might locate a story approach that works well and then replicate it with multiple topics. For example, you might find that a short profile with a five-question Q and A sidebar on high-school athletes in your area is often the most-read piece you write in a given week. Repeating that approach can lead to additional successful pitches in which you feature additional athletes.
The goal is to also dig into areas where you see a need but no one else is doing the work. In a lot of cases, publications know there is too many story ideas available without enough staff to cover them all. If you can find those deserted areas that are crying out for coverage, you can create a nice cottage industry for yourself.
“When I combed science journals and press releases, I could see that there were plenty of story ideas that were not getting written up, and so I pitched them knowing that others were likely not pitching them and knowing that my interest in these areas would help me tell compelling stories,” Choi said. “Basically, I filled niches in which there were few competitors and ample opportunities. Once I made a reputation writing these niche stories well, editors sent me other pitches in these niches (in one case, a regular column on nanotechnology) and related niches (astronomy, planetary science, cosmology, electronics). Those editors also knew I could write well, and when I let them know I could write stories outside this niche, they pitched me other stories as well, typically ones they didn’t want to write themselves. In this way, I gained expertise in geology and paleoanthropology.
Preparing for the pitch
To work as a freelancer, you need to have great ideas and you need to make editors and publishers see why they are great. To do this, you will need to “pitch” your story to them in the form of a query letter or email.
Queries are like fishing lines: You toss them out on to the water with the hope that something will jump on them. The better the bait and the better the fishing hole, the better the likelihood of getting a bite. To do this, you need do a few things before you approach a potential client:
Research the publication: You need to find out as much as you can about the outlets to which you plan to pitch. Just like a form letter for a job application, generic pitches are bad because they seem flat and forced. You want to dig around and find out what the publication does, how it works, with whom it competes and more. You want to figure out what kinds of things they published, how long the stories they publish tend to be and what audience they cater to.
You might have the world’s greatest feature on model train building, but if the model train magazine you’re pitching runs 400 word stories and you pitch something in the 4,000-words range, you’re not getting a second look. If you pitch a story on how to play football with your kids, but you market it to a futbol magazine, you’re not doing yourself any favors.
Figure out if the publication has done work on this or if their competitors have. If they have and you have a new angle, mention this. It’ll show that you’re not just firing blindly. If the competition has done something, explain how your story will move your editor’s publication back ahead of the pack. It always helps to show that you’re not a newbie to the field.
Find an “in” if you can: White said one of the best ways to connect a story to a publication is when he has a connection to someone at that organization.
“Story-selling is something that is best done through establishing a relationship first in my opinion, even if it’s a low-level acquaintance situation,” he said. “The story itself can be secondary to selling the pitch.”
All three writers mentioned that forming relationships with people at various media outlets will lead to improved success in getting a pitch picked up. Even more, the more frequently they work with a person at a media outlet, the easier the pitch becomes.
“The amount of salesmanship I put into a pitch depends largely on how often I write for a given outlet,” Choi said. “If I’m pitching a regular client, they know how well I can write, and so I just give them the basic facts of a pitch, and that’s usually good enough — basically what the lede sentence would be, if I’m pitching a short news story.”
If you have a connection at a media outlet, you want to make it count for you when you pitch. Find that person and make the pitch to him or her. If that person isn’t responsible for making the decision on pitches, at least mention in your pitch that you have worked with that person. This person could provide valuable support in trying to reach the decision-maker.
Develop a sniper’s mentality: When it comes to a pitch, you get one chance to impress an editor so you need to make it count. Get yourself set, get your eye on the target and take one good shot. If the editor feels like you’re wasting their time, they won’t open your next email or letter. You don’t want to be known as “that annoying weirdo who keep sending lousy pitches.” Before you write your pitch, understand that you will need to showcase your enthusiasm without over-hyping your piece. You should provide the editor with a sense that you understand the publication without overdoing it and keep your writing as tight and strong as you will when compose your piece. If the pitch is full of errors or the writing is weak, all an editor is going to see is a preview of a messy story that will take more time than it is worth.