Get rejected, find yourself and get paid: advice on freelance journalism


I’ve been working as a journalist for five years. In that time, I have learned just enough to fill a 90 minute talk, which is lucky, because I’d agreed to give a 90 minute talk to journalism students at the University of Cardiff last week. I spoke without notes, and a lot of the most interesting stuff came out of questions at the end rather than my main talk, so this write-up is a patched together version of the advice I’d like to give to young writers. Following this won’t necessarily make you successful (you can ask to see my bank statement if you’d like to gauge exactly how successful it’s made me) but it will help you avoid some of the stupider mistakes I’ve made.

Rejection is part of the process, so pitch a lot

When I started freelancing, I would send in timorous pitches with extensive hedging and a lot of information about my CV. Hey, I didn’t want to look cocky by making my idea too obvious. Then I would wait, and fret, and chew my hands, and go from having great hopes for this idea to utter despair, all without ever knowing if my email had been opened by an editor.

Here is what you need to know about editors: most of them are busy. They get a lot of emails, and don’t always have the time to respond with detailed feedback on how you can improve your pitching technique, so present your idea clearly and directly. They don’t want your CV, they want your idea. Make sure you’re sending your pitches to the right person: the editor who can commission you might not be the most famous name in that office, but they’re the most important person to you. If you’re not sure who deals with commissioning for the section you’re interested in, ring the office and ask.

There are plenty of reasons why your idea might not get picked up, and most of them have nothing to do with the quality of your pitch. Your brilliant idea might be so good that the editor has already commissioned it from someone else. You might be pitching the day after that magazine’s biannual features meeting, and they’ve got everything they need for the next six months. Maybe you’ve got a wicked idea about romcoms, and the magazine you’re pitching to is organising a themed sci-fi issue.

Luck plays a big part in the success of your pitches when you’re starting out, so play the numbers: once you’ve got an idea, think about how it could be packaged for many different titles, and pitch it to all of them accordingly. No title owns your pitch until they’ve commissioned it, so if two titles are interested in similar takes, you get to choose which one you write for – pitching isn’t about passively skirting the ballroom floor, waiting for your dance card to be marked.

Decide who you are and what you can do

I have asked for, and received, loads of advice as I’ve pursued a career as a writer. It’s worth mentioning that my ambitions are towards a specific kind of writing: when I was a kid, I used to splay my parents’ Observer across the living room floor each weekend, crawl over the comment pages and think, “I want to be one of you guys.” I want to write columns with my face at the top, and I want to write novels with my face on the dustjacket. Modesty is a rare virtue in writers. You’ll need a sturdy chunk of ego to shoulder the rejection discussed above, and if you don’t get that rejection, your high opinion of yourself will have been confirmed anyway. Sorry. There isn’t really a way round it.

Anyway, the best piece of advice I ever received came from Times columnist David Aaronovitch, who very kindly had a coffee with me and answered all sorts of idiot questions. This was his advice: “Decide who you are, and what you can do that no one else can.” Who you are means fixing on a character for your writing. In all likelihood, that character is going to be a lot like your actual character, because going Stanislavsky every time you sit down to write a column is a bit of a pain in the arse. My character, suggested Aaronovitch, was “warm. An old young-person.” I stopped trying to carry myself like a hardy old cynic, and worked my way into a voice that flowed more naturally from the observations I make.


As for what I can do, I found that a bit trickier. At the time I started working in journalism, I’d bailed out of a stillborn academic career in English literature, and the only thing I thought I knew about was George Eliot. This did not seem like a very promising lens through which to view the world. But it turned out that what I am good at is close reading: looking at words and weaselling out their buried meaning, trying to understand better.

Lots of my most successful columns start from a small noticing that opens up a way of looking at something. It’s not quite as impressive as being an economist or gay dad of a blended surrogate family or something, but it’s my thing and goddammit I can do it. (By the way, when I thanked Aaronovitch for his time, he said, “Well, if you’re a success, I might get some sort of public credit for helping you.” See? Writers: ego-y, in the nicest possible way.)

Get paid

Hurrah! Your brilliant pitch has been picked up by an editor. They’d love you to write it for them, but – oh dear, this is embarrassing – they don’t have the budget to pay you. Would you like to do it for free? After all, you’ll get a byline and a link to your blog, so there’s exposure to be had and you’re building a relationship with an esteemed title.

Let me answer this for you: no, you would not like to work for free. If this title doesn’t have the budget to pay you now, they won’t find the budget to pay you in the future. Remember, if there are ads on a website, someone is making some money from it: if none of that is trickling down to you, you are being had.

There are exceptions, of course. Perhaps you’re not a writer by trade, but a campaigner or a PR hawking something or a person with a TV show to promote: for you, exposure may be recompense enough. Or perhaps you’re a writer at the start of your career, and this unpaid copy is part of a work experience stint in which you’re receiving detailed advice and feedback. That’s OK too. Or you’re writing for a blog rather than a revenue-turning title (but in this case, consider trying your idea on someone who can pay you first).

Don’t let any editor guilt you by saying, “No one really knows how to make money on the internet,” or something similar. It’s not your job to work out how to make money on the internet, it’s their job (or more accurately, their publisher or business manager’s job) – your job is to write, and you should get paid for that. If none of us are getting paid, then we’ll all just have to go and get different jobs, won’t we?

I should add that I have supplied copy without the expectation of payment, once: after publication, when the piece had obviously been quite successful, I went back to the editor and negotiated a fee for the work. I got my money, but it was a dicey strategy and not one I would recommend. If you want to write for a living, you must focus on the making a living part as much as on the writing. If there’s one thing I’d like to impress on young writers more than anything, it’s that.

One more thing

You’re about to embark on one of the most radically sedentary careers known to humanity. Your working day will involve mostly sitting down, with the odd exertion when you need something from the kitchen. For the love of God, before you wake up one day in your mid-20s and realise you’ve become a grey-faced, wheezing beanbag, take up some kind of exercise.

Photos by Glyn Ryland

11 thoughts on “Get rejected, find yourself and get paid: advice on freelance journalism

  1. Very informative and encouraging read, though I honestly don’t know what this means: “Lots of my most successful columns start from a small noticing that opens up a way of looking at something.”

  2. Well you’ve written 109 articles and reviews for the Guardian’s Comment is Free and the responses you got from posters, which is how I assume the editors decide whether or not to invite you back, range from 1 to a very creditable 791.

    So when advertisers “pay for clicks”, despite what you say about not sending your cv, having attracted 791 posts on the thread below a single article, must be worth something.

    Having said that the editors at CiF have recently agreed to a request to delete all the posts that one of their most prolific contributors made over a four year plus period writing above and below the line. I’ve no idea whether this means the posts an ATL article originally attracted is reduced, but it might be something to be concerned about.

    You don’t say anything specific about how you decided to pitch for CiF in the first place and lessons you learnt about that and how easy or difficult it’s been to continue writing for it for almost 4 years now.

    And a 90 minute talk? Doesn’t that stretch the attention span just a little?

    Best wishes.

  3. I answered some specific questions from students regarding Cif, but this is general guidance about getting started rather than “how to write for Cif”. Having a proven track record with an editor is hugely important in getting ongoing work, but every pitch stands on its own merits, just as my first successful one (a response to an interview with Philip Blond, pitched to the general editorial email like all the unsuccessful ones before it) did. As for what I write about: whatever interests/angers me, or whatever my editor thinks it would be interesting for me to look at. There aren’t many weeks where nothing of any interest happens.

  4. OK, here’s an example of a “noticing”: I wrote about the press coverage of Hilary Mantel recently. It struck me that she’d been treated like a character in one of her novels. That was a small noticing that was the foundation for my analysis, and the piece was one of my most shared and discussed.

  5. Inspiring! (Without wanting to sound cliche). I’m an undergrad at the moment and want to work my way into Journalism- its the ‘finding the voice’ and trying not to be the usual cynic type which I’ve been most apprehensive about recently and advice like this really gives me confidence to just chill and be myself. I’ve never considered free-lancing properly, but this has made me wonder about the wider scope for creativity and how much that would suit me.

    Having a background in English literature too, by the way, I know exactly what you mean by “Lots of my most successful columns start from a small noticing that opens up a way of looking at something” -picking up on a word someone uses, say, and running with that perspective makes writing all the more enjoyable.

  6. I don’t know how anyone makes a living as a freelance these days. I’ve been there and done it; I worked as a feature writer & columnist for a range of business IT magazines for several years, as well as writing a lot of stuff for the BBC and C4 Web sites. I got out in 2005, after hitting several lean months and getting a lucky break in another line of work. A couple of years later things were looking a bit wobbly in my new job, and I tried to work some of my old journalistic contacts. Nothing doing: every one of those magazines had closed, C4 wasn’t using freelances any more, and the BBC… have you ever tried finding anyone to talk to at the BBC?* As for columns, I tried pitching a comment piece to an editor (who I knew slightly), but he told me to go away and use it on my blog – if he was going to pay money he wanted real research.

    Freelancing is fun; I’d recommend it to anyone with an independent income**. Freelancing for a living is hard and depressing, except when things are going particularly well (I was getting a ton of work from C4 at one time – that was fun). The way I’d describe it is that when you’re at work you can generally count on two days a week when you’re not working and not thinking about work – not to mention lunchbreaks and various intervals of idle chat. When you’re a freelance there is no time when you feel free not to think about work – if you haven’t got a job on you’re worrying about where the next one’s going to come from, and if you’re not worrying about the next one you’re worrying about paying the bills next month or the month after.

    *Irrelevant footnote: when I was freelancing, my biggest single commission grew out of weeks of detective work to track down the contact number of the BBC Web site’s IT section editor. I rang the number and spoke to the guy, only to find that he’d been working on the History section for the past year – and was about to leave. Only there was this one job, they had had a writer in mind but she was too busy…

    **Not really. If you have got an independent income, please don’t try freelancing – there’s quite enough competition as it is.

  7. Some really good advice here, from both Sarah and Phil. It’s sounds like a daunting journey to embark upon, but like yourself, Sarah, it was a childhood dream – and after 12 years working with drug users, being sedentary and alone sounds like bliss. Thanks for the practical pointers. I think I know who I am, and what I can do that no-one else can, so that’s a start..

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