In 2014, I was asked to speak at one of the first BlogConf bloggers event in Swansea, using my experience as a journalist and blogger to talk about my experiences of freelancing and how others can submit successful pitches. The result was the following presentation, 11 invaluable tips for freelancing.
My work at the South Wales Evening Post
I hope you’re all familiar with the South Wales Evening Post website, and have been thoroughly enjoying my work(!) but if not, here’s a quick run down: the website runs news from across the South Wales area, features, and we do the more quirky content and listicles you need to succeed online these days.
Even the BBC sees Buzzfeed as a competitor in terms of traffic. Buzzfeed and the Mail Online are the two biggest news websites right now, and the way news is created and disseminated is changing constantly, so that means that even local media has to change its strategy for the web.
Readers, are very demanding: a few paragraphs and a photo are no good any more. You have to be cutting edge in how you present information – and right at the forefront of the story. Newspapers no longer have the benefit of writing content the day before it’s published – no one would buy them because the story would have already been told on social media. It may not be as accurate as a professional report, but if you’ve seen the photos, videos, or witness reports already, you would be less likely to want to pay for our version of the events.
There’s plenty online about the basics of freelancing so I’ll just quickly run through it here so we can get to the good stuff.
Have an idea
This is not just as easy as saying ‘I have this opinion’, or ‘I went on holiday to this place and want to review it for you’. Freelancing is as competitive as Wall Street: you need to get in there first with a good idea, a clear structure, and the most suitable angle for the publication. You can’t just rely on one thing, you need to be all-rounded greatness.
If you have a brilliant idea you are sure will work for a particular publication, then go for it. Otherwise, there are plenty of websites out there where you can respond to calls for pitches to a topic: Newsmodo and Elance are great for one-off stories but you can find more long-term regular work on sites like Linkedin or other media job boards.
Put a pitch together and get it sent out; write a formal letter but keep it short and entertaining. Editors read hundreds of emails every day so you need to stand out within the first sentence. If they’re not interested, you won’t get a reply.
The same goes for your actual article too: if you’re pitching for the web, there’s every possibility they will want something within an hour.
If your story isn’t relevant to the news now – or doesn’t have a strong human interest angle – editors won’t want to know. You have to be timely, but that works in your favour: as bloggers you’re used to jumping on trends for your own site, and this is very similar.
Don’t be afraid to voice your opinion but don’t go too far. Journalism has to be balanced and fair, you can’t just go off on one, you have to give both sides of the story. If you’re lucky enough to get a comment article commission then have faith in your opinions but back them up.
Stick to the brief
This means word count too. Don’t go off on a tangent, give them what they want. You’ll be given more free reign as you develop a relationship with a publication but you need to build up trust first.
Use an invoice template and make sure you get your tax sorted out from the word go.
On to the stuff you *really* need to know…
1. Know your niches
You’re all in an excellent position here: South Wales doesn’t have a massive amount of freelancers, and certainly not full time ones ready to react to any event. The Welsh perspective is becoming more and more relevant every day, so get used to commenting on local issues or national issues with a local perspective. Know the cool things to do, and do them – everyone was raving about the underground trampoline in North Wales – so find your local version and write about it, even if it is just on your own site, you need to get a reputation as the go to person for your area.
The same goes for a particular topic top: if you’re up to date on the local music scene, or have a keen interest in Welsh business, then don’t be afraid to use it in your work. Every reporter should start as a good writer, then learn about the topic they’re covering – not the other way around.
You can use your blog as a springboard – mine, for example, is all about affordable fashion and I’ve received a number of professional commissions because of it.
2. Write for free
It seems counter-intuitive but it’s the best way to build up a portfolio. Even if it’s just by signing up as a Buzzfeed contributor, you need to get your name out there. Do reviews, small features, whatever it takes, to bulk up your cuttings with big names. Having your own site just won’t cut it these days.
3. Be ready to expose yourself
I’m sure you all heard a few weeks back about the girl who blogged about her experience of being the victim of a serious sexual crime while studying at Oxford University. Now this is an extreme example, and I’m certainly not saying that you have to reveal difficult experiences to succeed, but you will have to write about things that have affected your life, and the more emotion you can pour in to it – whether it be happy or sad – the better.
It’s tough to do and I can’t say I’ve ever been in that position but trust me, it is worth it. Journalism can be quite soulless at times so if you can bring a bit of heart to it then do.
4. Write socially
There are two parts to this: first of all, take inspiration from everything you do. As a journalist I am always on, and it does to some extent define my life, but it will put you at the top of the pile. If you know what’s happening and can link to it in your writing, it makes your work that much stronger.
Secondly, write content that people will want to share. It’s quite likely you’ll be working online and even if you’re not, editors look for social content – so learn how to make listicles, read everything you can on the internet and learn why it works well for that publication. It’s not just about social media sharing either, you have to go for word of mouth too, and make your writing compelling enough for readers to tell their friends about.
5. Be multi-talented
Writers aren’t just writers these days: they’re photographers, videographers, content managers and editors. You need to have these skills because not many others can offer up something extra to supplement their content and make it more interactive.
6. Focus on features
Leave the breaking news to the reporters, and stick to opinions, features and reviews. However, that’s not to say you shouldn’t ever contribute to the news: if you’re in the right place at the right time – and are safe and confident in doing so – report what you can see. Whatever the news is, take photos, videos, give quotes, and send them to local media. You’ll get a credit and make a contact for what could potentially be two minutes’ work.
7. Be a brand
Your income relies on your name so never forget you’re on the job. Make your social media professional, and be courteous to contacts; be friendly, and make sure everyone knows your name. But never be afraid to have integrity: one article can haunt you forever so if you don’t agree with something, say. You have every right to. This is especially relevant when it comes to getting paid. You’re a brand and a business too – if someone won’t pay (and this will happen to you, trust me) then you need to resolve that.
8. Don’t get cocky
Don’t demand things from editors or PRs because unless you’re the best they won’t bother with you again. Your job relies on you and you only so make sure you keep any unduly negative comments or complaints to yourself or close friends: DON’T vent your frustrations on social media.
And on that note, listen to all criticism and praise – if an editor has taken the time to give you feedback then listen to what they’re saying and work on it.
9. Read the comments
If in doubt, read the comments. One day a brief might land on your desk on a topic you’re indifferent to. But rather than pass up the opportunity, read what people are saying – you just might find an opinion that brings out the necessary emotion for you to respond.
Equally, read the comments on articles you have published. You might get a great scoop for a follow-up story, But even if not, it’s a great way to develop the thick skin you need to publish online.
Some of my best pay cheques have come from copywriting. It’s easy, quick, and consistent work. It’s not exactly the most exciting thing to do but when you’re starting out at the very least it will make money.
11. Keep moving forward
You won’t always get to write what you want, and sometimes all your hard work and funny quips will be edited out. But for every disappointment there will be one moment when you can sit back and smile, knowing it’s all worth it.
My golden rule is to be versatile. I didn’t know a thing about cars before I started working as a sub-editor for an automotive publishing company but within eight months I was promoted to publications editor. Have confidence in your skills and never say never!
Just keep moving forward, working hard, and you’ll get to where you want to be. Above all, remember you have a life – it’s easy to get bogged down in work but when that work is sitting on your kitchen table it can be even easier to do so.
Ruth Dawson, August 2014