Friday, July 6, 2012...10:58 am

From the archives: The four pillars of successful freelancing

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How do you make it as a freelancer? Here are four key approaches that should see you building a solid foundation for success.

Originally published on the late-lamented FleetStreetBlues as a four part series, the Four Pillars vanished when FleetStreetBlues managed to libel a PR firm (allegedly), and the blog was pulled.

This underlines the vulnerability and lack of longevity of online content. It’s also a warning to guest bloggers to keep their own backup of their guest posts.

I thought that the Four Pillars had been lost during one of my many hard drive failures of the past few years. By chance, I came across a draft on a USB stick in the back of a drawer. So here, for the record, are the Four Pillars of Successful Freelancing, collected in one handy volume for the first time…


A few years ago I gave a talk to eager young journalism students at Kingston University about the delights of the freelance life. I took the chance to ask them what they thought were the most important attributes of a successful freelancer.

Unsurprisingly, they came back with a skills-and-competence-based list. Diligence, hard work and basically being good at your job were suggested as the key to a successful freelance media career.

Certainly, lazy, sloppy and inept freelance journalists don’t tend to get very far (though I’m sure everyone out there knows one or two, inexplicable, exceptions).

But for a really successful freelance media career, you have to think a bit laterally about this. Here’s my take on the four key attributes of a successful media freelancer – especially in this uncertain day and age.

1) Get on with people

The key ability you need as a freelancer is affability. People need to like you enough to keep you around when it comes to office-based production shifts, and the same holds true for freelance writing commissions (though antisocial misfits can probably hide themselves successfully behind a telephone for a while, and even better behind email).

Thankfully for us Brits, this doesn’t mean you need to be the life and soul of the party – far from it. It can actually hurt your prospects to be seen as a motormouth or gossip, partly because it makes it seem like you don’t get on with your work, and partly because you prevent others from getting on with theirs. But being cheerful, upbeat and interested in those around you is a top skill for freelancing.

Is this more important than competence? Not if you’re absolutely hopeless, no. But if you can do your job and keep chipper about it, you’ll win time and again over the world’s best sub if they tend to get on people’s nerves. And your attitude to things like reworking copy will be a big clue about whether you get more writing commissions.

If you’re asked to change something in a feature, or follow up a piece of research, do it with a smile. Yes, sometimes it’ll be the fault of the editor’s brief. If that’s the case, make the changes and then point out the discrepancy in the brief in a spirit of helpful suggestion, rather than stroppiness. This is called diplomacy and you really need to develop it as a freelance.

Crucially, try not to slip into the British working disease of grumbling. Even if all the staffers around you moan about their job, the company and the newspaper, magazine or website all the time, try not to do it yourself. Sometimes it goes against the grain, but try to cultivate a can-do attitude. Don’t become an American though. That would be silly.

2) Be useful

Don’t confuse being good with being useful. You may be a razor sharp and pedantic sub-editor, or a writer with red-hot style, but if you aren’t obviously useful to your client as well you won’t score those extra freelance brownie points.

How can you be useful? At its simplest, find things that need doing, then suggest doing them. In my time I’ve sorted out picture filing systems, archived proofs and generally helped organise the editorial office. If it looks like it would be helpful, but no-one seems to have got around to doing it, it may well be worth volunteering for. Be sensible – you don’t want to look like a crazed boy scout on bob-a-job week. But a bit of putting yourself forward doesn’t hurt.

On a more strictly professional level, look out for opportunities to add something to the editorial content you’re working on. And, given that staff and resources are being squeezed all over, there are more and more areas that are being neglected.

One thing a lot of freelance journalists hate is being asked to do the picture research for features they write. But having good ideas for illustration for features – and the research ability to dig out useful images – can help you stand out. This works for subs too. I’ve worked on many small-scale business mags that often settle for fairly dull feature illustration – so being able to track down good free images is a big bonus.

If you’re writing a feature and the brief has some obvious gaps or is a bit dull (and God knows that can happen in the trade press), think about ways it could be livened up, or made more relevant or topical. Obviously CHECK with whoever briefed you that it’s OK to add material or change direction. But a freelancer who pays careful and critical attention to their brief is more valuable than one who just churns out material unquestioningly.

If you have a good case study but one isn’t asked for, suggest a boxout. Know of a useful survey or some statistics that the editor isn’t aware of? Suggest a chart to liven up the page. And if they say no? That’s never a problem.

3) Be versatile

This is kind of a skills thing, but is also to do with attitude and approach. Some subs never touch writing or serious rewriting, or aren’t comfortable creating Illustrator charts, or whatever.

Many years ago, before I started freelance writing, I was subbing a feature layout that was missing a case study box. The editor had to go out of the office and I was left to take the call from the company involved and then write up the 200 words or so. It was a simple enough job, but that versatility was unusual enough for the editor to comment on it.

Writers benefit from being able to design and lay out pages in InDesign or Quark. If a business client needs an awards book write-up, or a sponsored supplement, being able to slap together painstakingly craft the page layouts as well as the copy can be a useful selling point.

It can sometimes help to take a picture too. If you’re doing a day shift and you can take a shot of something simple like a shop front, or a pile of promotional leaflets, then take the picture and don’t quibble about demarcation or fees.

Yes, it’s tough for freelance photographers, but they’re getting hammered by iStock already. And, crucially, it’s unlikely that many publications would actually pay a photographer’s fee for a basic image like that nowadays anyway. (Advice for freelance photographers? Diversify.)

4) Be flexible

Versatility implies a flexible approach to your work – and I’d suggest that this is the fourth pillar of freelance success.

Yes, flexibility includes the willingness and ability to take on a wider range of editorial roles. But it also can mean rolling with the punches when dealing with clients.

There are things I get stroppy about in this freelance life. Being paid late or erratically, especially with no reason or apology, is a guarantee I’ll put a client on a blacklist. But I’m happy to be more accommodating about a range of other client failings. And for good reason.

Publishing is, by its nature, erratic. We live by deadlines, but those deadlines often change. At the last minute.

Now, some freelancers I know get very upset at this. And that’s understandable – they often tend to be sub-editors, and losing out on a shift at short notice can throw your finances right out.

But think about it pragmatically – does a last-minute day-shift cancellation give you the chance to work on a feature you’ve been commissioned to write? Can you easily reshuffle other work to cover the loss?

If so, just do it. Your flexibility and lack of chippiness can be an asset when it comes to the client rebooking you. In essence, you can play on their guilt, if they have any. And if you’re easy to deal with when there are problems, you’ll be someone they may well come back to in preference to a moaner.

It doesn’t mean you should be a doormat. But know your real sticking points and draw the line there. Don’t give attitude for the sake of it.

In the end, a lot of this boils down to common sense and keeping your cool. Remember – understand your goals and make sure whatever you do helps you achieve them.

Mostly, those goals will be to get paid. Sometimes they will include developing your skills. Generally they won’t include posturing for the sake of it.

Any other top tips for freelancing, do please feel free to share in the comments…

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