How to Work as a Freelance Journalist

There are lots of ways to make money, and some of us choose writing.  It's not for everyone.  In fact, it's a horrible idea for some people.  If you think it might be a good choice for you, study up on what it takes (and use more sources than just this blog, for Pete's sake, because it has to be your decision or you won't be happy).

What is a freelance journalist?

Freelance implies that you don't work for anyone but yourself.  You sell your work to those willing to buy it.

Journalist means you are a professional who writes interesting, newsworthy or attention-worthy pieces that people want to read.

Those are the short definitions (and they're mine; other people have different definitions of what makes a journalist a journalist), but definitions are necessary if you're thinking about testing the waters as a freelance journalist.

Do freelance journalists need a college degree?

Not necessarily.  Many freelance journalists have college degrees, but many don't.  Again, freelancers only work for themselves. 

What skills do freelance journalists need?

  • You need to be able to write.  A lot of people think they can write, but they aren't being completely honest with themselves.

    I thought I could sing until 5th grade, when I was asked to mouth the words to "Walk Like an Egyptian" during the school concert.  Unfortunately, there's no concert for writers who suck; instead, friends and family smile, nod and encourage to spare feelings.

  • You need to be able to anticipate what a reader will think and feel when you write.  If they might lose interest halfway through, you're not going to make a sale. 

  • You  need to know how to query editors the right way.

  • You need to be willing to take criticism (both constructive and destructive) and sometimes outright rejection.

  • You need to know where to look to find your work a home.

  • You can't be a huge chicken who's afraid to call strangers on the phone or visit someone for an interview.

  • You have to work quickly, efficiently and effectively.

  • You have to be willing to wait for payment.

  • You have to give up b.s. gigs like low-paying content mills that suck your time away from your upcoming byline.

Think you can handle that?

If you can, and you still want to, then get moving.
  • Figure out several places where your voice and tone will fit.  If you're sassy and flirty, maybe a popular women's mag or the young adult section of a publication is for you.  (Sassy and flirty doesn't go over well with Forbes, you know?)

  • Honestly evaluate whether you really are a good fit for the publications you want to write for.  Do this by reading several back issues (and that'll come in handy later, too).

  • Find out how to get your foot in the door at each publication.  If you don't have Writer's Market, get it.  If the publication you want to write for isn't in WM, look them up on the Internet.  Find the masthead, see who you need to contact, scour the site for writers' guidelines... in other words, you have to make this happen.  This stuff isn't going to fall into your lap.

  • Research the hell out of whatever you want to write about.

  • Reevaluate whether you can do the topic justice.  If you can't, and you try to get it past an editor, you're wasting your time.  If you can, write it.

  • Follow each publication's submission guidelines exactly as they tell you to.  If their guidelines tell you to contact so-and-so by email to query, that's what you do.  You never, ever, ever go outside their guidelines.  If you do, guess where your hard work will end up?

    The recycle bin.  Really.

  • Wait.  Wait.  Wait some more.  Most publications let you know how long they'll take to respond to queries and submissions.  If the info isn't up-front, or you just can't figure it out, call them and find out.  Do not call them to ask if they got your stuff unless they tell you to call and follow up.  Some publishers don't mind an email asking if they've received your submission or query - but some do, and sometimes they simply don't respond if they don't like your idea/article/expose/whatever.
If a publisher wants your stuff, they'll let you know.  If not, you might never hear a thing.

This is just intended to give you a heads-up on what to expect if you decide to become a freelance journalist (or to help you decide in the first place).  This is how it works for me; sometimes an editor falls in love after the first paragraph, and sometimes editors ignore me.

Do you work as a freelance journalist?  What advice can you offer those who want to get started?

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© Angie Papple Johnston 2010. Don't steal from me or I'll come getcha. Really... I've got that kind of time.

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