October 2, 2012

In Sir Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe,” freelancers or freelances were mercenaries — knights who didn’t belong to any kingdom’s army. Instead, they offered their lance-wielding skills to wealthy landowners. They were the private security officers of their day.

Today, freelance journalism can feel like a constant battle: to come up with good ideas, to pitch them to the right places and to land assignments that both pay well and leave enough room for more writing.

Many reporters turn to freelancing at some point in their careers. They may be fresh out of college and hoping to build a broad range of clips. They may be victims of downsizing who are trying to keep their bylines out there. Or they may be in a situation where they need the flexibility freelancing can provide.

Freelancing has its downsides, including instability, serving as your own collections agency and waiting months for payment. But it also has a major upside, says San Francisco freelance reporter Chris Roberts: “Freedom. You are free to rise when you please, quit when you please, travel as you please.”

In a market crowded with freelancers, it helps to know how to find and create more opportunities. Here are some tips to help you make those opportunities.

Create a network and continue to build it

When I got my start as a freelance music writer in the mid-1990s, I got my first freelance jobs through personal contacts. When I interviewed one editor for a college research paper, he asked me to freelance for him. After a while, he introduced me to an editor at the San Francisco Chronicle who gave me my second gig. Each one led to another.

Later, I worked for print newspapers, getting to know dozens of journalists and editors. After my daughter was born and I returned to freelancing, that network helped me find editors looking for freelancers — and even a few who weren’t looking, but were willing to assign me stories because they knew me.

Thanks to Facebook and Twitter, connecting with fellow freelancers has never been easier. Knowing who’s writing, and who they’re writing for, gives you a good sense of which publications are open to taking freelance work. Get to know other freelancers on social networks and, once you’ve built a rapport with them, ask them to introduce you to their editors. While cold-pitching works, your success rate will be much greater with a personal introduction.

Research potential publications – and their editors

Before you pitch, study up on what a particular newspaper, magazine or website publishes. Read some of their articles to see what topics they cover, as well as their tone or style. Who is their audience? Is their voice very no-frills, or chatty? Are they left-leaning, right-leaning or unpartisan?

“Luxury magazines don’t want tales of the urban poor. And alt-weeklies don’t want pieces fluffing the establishment,” Robert says. “Use your sense.”

In particular, seek out publications you enjoy reading, says Natalie Zina Walschots, a music and culture writer in Toronto. Look online for their submissions guidelines; if you can’t find them, email an editor and ask how they like to be pitched.

Likewise, see what you can find out about the editor you’re pitching to: What kinds of stories or angles does she like? Does she prefer pitches by phone or email? This is where your network comes in handy again; colleagues can tell you how to navigate the stormy pitching skies.

Pitch on subjects other reporters are missing

Are you an expert on relatively obscure topics, such as education funding, political unrest in Tbilisi or heavy metal in South Africa? If so, you can often create a niche for yourself by pitching those kinds of stories to publications that aren’t covering them, but should be.

Once you establish a rapport with an editor, make sure he or she knows your areas of expertise, in case stories come up that require your knowledge.

If you’re freelancing at the local level, in a city crowded with reporters, chances are good they’re going to have all the major news events well-covered. In that case, listen to what locals are gossiping about on neighborhood e-lists, at the dog park or in the back row at City Hall meetings. They’re good sources for news items that other reporters don’t know about yet.

Before you pitch, check to see what your potential publisher has already run on the topic. That way, you’ll be sure to offer something they haven’t done before.

Pitch more than you can write

Even if you have the perfect idea, other events can get in the way. Maybe another writer pitched the same story yesterday. Maybe your editor is suddenly sick of the topic. Or maybe news is about to break that would make your idea less-than-newsworthy.

With that in mind, pitch multiple ideas to each editor, and pitch to multiple editors at the same time. Some writers will even send the same idea to more than one editor, and go with whoever bites first.

Be prepared for plenty of rejection. “I take a lot of shots. And I miss an awful lot,” Roberts says. “Freelancing … is a game of failure. I hit .300, I’m not just in the hall of fame; I have more work than I know what to do with.”

Create an online portfolio

A well-crafted website that shows who you are and what you can do can be invaluable in landing freelance work (or a job). Websites can become like online clip books or portfolios that showcase your best writing and the topics you cover best. (Here are some tips on how to create a strong online portfolio.)

Although most freelance work comes through your connections, editors will sometimes Google a new writer’s website to scope them out. Others will do so when they’re seeking writers. This has happened to Walschots, who also goes by the catchy moniker of Natalie Zed.

“Often, someone will come across my website and approach me to do work,” she says. “I think it is absolutely essential for any freelancer to have a website that serves as an online portfolio and allows potential clients to get in touch with them.”

Share the wealth

If you’re a successful freelancer, chances are good that you got there through the help of your many connections. Once you’ve made inroads with a number of publications and editors, it’s time to pay it forward.

Talk to friends who are looking for freelance work and hook them up with like-minded editors. Or, if your editor asks you to work on something and you can’t fit it into your schedule, ask a fellow writer to take it on. Most times, your friend will be grateful for the work, and your editor will be happy to have someone on the story. In fact, I started writing for Poynter after a fellow freelancing friend, Eugenia Chien, introduced me to Poynter.org Managing Editor Mallary Tenore.

Sooner or later, you’re likely to hit a rocky patch with little work. When that happens, the writers you’ve helped find assignments are likely to return the favor.

For additional tips, you can replay this chat on how to make it as a freelancer:

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