If you are reading this, then you want to know how to become a freelance journalist.
Well, you have come this far. You have taken the first step — congratulations!
Do not hold back from here. Many of us don’t even know what to do in life, or what to do what they like. If you are sure that you want to take journalism as a career, then I am happy that you have decided so — it’s great! Why is freelance journalism a good profession? Well, you will find out in a while.
But if you are still not confident on whether freelance journalism is right for you, then hold back. Pause for a second and take a deep breath. Here’s something that I recommend you to read. This is an essay from Paul Graham on how to do what you love. Read this essay if you are still uncertain.
If you are confident (with or without reading the essay) that freelance journalism is right for you, read on. By the way, I recommend this essay to anyone who is struggling to figure out what they want to do.
Now that you have decided let’s move ahead.
So, why become a freelance journalist?
One reason is to get into freelance journalism is that you like it.
But that’s a subjective reason. There’s more to it than that. If you are a freelance journalist, then here are some of the things that you can enjoy.
1. You can command your own rates
Yes, you can command your own rates as a freelance journalist. You decide what you get. But it’s not always like that. Often, publications have a sure price cap, but that can be negotiable. You can command a rate around that price, or even ask for one (within reasonable limits — depending on your skills and reputation).
2. You are your own boss
Everyone talks about this, everyone wants to be this.
When you are your own boss, you decide when to work and what to work on. You decide if you want to take a Sunday or a Monday off — it’s totally up to you. As a freelance journalist and publisher, I no longer relate to those memes that say how bad Mondays are! Yes, say goodbye to the demanding schedule when you are a freelancer.
3. You get to work on exciting assignments
Since you are doing what you like, you won’t have a lot of complaints. You will be writing about what you want, and in the process, you will be researching exciting topics, interviewing people, and even travel to new places to work on assignments. Exciting, right?
4. You can build connections and grow your career
You are pretty much free since you are not working for anybody. In the process of being a freelance journalist, you will be contacting new editors and publishers every other day, which means that new assignments (even higher-paying) will await you. You can even land a full-time job if you really want to get an in-office experience, and such. Or, you can just work full-time as a freelancer for an organization.
Can you make a living as a freelance journalist?
This is an important question and a rather scary one. Many people stray away from freelancing because it does not provide certainty, so it is natural to wonder if you can earn enough as a freelance journalist.
There’s a short and sweet answer to this — yes!
But again, that depends. Earning a full-time income as a freelance journalist depends on some factors such as your experience, your perseverance, and other things such as many pitches you make and how many of them get accepted. Errr….pitches, what? Hold on, we will get to that part shortly.
How much do freelance journalists make?
Again, this depends, but you can make anything more than $20K per year to put things into perspective. That might not be a lot for many people, but again, this depends. A lot of freelance journalists earn as much as $100k per year and more.
The amount is valid if you are writing for publications that pay in USD. If you are writing for your country’s media houses, expect to earn enough full time to pay your bills and save it up.
However, a right balance is to write for both local and international publications. If you are looking at big money, then international publications is where what should be eyeing at. However, many freelance journalists keep it balanced, since international publications may not always publish stories that you really want to write about.
For example, The Guardian or The New York Times may not publish a story about the soaring prices in your local market, but your local or national publication would. So it’s really a mix of your niche, your interests, and your target audience.
If you are curious about how much do these publications pay, then you can check out the free online database Who Pays Writers which is a crowdsourced catalogue of publications with rates.
What are the steps to become a freelance journalist?
Let’s look at the steps you should take to successfully break into freelance journalism — the juiciest part of this article.
1. Examine your background and skills
It’s hard to do something unless you know how to do it. It’s not impossible, you can almost certainly figure it out. Having a background in a field helps, and so does knowing about your skills.
Have you been to a journalism college? Are you trying to become a journalist without a college degree? How much do you know about journalism?
If you have been to a journalism college, then you will have a good set of skills that can help you become a journalist — you will at least know how to write a news story or even tackle a feature piece. If you have not been to college and are just breaking into the field, then do not be disappointed.
I believe in self-learning, and a good start would be educating yourself about journalism — read a newspaper every day, see how reports are written, and learn how to write reports yourself.
Once these basics are cleared, you are all set to move ahead.
2. Choose a journalism beat
A journalism beat is your area of expertise — it could be society, environment, arts and culture, politics, tech., sports, entertainment music, cannabis — you get the idea. It’s something that you have extensive knowledge in — it could be related to your college major, or could simply be an area that you have accumulated vast knowledge in through reading and researching.
Choosing a journalism beat helps you establish authority — clients, editors, and publications will know that you are an expert in your beat, and the money they invest in you or your story won’t go to waste.
3. Make a journalism portfolio
Once you have a better idea of your background and skills, or have at least nurtured them and have decided on a beat, it’s time to make a journalism portfolio.
But what is a journalism portfolio?
Well, it’s just a collection of your works that you can show to clients or organizations to show that you have what it takes to be a freelance journalist.
So how do you make a journalism portfolio? Start by writing various samples in different categories. You can have a few news reports, a few feature stories, some profiles, interviews, and maybe some investigative journalism. Different samples help editors know that you can easily tackle different stories and not be a hassle when it comes to editing and production.
Once you have written some stories, create a free blog, and upload the articles there. You can use platforms such as Medium and WordPress to create a free portfolio. If you want to take it to the next level, you can even create a custom site by your name — just adds a bit of more authority to things and lets people know that you are seriously into the business.
However, having a custom site is not mandatory. At the end of the day, it’s your writing that speaks and resonates.
4. Get a journalism internship (optional)
It is quite hard to break into a field without knowing the trade of it. Freelance journalism can look like an underpaid career if you are just starting, but fret not! You are here to go a long way. Once you are out of college and have some skills, you can approach media organizations for an internship.
If you have never been to a journalism college, then you can still approach them for internships. However, you will be at a disadvantage here since it might be easier for media organizations to prioritize people who have a journalism background.
But that’s not all too disappointing. Why? Because you have a solid portfolio. You can write to editors and organizations asking for an internship opportunity and present your portfolio to them. If you meet them in person, you can simply print your stories and show it to them.
So how do you find a journalism internship?
Start by hitting your local media offices and reaching out to them to know if they have a position available. Considering the college schedules, some organizations have a specific period where they hire interns, so you might have to prepare things beforehand and apply before that period to (maybe) be on their priority list. You can also get testimonials and recommendation letters from your college’s journalism or writing department to further strengthen your application.
Have a favorite organization that you would like to join as a journalism intern? Write to them, share your portfolio, and wait for a response. Follow up after a week, maybe follow up again — don’t bug them though. If they are interested, then they will get back to you. You can also send your portfolio to multiple organizations at once and wait for a response. Remember to have a healthy conversation with all of them if you get selected at multiple places.
If you think it is hard to find an internship and the process is only tiring you out, you can gladly skip this step. A journalism internship only gets you into the rush of things — gets you to look at how a real or a virtual newsroom is like. But since our focus here is on becoming a freelance journalist, it is not all too mandatory.
This step cleared, you will want to move on to the next part, and that is figuring out who to write for and how to find publications that pay freelance journalists.
5. Find out publications that pay freelance journalists
Now that you have come this far, it is time to find out how you can make money as a freelance journalist by writing for publications that actually pay.
There are several ways to do that. If you as some budget — as little as $10 — then you can subscribe to someone like Sonia Weiser, who can send you a weekly newsletter comprising all the call for pitches. That way, it will be easier for you to track down publications that are looking for stories.
The newsletter is quite good, with all the links to calls with details on payment and what they are looking for.
If you do not want to spend money subscribing to a paid newsletter, you can head over to Twitter and search for keywords such as:
Call for pitches
Write for us
Looking for your beat writers
For more specific searches, you can highlight your queries in quotes.
I am mentioning Twitter because that’s where the juice is. Most of the publications are on Twitter, and that is where they also send out their calls for pitches. So why look anywhere else when you can directly target the source?
Once you have a list of publications that you would like to write for, it’s time to reach out to them. But before that, I would suggest that you have everything in order. A free task management platform, such as Trello can help you organize things neatly.
You can still use spreadsheets if you are into the classic form of taking notes. Stickies, other task management apps, notepads, and handwritten notes also do the job.
6. Write a journalism pitch that sells
Now that you know what publications you would like to contribute as a freelance journalist, it is time to send your pitches.
What is a journalism pitch?
A journalism pitch is your proposal to a story that you would like to write — one that you send to the editor of a publication.
So how to write a journalism pitch that does not suck and has a high chance of converting?
Most of the pitches are ignored by editors because they suck. Here, I will briefly get into how to write a compelling pitch.
Introduce yourself briefly
Introduce yourself briefly in your pitch email — a couple of lines on who you are and what you do. If you are just breaking in, then you can let go of the large bit of the introduction part and just skip to the next.
Talk about your idea
Talk about the idea in a way editors can envision your piece — you should paint it for the. Let them know which section would your story fits best. Introduce the topic and then discuss why it is relevant — has there been much coverage on it recently? Is it something worth exploring? You cannot look into stale angles. Find a fresh angle that hasn’t been spoken about. Once you are done introducing your topic and making sure that it is relevant, you can further improvise on the pitch idea in the next step.
Provide strong sources
It’s great when you can have someone talk about the story for you in the piece. Let the editors know that you have done your homework — let them know that you have people to speak to on the story's suv. Yes, it will be great if you can get a few quotes from expert sources. Sources are good juice for the story and help establish authority.
Conclude the pitch
Yes, it’s that simple. Keep it short and sweet. 300-350 words is actually a good word count for a pitch. While concluding the pitch, talk about yourself, and link to relevant samples in your beat. Show off your portfolio.
Mention a word count if you have one in mind, or just ask them what’s the count that they are looking at. However, it helps if you have an idea of the word count. After all, it’s your story, right? If you are unsure, look at similar stories on their publication and figure out the average word count.
News stories can be up to 600 words. Features can be 1200-1500. Long form stories easily be more than 2,000 words. Long form features, interviews, and profiles can even hit 3,000 or 4,000 words. It all depends on the story.
Finally, end things off by saying when you can get back to them with the story. Provide them a timeline for your first draft so that they know when they can expect it.
You will want to send multiple pitches per month to increase your acceptance rate. You might even need to recycle your existing pitches. Some publications, however, do not allow simultaneous submissions, so keep that in mind as well. I would suggest you submit a pitch every day (or more) to better your chances.
7. Deliver the story
Now that you have a commissioned story at hand, you will want to deliver it — of course, you have to deliver it. All this work for nothing? No way!
Give it your best shot. Write crisp sentences that speak the point. Interview your sources and write a good draft.
The rest of the work is done by the editor. Please submit your story within your timeframe; apologize and provide a valid reason if you are late — maybe let them know beforehand. Once you send the story, the editors will work with you to make it better. Maybe you will have a couple of editing rounds to make the story even better.
8. Get published and paid
Great, so you are published! Do not forget to ask for a byline (your name and short intro on the story) so that you can further strengthen your portfolio. But how do you get paid? If your publication is in your country, they may consider sending you a cheque or do a wire transfer. That’s easy, right? Just send them your details.
If the publication is outside India, you might have to get on a platform like PayPal to get your payment. It takes minutes to set it up.
9. Improvise and repeat
The next step is actually getting better at the process. Identify the loopholes in your process and get better. The more you pitch, the better you become. Discipline is the key to it as well. Have a pitching routing that you can follow. Once you have some bylines around, it will be even easier to get more assignments with better rates. You will also be building work relationships with editors in the process to better your chances of getting your stories in. They will know that you have what it takes to write a solid story, right?
Great, you have come to the end of this guide and have not gone crazy! This is just the start. This is my first post, and if it does well, I will be writing more and expanding on the points I mentioned above.
Until then, good luck! Share this guide with so that others also get an idea of how to become a freelance journalist. Sharing helps. Ask me if you have any questions. I am here to help — at least that’s the point of this article.
Stick around. See you soon!
Happy pitching! 🙂