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How to be a Freelance Journalist

by EzyBlogger on November 30, 2009 · 6 comments · Freelance


Freelance journalists write for newspapers, magazines, radio, television and online publications.

Being a staff journalist is a job full of deadlines, stress and competition.

To land a reporting job at a paper, writers usually take a position as typist in hopes they can get in line for any staff writing jobs.

As a freelance journalist, you can find stories, pitch them to any paper you like, and write about the issues and topics you prefer. There is also an option that falls between freelance and staff and that person is called a stringer.

A stringer is a freelancer who has been assigned an area by the newspaper on a freelance basis. Within the area the stringer writes about politics, town meetings, issues, school happenings, entertainment, basically anything newsworthy or of interest to readers.

A stringer is not an employee of the newspaper, since he or she is paid per story, but unlike a freelancer the stringer is given assignments. So, how do you become a stringer? Find the editor’s name on the publication’s web site or in the paper and give him/her a call and introduce yourself. You’ll probably want to pitch a few story ideas as well.

Freelance journalists and magazine writers have a lot of balls in the air at once. They are constantly thinking of story ideas, writing and sending out query letters (idea pitches) to publications, and always writing something for publication.

So where do you come up with ideas to pitch to papers and magazines?

1. The news is a great source for nonfiction writers. Truth is stranger than fiction, right? Cut out articles or snippets from newspaper and magazines you find interesting and create a file folder for each category. Keep a notepad next to the TV incase you hear something interesting and want to jot it down. Have an “eye” and an “ear” for the news.

2. Local and college libraries are a wealth of information (thanks to grants and student tuition.) You’ll find a great deal of information among the databases and periodical collections. Read back issues for story ideas. If the magazine ran the article in the past, they may be willing to run an updated version in the future.

3. Dig up information on local history or people who came from your area. Visit the local museum or historical society, both of which usually have boxes and boxes of local information. If you do not live in a city with a museum or library with a specialized collection consider making a trip to review their collection.

4. Go online and browse forums. If you’re thinking of writing an article on a certain topic, visit a related-forum to find out what people want to learn. For example, if you want to write a series of articles for first-time home buyers, visit forums and learn what types of questions people have. You can then answer these questions in your article.

5. Ask people! Call business owners and ask what the issues in their industry are.

6. Research publications and journals are a great source for ideas. For example, research journals with recent medical studies and the latest medicines are great sources for “filler” articles as well as features.

7. Talk to people. Be alert. If a new and interesting business opens up, interview the owner.

Opinion Writing

Do you have an opinion? Do you have a strong voice? Love to debate? If you answered yes, then you have a future as an opinion writer. This type of writing can be found in newspapers on the “op-ed” page, in syndicated columns, and in articles. Opinion writers also make great speech writers. A quick way for opinion writers to get published in a newspaper and start accumulating clips is by writing Letters to the Editor. Be aware of the issues in your community and nationwide and write 300-500 words on your views on the topic. These are now your published opinion writing clips that you can send in when submitting your resume, stories, or queries to publications.

A career as an opinion writer can be a harsh one, especially if you wish to have many friends. This is because you are calling the public’s attention to the issues and in doing so, will probably offend at least one person. However; opinion writing, if done with humor and wit, can make you very popular, like Jon Stewart host and co-writer of The Daily Show.

Opinions and Letters to the Editor need to start with an attention grabbing opener. If you are referencing an article or current news event, you should mention it. Make sure your point is clear and that readers know what issue you’re referring to. In the next paragraph, start to make and support your views. Be specific: give names, data, facts, dates. Make it part humor part informative.

The following is an example of a letter to the editor published March 11, 2005 in the Chicago Sun-Times.

Ex-hostage’s story has holes

Something doesn’t add up about released Italian reporter Giuliana Sgrena’s story. If you were just released as a hostage in Iraq and claimed to see no checkpoint, no people, would you drive at a ”regular speed” or would you haul butt? I just can’t believe they weren’t driving as fast as possible to get out of that country if no one else was around. She claimed they were driving slowly because the danger was behind them, yet they were still in a war zone. There is a huge contradiction there.

She speaks worse of the U.S. troops than of the terrorists who kidnapped her at gunpoint Feb. 4 and held her for a month. And she speaks nothing of the unconfirmed $1 million paid to terrorists for her release, money that no doubt is now intended to harm troops, journalists and innocent Iraqis. Kidnapping has just become profitable in Iraq.”

This situation is tragic in so many ways and caused by many circumstances, but all the reporter sees is the evil United States. The loss of the intelligence officer is horrible, but I also think that with her refusal to give the United States information, there is some deflecting going on with this situation. I think the United States deserves some answers as well.”

Can you see why this was published? First, the author has a strong opinion and uses proper nouns (Giulana Sgrena, United States) and facts, (Feb. 4, $1 million) to support her point. A good Letter to the Editor will address a specific event, article, or other letter, use a strong voice, and have facts to support the message.

Food/ Reviews/Travel Writing

Book, restaurant, and travel reviews are also options for the nonfiction writer. These can be for newspapers, ezines, Web sites, magazines, or you can take it further and write regional guidebooks or cookbooks.

a. Book reviews:
In a book review writers give readers a little information about the book without giving anything away. Writers should also add a little information about the author, include quotes from the book, and give an opinion.

To get started write a letter of introduction to publishers telling them you are a writer and express an interest to receive certain books for review. After contacting a publisher once, often you will receive free copies before they hit shelves.

b. Food reviews:
Five-star restaurants are not the only ones worthy of a review, as you can see just by picking up the daily paper. People want to know where to go for a specific type of cuisine, price or atmosphere in any given town, state and country. Take a look, for example, at Lake Claremont Press at http://www.lakeclaremont.com/. LCP is an indie publisher in Chicago, IL, USA that creates regional guidebooks full of reviews, with the bulk being restaurant reviews.

Often publishers look for contributors to such guidebooks, so always be on the look out. When writing for newspapers, magazines or web sites make your reviews interesting. Come up with clever titles and an entertaining opening line. You don’t want to simply write that the chicken parmesan was good and cost $16.95. Give the reader a sense of the service, atmosphere, and crowd.

c. Travel reviews:
Travel reviews can be either an impartial review of a country, cruise, airline, resort, or anything else related to travel, or it can be a personal account of your trip or experience. Readers look to these reviews for unbiased information on hotels, cruise lines and resorts, while also enlightening about things to do.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jorgen Sundberg December 10, 2009 at 3:20 AM

What are your thougths on ghostwriters?

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2 EzyBlogger December 15, 2009 at 1:17 PM

Thanks for dropping by Jorgen. I have always work together with ghostwriters for most of my projects. They are important to me..

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3 John Samuel December 16, 2009 at 10:41 PM

Though I am not a freelance writer, I do book reviews of the books and novels I have read just to share my thoughts on their content. But a proper book review is really a challenging task. But book reviews is one good way for freelance writing. What’s your take on this?
.-= John Samuel´s last blog ..Blog Or Browse: Daily Dose of Blogging and Browsing Tips =-.

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4 EzyBlogger January 5, 2010 at 12:12 AM

I agree with you John, book reviews are a real challenge. I ahve many freelancers to do book reviews for me and they are not cheap :)

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