Yesterday I started a new evening course at the University of Victoria called “Freelance Journalism in 2014” and as promised I’m going to share what I’ve learned with all of you! It is a bit of a recap of what I’ve already been learning about becoming a writer, but I really enjoyed speaking with a successful writer in person and learning from his own experiences.
My instructor, Greg Pratt, is a local freelancer here in Victoria. He has worked his way up the writing ladder and is now the managing editor for Nexus Newspaper at Camosun College: http://www.nexusnewspaper.com/about/
Greg also works as a freelancer fairly consistently for Douglas magazine, Island Parent and Alternative Press… and that’s just to name a few. Not only is he extremely knowledgeable when it comes to freelancing, he is clearly an expert on the writing process and what it takes to become a successful writer. You can view his detailed online portfolio here: http://www.gregprattfreelancer.blogspot.ca/
During our first hour together Greg shared his story with the class and laid out the details of his job as a freelance journalist. By the sounds of it, Greg had a lot of luck on his side when he was just starting out and was basically just “winging it” when he was discovered. Naturally my first question was: “Do you need a degree to land a job as a freelancer?”
Greg: “I don’t have one.” So no.
This doesn’t surprise me at all. Especially after reading so many others articles that say the same thing. You don’t need a 4 year degree and a $30,000 debt to be a freelancer… you just have to come up with interesting ideas or “hooks” for stories and then write them. It seems so simple right?
Well, Greg was also very blunt about actually “making it” as a freelancer. It’s not easy. In fact it is quite difficult to make a full-time career out of freelancing. The 3 things we discussed were finding your niche, why you want to write and differentiating between different kinds of journalism. Then we basically jumped 3 classes ahead of ourselves and started talking about pitches and opinion writing.
This is where I got a bit confused.
Opinion writing vs. Neutral writing
Apparently if you want to be a freelancer you have to learn how to write in a neutral tone. Magazines don’t want opinion pieces on your personal viewpoints about a specific topic, nor do they want articles about people you have relationships with. The writing has to be factual and unbiased. That to me sounds incredibly difficult as blogging is the complete opposite. Blogs are mostly opinion based articles so this is a completely different way of writing. It’s something that didn’t even cross my mind because all I write about are my personal opinions and experiences. This will definitely be a bit of a learning curve.
We also discussed different types of journalism such as time pieces, interviewing, feature articles and ratings. In the end you really just have to do your research. What kind of publication are you looking for? Who would you want to write for? What have other freelancers done in the past for that magazine? These are all questions you want to ask yourself when seeking out your future prospects.
Each publication is going to be different so reading previous issues and finding the overall tone of the magazine or newspaper is going to determine your pitch.
Resume vs. Portfolio
Walk-in vs. Email
My next two questions were, “Do I need a resume?” And, “Would you walk in to a publication and hand an editor your portfolio?”
Greg: “Nope.” so no and no.
Looks like I’ll be throwing away my envelopes with my “writing resume” that has absolutely no relevant experience on it, and my amazing articles that have never been published.
Newby mistake! I’m glad I held off on that idea.
Editors don’t want your resume… especially if you have no experience. And they are way to busy to have time to talk to you face to face when you walk in to their office.
I actually just received an email today from “The Writer’s Life” that mentions the exact question I asked Greg next:
How do I get experience and writing samples? was the title of the email.
“At first glance, it may seem like a catch-22…
‘How will I get experience, if I don’t have a portfolio of samples to show prospective clients? And how will I get samples, if I can’t get any experience?’
Yet in reality it is just a misunderstanding many new writers have when getting started in this business…”
And it goes on to explain the same thing Greg said to me and the rest of the class: you don’t need experience. You just need an interesting hook and to demonstrate the ability to solve problems and achieve a particular goal. If you can control the conversation then your experience is totally irrelevant. That is if the editor likes your pitch and responds to you.
So to wrap things up I leave you with my last Q&A with Greg:
“Would you recommend I shadow a journalist like yourself?”
Greg: “Yes sure you could, but it would basically consist of you watching me sit at my computer all day.”
Great class and great information. I’ll keep you posted on the details from my next class!