By Caitlin Kelly
The reason I’m in Tucson for the moment is that my husband helps teach a two-week workshop called The New York Times Student Journalism Institute, offered twice a year to Hispanic and African-American students and recent graduates. Participants win two weeks mentoring one-on-one, while reporting stories here, with Times staff. (The other program is offered in New Orleans.)
All expenses paid, plus a stipend.
Oh, and your work may end up in the Times. Pretty amazing opportunity!
I spoke to the students about how to freelance, several of whom had already begun to do it, and one lesson I shared is that you join a small community of people (even internationally) if you stay in the industry — one of the editors here was my city editor in 2006 at the New York Daily News — who I hadn’t seen since then.
I went hiking here with a woman I’d never met before, who moved to New York from the Seattle newspaper, and she is close friends with someone there I met on a fellowship in Maryland about 15 years ago.
This is the hand-out I gave them:
ABC: Always be Closing. Successful full-time freelancers spend a great deal of their time – sometimes the majority of it – marketing their work and skills to potential clients, whether corporate, small business, non-profit, academic or journalism. You must be setting up or closing sales almost every day to insure a continuous and unbroken revenue stream. It’s a fact of life – no sooner do you have a great relationship established with a well-paid client than they move to a different position or company and you have start all over again. Or their budget is cut.
Remember the 80/20 rule – 80 percent of your business will probably come from 20 percent of your clients. Consider every first-time assignment a combination of audition and job interview. Knock their socks off! Meet your word count, deliver clean, accurate copy early and you’ll make a great impression. Unless (which happens) your client is a total PITA, you’ll want repeat business from them. So much easier than finding a new one, and another!
What are your monthly living costs? Now add 20 to 30 percent above that, at least, for short and long-term savings, your 15% payment to Social Security and your own retirement funds.
As a freelancer, you must know to the penny what you have, what you owe, who owes you what and when, the APRs on your credit cards and loans (and how to negotiate lower ones), and your FICO score. Payments often arrive later than you expect or need – how will you cover that shortfall?
Who will you be working for? There are many places to find freelance assignments: local, regional, national and international newspapers, magazines and websites and trade publications, in addition to corporate, small business, non-profit and academic clients. What rights are they demanding to your work? Can you re-sell it? How soon?
How will you find clients? Create a great website with clips, resume, your phone numbers, email address, Twitter handle. Use social media. Attend writers’ conferences like Neiman and ASJA to meet and start networking with other writers; referrals will become your best source of qualified leads. Update your LinkedIn profile regularly.
Do you have a specialty? It might be sports, science, environment, politics, culture, immigration, women’s issues, business, medicine, technology. It helps when pitching, but don’t feel you have to pigeonhole yourself either.
It’s all on you! The fun (and terror) of working freelance means you’re all on your own. No one sets your hours or schedule. It’s all up to you to find and manage every client, invoice, track payments, pay taxes, claim deductions, do your own training and development, and maybe find and hire and manage an assistant. Keep very close tally of all your income and expenses.
Ideas are everywhere – which markets are the best for each? The best stories have multiple angles making them saleable to a variety of editors: trade, consumer, websites. The same story could be a profile, business piece, trend story, regional item – or all of these.
Learn the lingo: FOB, LOI, WMFH, POP, etc.
The FOB, for example, is the front of the book – those small, short items that often make it easier to break into a big national magazine. An LOI is a letter of introduction, in which you reach out to a new editor and ask for work. WMFH is a work made for hire – they own all rights to it forever, and POP is pay on publication, not a great idea!
Four useful websites
Freelancefolder.com – general tips on the business of freelancing
therenegadewriter.com (and her book) – Linda Formichelli also offers regular motivational tips by email
Freelancesuccess.com — $99/year gains you access to online forums to talk with other writers and information about new markets
http://dollarsanddeadlines.blogspot.com (and her book) – Kelly James-Enger offers smart, helpful, practical tips like TEA: Thank, Explain, Ask when trying to bump up your fees. I tried it – it worked!
Asja.org – The American Society of Journalists and Authors. Their annual conference, held at the end of April in Manhattan, offers a reduced student admission. Great place to meet editors, agents and fellow writers.
Anything you’d like to know about what it’s like to freelance full-time for a living?