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How to (Try To) Be a Freelance Journalist

by Amber Johnson 4 years ago in career

The Realities and Pitfalls

Thanks in particular to the assignments I'd scraped a pass in in second year, I realised that my six-year-old brain was noble but a bit of an idiot. I was not Jo in Little Women—being an author wasn't going to be enough to earn a crust. I could write a bestseller (hopefully), but the industry is too difficult and too hit-and-miss to rely on that to survive. To pay the bills I could either have a normal 9-5 job in an office somewhere or I could turn my hand to journalism. Unfortunately, the financial crisis hit the globe during my first year at university, so getting a steady journalism job when I left was probably going to be quite a long shot. Apparently though, there was another option—going freelance.

My first foray into that world actually came during my first year, before the full effects of the financial crisis hit. I was struggling to adjust to life at university, especially as I didn't fit in with the people I was living with: alcohol-fueled party animals who knew coke-heads and stoners. That last description is closer to the truth than you might think: 'Crazy Sam' believed he was a shaman and tried to chat up girls at bus-stops by staring at them and claiming he could see into their soul. Anyway...

In order to help cope with my misery, I went to visit the good ladies at the 'Jobshop' in the hope that some extra work would keep my brain occupied. 'Jobshop' was just what you might think—a little room off the library where you could go to find a job that would fit around your studies. This could be anything from working at a holiday camp in the French Alps over Easter to helping with gardening projects at weekends. With both of these ruled out thanks to my rusty French and my inherited gene that causes plants in my care to wither and die, I was hoping to find something that would boost my CV and more importantly, be something at which I could make a proper stab. Thankfully that's just what I found to help. Just about to close was a freelance journalism job writing about cars.

To prove that I could actually string an interesting coherent sentence together, I had to write a short article about a car. This was a difficult task as it is quite a broad topic. Did I write a news piece about a new release, or wax lyrical about my favourite car? Did I write about an imaginary road test or did I conduct an actual one? I plumped for the last option but bearing in mind I'd not long passed my driving test, the only car I'd ever driven was a Vauxhall Corsa. I quickly wrote a review of that and sent it in ahead of the deadline, not holding out much hope that I'd get anywhere. To my surprise, it was good enough and I had secured my first proper writing employment. My task was this: every month I would be given a car brand and I'd have to write four 500 word articles and forty 100 word blog posts about any models within that brand. This sounded great—I would get to have a lot of free range, be able to write about something for which I'd always had a passion, and best of all, I'd be paid for it. To a lot of people, £110 a month for doing all that work may seem a pittance (don't forget I'd also have to conduct extensive research as well as actually write), but me though, it was magical. After all, most people have a daily grind to earn that pittance. Not for me though, this would be easy-peasy fun. Or so I thought.

The first car brand that I had to write about was Toyota. This seemed good; I was glad that my first task wasn't a high-end luxury brand because writing about cars that only Alan Sugar and Richard Branson can afford, limits your market. Instead I could write for everyday people, people like me. Despite my initial excitement and eagerness to get going, I left it few days before I started writing, just so I could settle into some research and think about the right tone. It turns out this was almost a monumental error because in the few days I'd waited, something major had happened to make my initially easy task a lot more complicated.

I was given this task in February 2010. For those of you that don't remember or don't know, Toyota was suddenly struck by a massive crisis at about this time. Initially it started in August 2009, with cars in China being recalled for faulty window switches, but September there was suddenly a fault with accelerator pedals on 4.2 million cars in America. By January 2010 another 2.3 million cars had been added to the list, apparently for a slightly different problem with pedals, and new car sales had been suspended. By the time it came to me writing about Toyotas, the problems apparently also now affected cars in Europe across eight different models, with Toyota owners being told to stop driving their cars immediately whilst they waited to hear whether they were affected. A new fault was then reported on certain versions of the Prius and the company was further hit by scandal when it was revealed that they had initially thought there was a problem the previous winter, but hadn't bothered to tell anyone about it. All of a sudden my 'little' task of writing adverts for used Toyotas was going to be about as easy as selling ice to Eskimos. I ploughed on with it and sent it off. Whether the articles helped sell any cars is anyone's guess.

After writing about Toyotas when the company was arguably in crisis, I figured any other car brands I had to write about would be easy. While they weren't as difficult as the first one I was wrong to think it would be simple. The research for each piece was endless and deciding if the information I found was objective was difficult, and that's before I even got to the writing. Being brutally honest, doing this job wasn't as much fun as I initially hoped it would be. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed doing it overall, but the actual process was a bit more stressful than fun. Still, I would have kept up with it forever if they'd let me, but seemingly out of the blue the financial crisis that had hit the 'world' suddenly affected me. Not particularly clued up on global finance at the time, I was suddenly told by the person I was dealing with, that the company could no longer afford to pay me and so I no longer had a job. This was disappointing but the ease with which I got this freelance job gave me a lot of hope for getting another one. I couldn't have been more wrong.

Learning How to Freelance:

Although I'd had a paid freelance job, I wasn't egotistical enough to believe that I didn't still have lots to learn. This is why I opted to take a freelance journalism module in my second year. They'd roped in two proper freelance journalists for this purpose and they'd been published in places like the Times and the Guardian. You think they'd have lots of knowledge to impart then? In many ways yes but in some no. As a sub module my lessons in how to be a successful freelancer were once a fortnight, with each lesson covering a different part of journalism. I was hoping that we'd learn about aspects of journalism law or good practice but we didn't extensively cover any of this, we mainly just learnt about different journalistic forms. To be honest the only two I definitively remember learning about were travel writing and opinion pieces and that's because both of the pieces I wrote on those topics were a catastrophic disaster.

Travel writing was one of the first journalistic forms that we looked at. This is presumably because it was thought that as we were at university, our families must have been able to afford to take us on a different exotic holiday every summer. I have been on a one week holiday to Salou (later the base for the Spanish round of the WRC) and I've also had a weekend in Paris, where I spent a lot of the time soaked to the skin, feeling sick. Not exactly the best conditions to write an inspiring travel account.

Anyway, I always considered travel writing to be a bit like a Judith Chalmers report—you give an overview of everything you experienced to any prospective visitors. In reality this was not what my teachers expected at all, they wanted me to focus on a specific aspect or tale from my holiday that would grab the reader's attention. Something that my piece epically failed to do. Everyone in the class was also expected to submit it to a local travel magazine, whose editor had connections with our teacher. Following the scathing review my piece received I didn't bother but I know several other people in my class did, with one actually being published in the magazine. This was a big surprise to her, it turns out, because she'd actually made her whole piece up; she'd never been abroad in her life. 1-0 to clever writing skills and internet research.

The other journalistic form that I remember looking at 'in detail' in this module (and I use that term in inverted commas quite correctly, as you will soon see) was the opinion piece. For this, we were invited to look at the Guardian website and the column of the great Charlie Brooker. The advice in the lesson was not much more than try to emulate him - witty, light-hearted banter was the order of the day. I decided to write a small piece about politics and I thought I'd not done too badly. I wasn't exactly proud of it and didn't have heady imaginations of it entering the literary canon, but I didn't think it wasn't a bad job. So I was surprised when I got it back with a mark barely above 50, my second worst ever mark at university. Apparently I wasn't the only one unhappy and so all of our pieces got sent up to the module coordinator to be re-marked. Mine came back worse. After a meeting to discuss my re-mark I found out the problem with my opinion piece was... it was an opinion. It had no facts in it whatsoever and was basically just a stupid ramble, only funny because on first glance it seems ridiculous. I was made to feel that I'd completely failed to understand the task. But what else could I have done when my only advice was to look at someone else's writing? I looked back at my notes and there is no mention of advice on research or anything. Despite my annoyance at being blamed for a failure that clearly wasn't mine, I kept quiet to the module coordinator. After all, who were they going to believe, a student that had 'failed' to understand a simple task or a professional journalist? Instead I (and I don't think I was the only one) gave some 'constructive' comments on the end of year survey, and hoped they would make a few changes to the following year's course so no other poor person fell foul of the same problem.

As well as the lessons where we learned about journalistic forms, there was another lesson called 'the sub-shop.' Here we could bring our articles for other students, and the teacher, to workshop before the final submission to the class. Which was really fifteen minutes where a few of us were chosen to read out our pieces before moving on to learning about the next journalistic form. But never mind.

At the first 'sub-shop' there were only three of us in attendance and it seemed none of us had a clue what 'sub-shop' meant so we hadn't brought anything to workshop. Instead the teacher asked us a few questions about why we'd taken the module and what we wanted to do. This is where I'd encountered my first piece of prejudice about wanting to become a motoring journalist. This female journalist had been regularly published in the Times although I'd not heard of her - perhaps that's because I'm too working class to get far into an edition of the Times before my brain starts turning to mush and I suddenly appear as if I'm having a fit of narcolepsy.

I was the last person to be questioned about my journalistic plans. When the words 'motoring journalist' came out of my mouth, they appeared to be as violent as a taser—stunning the room into complete silence. You'd think that as a professional journalist my teacher would have tried to bolster my ambitions and as a woman, showed some solidarity with the sisterhood and made out like I could do anything. Instead the silence and then the inane questions of 'well what do you mean?' and 'so like writing about cars and stuff?' made me feel like she'd kicked me out of the sisterhood and that to want to write about cars I must be in the transgender closet. This left me feeling very deflated, a feeling that got worse during the week we were allowed to workshop a piece of journalism on a topic of our own choosing. I wrote a news piece about what at the time was just a possible replacement for the Lamborghini Murcielago—the Aventador. I tried to make it snappy and funny as well it containing some car freak knowledge but this was completely bypassed. Like Hades she completely sucked the life out of it, instead turning it into something so mind-numbingly factual that you might read it halfway through the Financial Times. Half annoyed that she didn't understand and half depressed that perhaps I'm no good at writing about cars after all, I left it on the hard-drive of my computer and never included it in my final submission.

The final task for this 'Feature Journalism' module was to get used to coming up with ideas and pitching them to editors. We had to spend our entire last term sending ideas out, with us having to send out one idea less for every 200 words we had published. I achieved quite a good mark that bolstered my overall grade but despite this, I still felt like I had a lot to learn and so took another journalism module in my third year entitled 'Professional Writing'.

This module was more like what I'd originally expected from the one the previous year. We learnt more about a lot more different forms. We covered critical reviews (which I'd never even heard of until the class and is great because it's basically legal plagiarism) and we looked at 'Experience' pieces which from what I can tell, are shorter versions of things you might read in Chat magazine but written in a more upmarket way for the Guardian. We also looked at political reporting which was quite interesting but not what I was expecting. Instead of being delightfully witty like a panelist on Have I Got News For You, I had to be factual and display no opinion whatsoever. That was a little disappointing. At the end of the module we had to hand in another portfolio of our best work. This time I got a first and my equal best mark at university. I was really pleased with this. It reassured me that perhaps I actually could write after all and I could make a success of this when I left. This was something that my teacher was desperate for me to do, because if I didn't it would apparently be like I wasted my education. According to him too many people leave university, get a shop job and never write again because they say that they don't have time. Apparently we needed to be better than that. I hoped that I could be.

This module sounded good, didn't it? Unfortunately it also fell foul of the same disappointments. While we did learn about more journalistic forms, our bi-weekly two hour lessons consisted of a few people reading out their work while our teacher gave comments and then proceeded to get side-tracked on a tangent (with some casual racism thrown in), before we were told the task for the next lesson and shown an example of one that had already been written. We were given next to no tips at all and I wrote approximately a page and a half of vague notes (just so it looked like I was doing something) during the whole year. Thank God for iPads so I could covertly Tweet and play Peggle to relieve my boredom, under the guise of note-taking.

You, like some members of my class, may be wondering why I am moaning about this—after all, journalism is quite solitary and is about finding things out for yourself. I get this. However, being a journalist is about writing and pitching and finding out certain facts to include in your piece. The idea of these lessons was surely to be taught about different journalistic forms we might write in order to write them, with unique facts like 'in what year did Ron Paul first make a bid for the presidential candidacy?' being the things we have to research. It seems our teacher didn't agree and I know I was not the only one fed up with this and not the only one who wondered why on earth I bothered attending in the first place.

So I'd learnt how to freelance, how to write different articles, and how to pitch to people, and I felt I was ready to do it 'for real,' as it were. Apparently taking the 'Professional Writing' module would mean that we wouldn't have to be stuck in a dead end job when we left -we could pitch an idiot for a thousand word feature to an editor, get it published and if we did a couple of those a fortnight then we'd have enough to tide us over while we worked on our fabulous Booker Prize winning debut novels. It should be as easy as that because that's what our teacher had been doing for years. This is how I left uni, full of hope that I now had the tools to waltz into a writing career. I really should have known better.

Life in the Real Freelance World:

Aside from the work that I'd done for Blue Sky, I also had some other pieces published while I was at university. I'd successfully pitched a review of a poetry reading organised by my university and had that published. I'd also replied to an advert asking people to attend a couple of events at the Bath Literature Festival and review them, for two years running. All the reviews were published in the Bath Chronicle. The real killer is that they were unpaid. This isn't to be sniffed at because it's publication and I also got free tickets to the LitFest events I reviewed, but it's hard to make that step up. How do you discuss the subject of money with someone and how do you know your writing is good enough anyway. While I was at university a lot of the publications to which I pitched ideas took this out of my hands because quite a lot were upfront about the fact they wouldn't be paying me. This poses more problems, the first being 'how long should I write for free?'. Sure writing for free means they'll take your work because they won't have to pay for someone else and that means you'll get your name out there but, and it's a big but, you are using your time and effort to do this. Just because you are writing words on a page does not mean it takes any less effort. You wouldn't be expected to scrub toilets for sod all, so since when should you write for free?

Writing for free also poses another problem, if you aren't being paid how do you cope with day to day living. There's always bills to pay and if you're writing for free the only way you'll cover them is getting a normal job, which as we all know is hard to do. And it wasn't something for which I felt properly prepared thanks to the ultra positive spin on freelancing opportunities from my teachers. My freelancing experiences at university didn't deter me though and so I left still excited at the prospect of earning loads of dosh writing for publications across the country. Big mistake.

I wasn't idiotic enough to believe that I could suddenly start pitching motoring articles to publications and then become a respected motoring journalist. I knew that it would probably be best to write articles on everything that I knew about to have the best chance of getting published. This was kind of imperative as a 9-to-5 job wasn't forthcoming. One of the first places I looked to see if people needed writers was Gumtree. Thanks to this I found a website that wanted writers to articles with a feminine spin. I quickly applied and sent off some articles, including a motoring piece and one about interior design. Sounds quite positive right? Unfortunately like the other freelance articles I'd written this was going to be unpaid but it didn't matter to me at that stage, I could direct other people who might pay me to the site to show them that I could write, couldn't I? Well I could but the articles never appeared up there. This was the start of my depressingly true freelance journey.

It was about this time that I came across another place looking for writers. had posted an advert looking for students and recent graduates to microblog about student life. Again, it was unpaid, but with other students and also companies logging on to the site to help fill job roles, my writing would reach a wider audience. The idea of potentially being headhunted swung it for me and I sent in my application. The organiser of the blog couldn't have been more complimentary about my writing (go me!) and I quickly fired off my first piece about tuition fees. This was more of a news article than a blog, with a quick summing up of my opinion at the end but it did end up on the site. Several more pieces followed but then I gave it up. With my head still not hunted and now almost completely out of graduate writing ideas, I said enough was enough. I needed to concentrate on other, paid journalism, and finding a job in which my degree is useful and also valued. Sadly, that was years ago and so far, neither has happened.


Amber Johnson

I am an English/Creative Writing graduate. I've always wanted to write but not been doing it so much recently - hoping this is the way back in. I love making things and absorbing knowledge. INFJ for life.

Read next: The Key to Better Writing: Don't take yourself too seriously

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