Get started as a freelance writer (Part 3) – Traps to avoid

Don’t leave features hanging around

In the editor’s electronic in-tray, that is. Because features, unlike news, have to be offered exclusively, we can’t afford to have an idea hanging around until its topicality has gone, and with it its saleability. We are entitled to a decision within days rather than weeks – or hours with hot material. If necessary, we should withdraw the material ourselves if a decision is too drawn out, and move on to the next and hopefully better prospect.

Avoid showing material before publication

Interviewees are often worried about factual accuracy, but showing material in advance of publication tends to throw the baby out with the bathwater. If we show sources an article so they can check accuracy, they would be superhuman not to object to unfavourable interpretation or comments, or even emphases, that we quite properly have made. Messy arguments are avoided if we don’t show the material. We can satisfy accuracy concerns by recapping key facts and figures at the end of the interview – actually, a factual recap is no bad idea even if we aren’t pushed to do it. Another way of quietening an anxious interviewee is to phone back when the article has been written, and read over the directly quoted parts. The rest of the article, including any interpretations and comments, stays private until publication! But people used to dealing with the media rarely ask to see stories in advance.

Find out how fees are paid

Some newspapers and magazines, particularly the large ones, produce payments without invoices (known as self-billing). This is a convenient system for the hard-pressed freelance with little time for admin or the means of checking where material has appeared. Other publications will wait for our invoice, which means we must have checked how much to bill for. Late payments are the biggest freelance complaint. We need to keep track of payments owed, to be sure that self-billing system has worked or that our invoice has been processed with due speed. English law requires payments to be made within 30 days if invoicing. After that, creditors may charge interest. While few freelancers will care, or dare, to invoke the law, it is handy benchmark of what can be reasonably expected. It gives us a basis for chivvying clients into paying up.

This is the final part of ‘Get Started as a Freelance Writer’, following parts 1 and 2, reprinted with permission from JournoLISTS – 201 Ways to Improve your Journalism by Cedric Pulford Copyright © 2001, 2010.


8th May 2011

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