More than 100 people logged into our Slack community for a recent IJNet Live chat about all things freelancing. International freelancers Mridu Khullar Relph, Jacob Kushner, Olivia Crellin and Farahnaz Mohammed answered questions about designing a website, finding freelance opportunities, negotiating rates, developing pitches, collaborating with fellow freelancers and more.
Most participants submitted questions before the chat began, either through the sign-up form or on social media. These questions provided an outline for the conversation, but everyone was welcome to ask follow-up questions, which kept the conversation flowing.
We started the chat with a question that many readers asked beforehand: How does one start a career freelancing?
The chat leaders agreed that it's best to start freelancing while you already have a stable job, or at least a large sum of money saved up, since freelancing — especially when you’re first starting — is not financially stable. They explained that your primary focus should be getting as much experience as you can. Although marketing yourself is important, Kushner advises early-career freelancers not get hung up on how attractive their website looks.
When asked which site is best to showcase your work, Mohammed responded almost immediately, “WordPress.” The key is to have a simple, straightforward online portfolio to send to editors when you’re trying to land a new gig. If you need some help designing one, IJNet has a post dedicated to creating a free, easy portfolio.
Given the pressure to build up a portfolio, many participants asked about the possibility of writing for a publication that doesn’t offer compensation.
“I personally don't recommend writing for free. I feel there are far better ways of getting work,” said Relph. “If it helps you get the first clip or so, great. But generally speaking, as a practice, it's not a good strategy, in my opinion, and often doesn't lead to paying work from the client.”
Kushner echoed this, adding that outlets’ unwillingness to pay shows a lack of respect for freelancers’ work.
Slack users Valentina and Vladimir asked about freelancing rates, and how to know whether you’re getting paid enough for your work. Chat leaders shared links to Who Pays Writers and Contently’s Rates Database. These sites track how much outlets pay freelancers so you can see how much your payment compares to industry standards.
It’s also important to discuss out-of-pocket fees such as transportation before you begin working. Don’t assume these costs will be reimbursed, Mohammed said.
“You are your own business, and you should be treating yourself like one," Mohammed said. "Track your expenses, follow up on your invoices and don't take low rates without very good reason.”
For more on this subject, check out Relph’s online course on freelancing as a business.
A career in freelancing means you need to learn to pitch — a lot. Many chat participants asked some variation of a very general question: how do you develop good ideas for stories?
“Be interested in people and what's going on around you,” said Mohammed. “You don't often find great stories reading stories that have already been published.”
Other chat leaders suggested reading local news stories and making sure that your ideas are actually a good fit for the outlets to which you’re pitching.
Some readers asked about shopping already-finished stories to outlets; the leaders cautioned against this practice. Most editors want to have a hand in shaping the direction of the story, they said. Instead, do your research to craft a great pitch, but wait for an editor’s feedback before you actually get started.
All of the chat leaders have worked as freelancers outside their home countries, which was of interest to many chat participants.
To get editors interested in your reporting from abroad is to sell your language skill or area of expertise, the leaders advised. Highlighting your unique skills will demonstrate to publications and editors that you’re the best person to tell a particular story in another country.
Kushner also recommended collaborating with local journalists, both as a method for getting started and as a way to enhance any story you produce.
“Whenever I arrive in a new place, I always read the local news, at least at first,” he said. “When I see a fascinating story that I think might interest international outlets, I contact the writer to ask if he or she would want to collaborate on a deeper dive. [We might] double byline a piece for a foreign outlet, and split the payment.”
Collaboration between writers, photographers and/or videographers is also a great way to build a network and help out other freelancers.
If you’re traveling for a reporting trip, it can be useful to get multiple stories out of a single trip. Don’t sell the same story twice, Kushner advised, but approach the same topic from multiple angles and pitch it to a few different outlets.
We plan to have more IJNet Live chats in the future about different topics in which our readers are interested. These future events will take place in our Slack community, which you can join at any time by following this link.