A decade ago — a fresh journalism grad ready to take on the media world — I had no idea what was in store for my career. It was 2008, right when the housing bubble had its messy burst, and I’d landed a job as a reporter at a small newspaper in Indianapolis.
Though grateful to have a job in my field when fellow classmates were struggling to find work, I wasn’t exactly fond of the small-town journalism life. My editor had me covering three beats: community events, celebrations (as in wedding announcements) and local crime. Some of the work was fulfilling, but the day I wrote a story about a neighborhood’s spate of stolen decorative trees was the day I decided it was time to move on.
In a major pivot, I relocated to South Korea.
Teaching English a second language felt like a “new grad” rite of passage at the time; it provided opportunity to explore the world and pay down lofty student debts. As a budding freelance reporter, it also ensured a solid income with plenty of time to hustle hard in order to find clients and collect clips.
Long story short, I was able to bolster my client roster enough to try going freelance full time when I returned to the States in late 2009. I told myself I’d ride the freelance wave until I was forced to find a “real desk job,” but no lull ever came and now here I am in 2020 riding (writing?) strong.
The freelance hustle & self-generating $100K+ of work
In my early years of full-time freelance I hovered around the $20k income mark.
I am the first to admit that I have some privilege that allowed me to keep pushing forward on such a small amount of money. First, it was the early 2010s when things were generally less expensive. Second, I lived in Indiana where rent was (still is) incredibly cheap. I paid $600 a month for a two-bedroom house and split that cost with my partner at the time. Third, I did not (and still do not) have children or others that relied on me for income so there was no great pressure there.
In 2015, I really began hitting my freelance stride. I aimed to hit $50k — which sounded absolutely insane at the time — and realized that by simply prioritizing my time better, eliminating subpar clients, and hustling extra hard I could easily hit that mark.
I successfully reached the goal I set for myself by 2016. In 2017, I pulled $65k and in 2018 I reached $85k. Momentum was on my side, so I seized it.
I set a lofty goal of hitting $100k in 2019 and comfortably surpassed it. This year I’m on track to do the same.
The pillars of freelance success I abide by
I often am asked how to “make it” as a freelance reporter, and my answer is always this: hustle hard and don’t expect success to come easy. I steadfastly follow these personal pillars.
1. Be reliable
Editors want to work with someone who they can consistently count on.
That doesn’t just mean submitting a story on time which is the bare bones basic requirement of being a reporter. It means submitting clean, well-reported copy. It means promptly answering emails with assignment letters or questions. It means being available for edits, and not giving sass even while licking wounds to your writer’s ego.
2. Nurture existing business relationships
Don’t be a stranger to your editors.
Email them periodically to let them know you’re available for work. Ask what their specific content needs are. Get a feel for which of your stories have done well on the site. Ask for light feedback on rejected pitches so you refine your approach. Be professional, but also keep in mind that there’s a real person on the other end and it’s OK to have friendly interactions!
3. Never stop pitching new outlets
This is journalism — publications sunset, editorial needs change, sometimes all writing is moved in house.
I learned the importance of not putting all your eggs in one basket the hard way early on in my freelance career. While anchor clients (AKA pubs that give you consistent monthly work) are necessary to feel like you have solid footing as a freelancer, it’s important to not put all your faith into anchors. I always make sure that no more than 20 percent of my income comes from a single client. To do that, I pitch new outlets on a monthly basis. When a publication folds, look at it as an opportunity to pitch even more.
4. Ask for more money & eliminate deadweight clients
Clients that suck your time for little pay aren’t worth it. Prioritize clients that have a streamlined editorial process, are reasonable with edit requests, timely and reliable, and that meet your rate. When pitching new outlets and negotiating rates, always ask for more money. The worst that can happen is that they say no and you’re paid the lower rate.
Outlets expect you to ask for more; very rarely will they slam the door in your face, especially if you’re professional and reasonable in your request. At the beginning of every year, ask for a rate increase with existing pubs.
If you’re currently writing for low-paying clients or a client that sucks up a lot of your time, negotiate a new rate right now and/or scale back the amount of work you’re doing for them while seeking better paying opportunities. It might be scary to eliminate clients, scale back, or ask for more money, but trust me on this one.
5. Accept and lean into the worry
Every successful freelancer reporter I’ve ever met has an ongoing undercurrent of fear.
There’s worry that all your clients will dry up next month, that an editor is going to change their mind about you, that the entire industry will collapse. Don’t let these fears overwhelm you, but do know that it’s normal and, in fact, what fuels your drive for success and gives you momentum. When feeling anxious, channel that energy into finding new outlets to pitch or formulate new pitches to send to existing clients.
6. Create firm work boundaries
In order to stay sane — especially as a freelance reporter working from home — it’s imperative to create work boundaries.
This is also a lesson I learned the hard way. Personally, I close my computer by 7 p.m. and do not work on weekends unless absolutely necessary (for reference, this might happen once every couple of months). As a creative person, you need that personal time to refuel and it will actually improve your writing and overall momentum.
Photo via GuadiLab / Shutterstock