I was a member of a scout group for most of my childhood and all of my teenage years, only leaving when I had to travel to England for study. You can learn a lot there on a practical and social level but one thing that’s easy to forget is the lesson that’s at the core (indeed it’s the motto) of scouting – be prepared.
When I left college I was under no illusion about what I was facing in terms of career progression – staff jobs in Irish journalism are hard to come by and most young journalists freelance at first – something which involves dealing with a lot of rejection. I willingly undertook the freelancers path and did so knowing enough about the process to get by but not knowing nearly enough about the nitty-gritty to be truly prepared.
Following my comment on Shane’s post yesterday I thought I might talk about what I feel a freelance journalist should be prepared for to make the early months and years of their career as easy as possible. Many of them are things I’ve still not mastered having only identified them in the midst of the process rather than from the outset – maybe putting it all up here will help someone else coming into the field and will save them a bit of time in the process.
Just to be clear, the following paints a dreary picture of freelancing, and it can be dreary, but it’s something I enjoy, don’t regret doing and wouldn’t stop doing for another career path (and I say that as someone who is just doing this until something permanent comes along). All I’m doing here is listing some of the more negative sides so that people can be prepared for them and more able to minimise their impact. Also, I’m no expert on freelancing or journalism and am only able to give advice on my own limited and ongoing experience – perhaps other freelancers could leave comments with their own tips, advice, suggestions and warnings and I can add them to the list:
Be prepared for the frustration youâ€™ll feel when pitches gets rejected. It’s very easy to know that rejection is part of the journalism process but it’s still tough not to get frustrated when your ideas get knocked down time and time again. Learn what you can each time and just keep going.
Be prepared for the frustration you’ll feel from having no money. You should be aware that good journalists get paid relatively well, but new journalists get paid horribly. Freelancing is volatile by its nature and you will have weeks or even months with little or no money – this makes every day things like going for a coffee a burden. A lack of money also amplifies the frustration you feel at getting rejected or ignored as the longer it takes to get a commission means the longer you’ll be penniless.
Be prepared for financial volatility. When you’re freelancing, some months are great and others are terrible – just hope you have more good ones than bad ones and do your best to save when you are getting money in so you can spend when you’re not.
Be prepared to deal with a serious lack of motivation. Working for yourself can be a gift and a curse depending on who you are. Some thrive when they’re their own boss – others let laziness sink in. As a freelancer you have to motivate yourself to get out of bed in the morning, get in front of the computer and get to work. It can be hard enough doing this when you have a commission and a deadline but it’s even harder when you don’t.
Be prepared for cabin fever. Unless you’re very wealthy, or doing a lot of shifts, your freelance work will be based in your home. This can cause some serious problems as after a while it feels like you’re never “off the clock”. Trying to mentally separate home from work can be hard when they both take place in the same building and it’s up to you to find the best way to do this.
Be prepared for no reply. As I’ve said, rejection comes with journalism, deal with it. What can be worse, however, is when an editor just doesn’t get back to you at all. When this happens you can get seriously knocked off your rhythm as you end up waiting for an answer before you pitch to someone else or drop it for another idea. It also means that you don’t get any feedback on the idea, which can be vital for the way you put your next pitch forward. Again, this is just something you’ve got to get used to, even though there’s really no excuse not to send an email reply nowadays. The best way to resolve this is to follow up with a phone call if you’ve not gotten a response within a reasonable amount of time.
Be prepared for a nagging feeling. When the money level’s low, the commissions aren’t coming and you’re starting to get sick of the sight of your own walls it can be very easy to lose morale. One side effect of this is to lose motivation, as already discussed, and another is to lose confidence. If you’re freelancing for a while and things are going slow, it can be very easy to start to wonder if you’re making any progress in your career or even if you’re in the right career at all. If journalism really is for you you won’t find it hard to snap yourself out of this quick enough.
Be prepared to write rubbish, but be sure to write it well. You will get approached to write rubbish and often it’s badly paying rubbish. But if it pays well enough to justify the time you’re going to need to devote to it (and you have the time to spare), do it. Avoid the fear that it will be a step back – that can only be possible if you do a bad job writing it.
Be prepared to turn down commissions. This is a tough one to gauge – the adage is that a freelancer should take whatever they can get when they’re starting out and run with it, however there are some cases where it’s not such a good idea. Perhaps someone wants you to write a piece that you’re not comfortable with for some reason or are expecting you to write it for free. Remember it’s your name in the by-line and no-one else’s; if you feel the article will reflect badly on you then turn it down – but in the same breath don’t turn things down for petty reasons.
Be prepared for the long haul. If you’ve chosen freelancing as an eventual route to making staff somewhere be aware that it doesn’t come easy. Freelancing in this situation is all about amassing a portfolio to impress so first you’ve got to start getting good stories. For some that comes depressingly quickly and for others it takes a long time. The hardest part is building up contacts and an expertise in the area you plan to work in (as broad or narrow as that may be) – this kind of cultivation can take time, so be prepared and don’t get lazy or disheartened.