How to start-up as a freelance journalist

A London-based doctor is set to cash-in on his medical expertise by turning his hand to freelance writing.

Baber Qureshia, a Freelance UK reader, has graduated from Royal London Hospital to recently start training as a GP.

Now the 29-year-old wants to make his first foray into freelance writing, ideally to supply newspapers and magazines on his specialist subject of medicine, though he’s unsure how to start-up.

“I want to do some freelance journalism but have no idea where to begin,” he told Freelance UK.

“Actually that’s not entirely true; I wanted to begin with letters page of local papers. From there I wish to submit articles on what I like.

“How do I get something to say I’m a freelance journalist? Is there such a thing?,” he asked.

Below, three veterans of media freelancing respond to Baber’s questions so he, and other professionals with similar aspirations, can begin to explore how to become a freelance writer.

Jan Murray is a freelance journalist who regularly contributes to The Times Educational Supplement, The Guardian, The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.

As an editorial consultant, trainer, and director of media portal JournoBiz, she has fused best practice advice with insider knowledge for those contemplating start-up as a freelance journalist.

“The world of freelance journalism can be very competitive, but you are definitely at an advantage because you have an area of expertise - medicine and health,” she advised Baber.

“By all means write letters to your local newspaper if you want to get something off your chest or have a burning issue you want to raise, but this is unlikely to help you advance your career as a freelance journalist.

"In your position, I would set my sights much higher than this. Anyone can call themselves a freelance journalist. There is no 'bit of paper' you can obtain to prove it. The 'proof' will come with the cuttings you get from published articles.
"The way it works is that freelance journalists sell article ideas to magazines and newspapers, otherwise known as 'pitches'. It sounds easy in theory, but it's worth remembering that there are very few 'new' ideas - the trick is finding a original angles on topics or themes which may have been covered in the press time and time again.

"The best freelance journalists usually have a good knowledge of current affairs and read lots of newspapers and magazines, as they are always on the hunt for new ideas or fresh angles.

"Before you even think about pitching ideas, it is a good idea to spend some time reading the publications you would like to write for to get a good feel for the target audience.

"It's also worth picking out individual articles and asking yourself why you think the editor ran that particular story and why it might appeal to their target audience. This should help you come up with original feature ideas which are well suited to the publication and should appeal to the editor.

"Feature ideas come from a variety of sources: new research, events; such as. Cancer Awareness Week, news stories, personal experiences - the list is endless! Generally, those which are tied to some new research or a topical news story often have the most chance of being accepted – or ‘commissioned.’
"When pitching stories, it is really important to find out exactly who edits the section you are pitching to. This information can usually be found by telephoning the switchboard of the publication.

"Most editors prefer e-mail pitches, but some get hundreds of pitches a week, so if you want to be in with a chance of getting published, you need to be willing to follow up over the phone. If your idea is particularly timely, sometimes it’s best to get straight on the phone with the idea and not bother with the e-mail.

"Always remember that editors are busy and there are hundreds of people like you trying to interest editors in their ideas, so always ask if it is convenient to talk and offer to call back another time if not.

"Not hearing back from an editor doesn't always mean they don't like your idea. Sometimes, it can take weeks - even months - for them to make up their mind and accept your article. You just need to keep chasing! As long as you're polite, it's probably okay to put in a phone call every day or two. They will soon tell you if they don't like your idea and ask you to stop ringing!

"Even if an editor doesn't like your idea and tells you so over the phone, this can be a great opportunity to tell them a bit more about yourself and maybe find out a bit more about what they're looking for - so that next time you pitch an idea they might remember you. Which is definitely a good start in this business!

"Your knowledge and experience actually puts you in an advantageous position, as many newspapers and magazines have regular slots written by medical professionals.

"It's definitely worth finding out which ones do and giving them a call to let them know that should a slot become vacant or another opportunity arise, you would be interested.

"They will probably ask you to send a CV, photo and some examples of your work, so it may be better to get a few commissions under your belt before you do this.

"It would probably then be a good idea to get a basic website up and running with examples of your work - a slick, professional website could put your in a better position in terms of getting a regular slot on a magazine or newspaper.

"In your position, I would be inclined to stick with your specialist area to start with and pitch articles in the medical/health market. Obviously, once you are established, there is no reason why you can't diversify. But in terms of 'getting a foot in the door' exploiting any specialist knowledge and skills is usually the easiest way to get commissions.”

William Knight is a freelance writer whose articles have been published in The Financial Times, The Guardian, as well as on several leading IT websites such as Computing and Contractor UK.

He advised Baber: “If you are serious about freelance journalism then don't bother with letters pages. To get your first published piece you need to contact as many editors as you can with as many ideas as you can summon up.

"Don't write any pieces first, just send an opening paragraph, ideally in the style of the publication, with an interesting subject line - so at least you have a chance of the editor clicking on the email

"Not all editors will want to see examples of your previous work and some will be happy to give you commissions even though you have little experience. The better your subject line and opening paragraph then the better your chances.

"What counts is persistence, studying the publications you are targeting (to make sure you are sending the right ideas to the right editors), and finding interesting ideas to write about.

"Find something they cannot readily get from a million other wannabe writers. Sure you will be turned down, but one in twenty or thirty ideas will result in a ‘yes’, and as you gain experience, clippings and build a publicity website to promote your work, you can expect the hit-rate to rise quickly and dramatically until every other query is replied to positively.

"I would have thought you could leverage your medical background to suggest medical, health and well-being-type features to a huge variety of publications.

"Your expertise will stand you in very good stead despite a lack of journalistic background. Some freelance journalists are not formally trained as such, there is no credentials barrier, and you are a freelance journalist simply if you say so.”

John Toner is the freelance organiser for the National Union of Journalists (NUJ).

“My advice to Dr Baber Qureshia is that he can attend the NUJ training course ‘Getting Started as a Freelance,’” he recommended in a e-mailed statement.

“Details are available from the NUJ training department on”

Responding to questions, he cautioned:” Would-be journalists often suffer misconceptions about freelance journalism. The main one is that they believe anyone can become a freelance journalist.”

Alternatively to the NUJ course, budding freelance writers are invited to sign up to a one-day intensive journalism course entitled ‘Successful Freelancing – Turning Ideas into Acceptances,’ hosted by one of Britain’s most experienced journalism consultants, Cedric Pulford.

During three decades of freelance journalism, his writing credits include The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Observer Foreign News Service and the Toronto-based business magazine, Thompson’s.

The mantra of Mr Pulford’s journalism training school, which works in association with the National Council for the Training of Journalists, is “we do not use ‘formers’ and ‘ex’s, as all its tutors are active media professionals.

Writing on his company’s website Pulford Editorial Services, he explained: “Freelance journalism can be a neat way of adding to your income, or a full-time job.

“This course shows you how to generate ideas, approach editors of newspapers and magazines, and turn out saleable material. From commissions to copyright, from contacts to creating a freelance business, the vital factors are clearly set out.”

Regardless of whether Baber opts for formal training or pitching to editors, he will be inspired by an e-mail sent to Freelance UK by a reader of Routes into the Industry.

It reveals the story of a freelance education historian who, without editorial training, has successfully ‘made the jump’ into freelance journalism after several false starts.

“My first week was really good and I enjoyed every moment,” the London-based freelance said in a jubilant e-mail statement, entitled ‘My first week as a freelance journalist/historian.’

“Last week I had two articles accepted for publication: one by the Times Educational Supplement(TES) for Wales and one for the TES Scotland. By Friday, I was £400 richer and really happy! Long may it continue!”

He added: “The leap from office work to freelance journalism certainly seems to be paying off. Next week or the week after; I'm giving a talk at the House of Commons to [Tory leader] David Cameron's team based on my life-long specialism, which finally; I can now discuss as an independent and published writer.”


16th August 2006

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