Get started as a freelance writer (part 1) – the basics
Make contact before submitting an article. Anybody with an idea for an article and the ability to write it should feel free to approach newspapers and magazines. It is not a good idea to send unsolicited material, however. It may well be ignored or overlooked. If a piece is not suitable for the particular publication, we want to know quickly so we can offer it elsewhere. Although most people find making “cold contact” hard, the best way is to phone up and see if they are interested. In a national newspaper a feature might potentially suit three or four different sections, each doing its own commissioning. If our idea is not right for the people we’re talking to, they might suggest who else to approach. We might simply be invited to send in the article for consideration. Or we might be invited to send an outline [synopsis].
Give minimum information in outlines. The aim in writing an outline is to give enough information to persuade the client to look at the article, but no more. Theft of ideas, where the idea is given to a staff person or to a favoured freelance, is not common but it happens. In particular, we should not be too specific about whom we will contact as sources for the article. Contacts are valuable resources for journalists, to be guarded carefully.
Be clear about commissioning. A commission is a contract, written or spoken, to produce a specified article for the publication concerned. The act of ordering the material commits the client to pay for it [see below] although not necessarily to use it. Being invited to send in a piece, particularly in response to our offering it, is not the same as being commissioned, and the client has agreed to nothing except looking at the material. Unless we are a household name or a famous expert, no-one is going to commission somebody who phones in with an idea. Commissioning usually comes later, when they have got to know us. The magic moment for freelancers is when the client starts to phone them! Editors will only invite us to send an outline or an article if it seems promising so that is good stage to reach.
Resist ‘kill fees’. A commissioned piece may not be used because it has been overtaken by events, or simply squeezed off the list. The piece must still be paid for and, since neither circumstance is the writer’s fault, the British Association of Journalists and others hold that it should be paid for in full. The habit of 50% “kill fees” breaches long-standing industry best practice. If the piece is for some reasons sub-standard, then we should be willing to agree a reduced fee – although we ought to have been given the chance to rectify faults before the piece is dumped. Sadly, it is not unknown for an editor to claim a piece is sub-standard as an excuse to pay a 50% kill fee!
Reprinted, with permission, from JournoLISTS – 201 Ways to Improve your Journalism by Cedric Pulford Copyright © 2001, 2010.