Surviving as a Freelance Journalist

My webinar for NAIWE on surviving as a freelance journalist is today. The PowerPoint is ready, I’m about to get caffeined up, and I’m thinking. What did I miss in my outline? Nothing really.

But it’s more of the intangible things I’m ruminating over. I’m thinking about what survival means.

I think you have to go through times of surviving. For those doing this as a career–and those who need the money–you go through bouts when you’ll write just about anything in order to pay the bills.

Then you go through periods of thriving.

But somehow, when you’re on your own–independent, self-employed, what have you–it always comes back to survival. Even decades in.

Why survival?

Because if you stop working at it, there’s no cushion to save you.

Some people in traditional jobs may not mentally show up every day, but they still go and their job is still there. Their company is still there. There are other companies to go to if one doesn’t work out.

For the journalist, if you stop doing it, there’s no other company to go to if you want to be self-employed…you’re it.

I am nearly 15 years in. Sure, I don’t go through times of no work but I have gone through lean times. When I felt like I was surviving. Or starving like I was 15 years ago. This is okay. (If nothing else, it keeps you on your feet so you know where you want to head next with your business.)

So don’t think that if you’re feeling like you are in “survival” mode that you are a failure…especially if you’re experienced. We all have to keep hustling to stay in business, and self-employed businesses ebb and flow. You’ll start hustling again. And if you are and nothing is happening, it will.

Just by sticking with it, so long as this is what you want to be doing, you’re surviving.

 

Crafting a Knockout Headline

 

Journalists used to be the only ones who had to write headlines. Now business owners are their own bloggers, reporters, and social media managers. Copywriters are crafting webpage headlines, subheadlines and even email subject lines. It seems like everyone who is either a writer or in the business marketing field needs to know how to write a good headline of some sort…even if it’s not a traditional news headline.

I cultivated some experience in headline writing when I was a copy editor for Gannett. I thought I would only be editing stories, but it turns out half my job was creating headlines–and doing it so they’d fit in tight spaces. You learn a lot of really short words when you’re short on space. (Who knew back then that I’d be doing the same thing on Twitter 10 years later, strategizing on which words to cram in a headline advertising articles I’d written for other news publications?)

Looking to pen an attention-getting headline that lures readers in and sums up what an article has to say? Here are a few tips.

Determine what word must go in. In news, it’s imperative to have certain words from your story in the headline. If I am writing an article for a health publication about a new cancer drug, I definitely want to get “cancer” in there, if not “new” and “drug” too. In more evergreen content, I may be able to add more phrases, but I still want to know which words must go in. What individual words do you think have to go in the headline so your reader gets the gist of the article? Do you need action words to make the reader take action, too? Keep this in mind as you identify those “must-add” words.

Know your audience and the medium. Space doesn’t matter as much if you’re on LinkedIn, but it can if you’re working in a print publication or say, for an email newsletter article. Again, if you’re writing for a newspaper, you want to get a few certain key words (not just keywords) in the headline so the reader has an idea of what the story is about. Also, you may want a more lax, attention-grabbing headline if the headline is not for a news outlet and is instead a social media post promoting a headline. In news, it’s more of sticking to a few words that sum up the article instead of getting a reader to click on it, though you likely want them to read on for more information. News readers want to be able to skim a headline and get the gist of the development–they may not read on. On the flip side, in copywriting, a headline can give a summary but also be used to engage the reader to take action or read the entire article. Look at past articles or content to get a feel for the tone.

When I’m writing about that cancer drug in news, my headline may be “New Cancer Drug Extends Life,” while an email or social media headline may be “The Cancer Drug That Could Help You Live Longer.” Big difference!

Add action. Depending on where your headline will appear, it’s important to add action. News readers want to know what the news is, while an email subject line (it kind of counts as a headline) will want to drive the user to open the message and convey what they’ll get if they do.

Think phrasing. I love what this article has to say about the phrases we can choose, as certain ones can be more effective for different mediums. Keep in mind that “will make you” and “this is why” may work awesome in an email subject line–but not so great for a news headline. If you’ve got more room, flexibility or the ability to add in a subhead, that’s where a good phrase can come in handy. Otherwise, I stick to identifying the must-feature words and building a headline around those.

Send me your questions about journalism or writing in general. Visit my website or read up on the latest NAIWE news!

Pitch–Don’t Perfect–Stories

I was reading a post this week in a community forum about an essay writer. She wanted to know how she could find “homes” for her work.

Instantly, I felt strongly that her question revealed the problem. She was writing, storing up essays, without any publication in sight. She was spending her time wrestling over the writing process instead of focusing her time on selling the work.

Her method for selling the work was then to ask other writers to find “homes” for the essays. But her job as a writer–or at least as one who wants to earn money from working–is to do that work too. As you know, a freelance journalist rarely just writes. I can’t tell you how much time I spend searching for markets and connecting with editors. But in doing that work, I know where my work can find a home.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with penning essays and then selling them. Some of our best work can come when we’re not writing an assignment under a deadline. But when you’re looking to make a living out of it, you often have to pitch them first. Or at least know where you eventually want to propose the article. Otherwise, you’re just saying you have a stash of stories waiting to be sold.

So does everyone else. That’s never going to sell your writing, or sell yourself as the writer.

Focus on the Pitch Prior to Writing

This is what I see as one of the top problems that new writers face when they’re trying to break into this field. While I’m an advocate of the “just write” mentality, you’re wasting your business resources–and time–when you write without a focus on selling an article or essay. You’re also wasting your time if you try to perfect your work on your own, because an editor will want to make changes to it after they acquire it.

How do you know a publication will want your article if it’s already written? Maybe the editor wants to give his or her input for a specific angle. If you write it out and spend too much time “perfecting” it, you will be spending more time on it.

In looking at the writer’s guidelines, a publication may want to buy an essay after it’s completed. But don’t assume it. Many outlets want a thoughtful pitch before you begin writing. The editor wants to hear your idea, add something to it to give you direction, and receive a draft that meets his or her requirements.

This is a bit different in the essay-writing field, where a lot of publications want to buy essays on spec. A lot of those markets are low-paying, though.

Here’s my advice in this situation: Have a few publications in mind before you start writing away your best stories and wondering why outlets aren’t lined up to purchase them. If you do draft a piece, don’t worry too much about editing it–just get the idea down. Pitch your essays out so you receive an assignment. Editors rarely ask a writer they’ve never worked with what kinds of essays are sitting on their hard drives.

Your time is precious, and so is your creativity. Nothing kills a creative writer like the person with a trove of stories waiting to “find a home.” Shelter cats find homes. Your work needs to be sold if you’re going to be a reputable working writer.

Find yourself a home with a publication and connect with the editors there. Build up your portfolio. Then, hopefully by the time you have that killer essay idea, you only have to write an elevator pitch about it and you will have that awesome, paying assignment already lined up.

Got questions or just want to connect? Visit my website or read up on the latest NAIWE news!