9 Steps to Become a Freelance Journalist: The Ultimate Guide

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If you are reading this, you want to know how to become a freelance journalist.

If you are a digital nomad reading this, you probably want to know how to make money while traveling as a journalist.

In both cases, welcome! I am the founder of Being Digital Nomad, and I am writing this guide to help you figure this out.

Well, you have come this far. You have taken the first step — congratulations!

Do not hold back from here. Many of us don’t even know what to do in life or what to do we like. If you are sure you want to take journalism as a career, then I am happy that you have decided — it’s great! Why is freelance journalism a good profession? Well, you will find out in a while.

But if you are still unsure whether freelance journalism is right for you, then hold back. Pause for a second and take a deep breath. Here’s something that I recommend you to read. This is an essay from Paul Graham on how to do what you love. Read this essay if you are still uncertain.

If you are confident (with or without reading the essay) that freelance journalism is right for you, read on. By the way, I recommend this essay to anyone struggling to figure out what they want to do.

Now that you have decided, let’s move ahead.

Key Takeaways

  • Freelance journalism offers autonomy, diverse assignments, and the ability to travel while earning.
  • Income varies based on experience, pitch acceptance, and publication rates. While uncertain initially, it can provide a substantial living.
  • Understanding journalism, choosing a niche, building a portfolio, and pitching stories to publications are key initial steps.
  • Persistence, a structured pitching routine, and honing writing skills are vital to thriving in freelance journalism.

Why become a freelance journalist

One reason to get into freelance journalism is that you like it.

Like other digital nomad jobs, it can be a great way to make money while traveling while doing something you love.

But that’s a subjective reason. There’s more to it than that. If you are a freelance journalist, then here are some of the things that you can enjoy.

1. You can command your rates

Yes, you can command your rates as a freelance journalist. You decide what you get. But it’s not always like that.

Often, publications have a sure price cap, but that can be negotiable. You can command a rate around that price or even ask for one (within reasonable limits — depending on your skills and reputation).

2. You are your boss

Everyone talks about this; everyone wants to be this.

You decide when and what to work on when you are your boss. You decide if you want to take a Sunday or a Monday off — it’s totally up to you.

As a freelance journalist and publisher, I no longer relate to those memes that say how bad Mondays are! Yes, say goodbye to the demanding schedule when you are a freelancer.

This option works for digital nomads, as they do not have to be tied to fixed schedules and can work on the go.

3. You get to work on exciting assignments

You will be writing about what you want, and in the process, you will be researching exciting topics, interviewing people, and even traveling to new places to work on assignments.

Exciting, right? Since you are doing what you like, you won’t have a lot of complaints.

4. You can build connections and grow your career

You are pretty much free since you are not working for anybody. As a freelance journalist, you will contact new editors and publishers every other day, which means that new assignments (even higher-paying) will await you.

You can even land a full-time job to get in-office experience. Or, you can work full-time as a freelancer for an organization.

Can you make a living as a freelance journalist?

This is an important question and a rather scary one.

Many people stray away from freelancing because it does not provide certainty, so it is natural to wonder if you can earn enough as a freelance journalist.

There’s a short and sweet answer to this — yes!

But again, that depends. Earning a full-time income as a freelance journalist depends on factors such as your experience, perseverance, and other things, such as how many pitches you make and how many of them are accepted.

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Errr….pitches, what? Hold on; we will get to that part shortly.

It can get easier for digital nomads as they can niche down to travel journalism, which can pay.

How much do freelance journalists make?

Many freelance journalists earn as much as $100k per year and more. That might not be a lot for many people, but this depends.

Again, this depends, but you can make anything more than $20K per year to put things into perspective — and that’s not working full time; just enough to engage you a bit.

The amount is valid if you write for publications that pay in USD or Euros. If you are writing for your country’s media houses, expect to earn enough full-time to pay your bills and save it up.

However, writing for both local and international publications is the right balance. If you are looking at big money, then international publications are where you should be eyeing it.

However, many freelance journalists keep it balanced since international publications may not always publish stories you want to write about.

For example, The Guardian or The New York Times may not publish a story about the soaring prices in your local market, but your local or national publication would. So it’s a mix of your niche, your interests, and your target audience.

If you are curious about how much these publications pay, you can check out the free online database Who Pays Writers, a crowdsourced catalog of publications with rates.

What are the steps to becoming a freelance journalist?

Clank, clank, clank!
Clank, clank, clank!

Let’s look at the steps you should take to successfully break into freelance journalism — the juiciest part of this article.

1. Examine your background and skills

It’s hard to do something unless you know how to do it. It’s not impossible; you can almost certainly figure it out.

Having a background in a field helps, and so does knowing about your skills.

How much do you know about journalism? Have you been to a journalism college? Are you trying to become a journalist without a college degree? If you are a digital nomad traveling, do you have enough time on your hands?

If you have been to a journalism college, you will have a good set of skills that can help you become a journalist — you will at least know how to write a news story or even tackle a feature piece. If you have not been to college and are just breaking into the field, then do not be disappointed.

I believe in self-learning, and a good start would be educating yourself about journalism — read a newspaper every day, see how reports are written, and learn how to write reports yourself.

Once these basics are cleared, you are all set to move ahead.

2. Choose a journalism beat

You get the idea that a journalism beat is your area of expertise — it could be society, environment, arts and culture, politics, tech., sports, entertainment, music, or cannabis.

It’s something you have extensive knowledge of — it could be related to your college major or an area in which you have accumulated vast knowledge through reading and researching.

Choosing a journalism beat helps you establish authority — clients, editors, and publications will know that you are an expert in your beat, and the money they invest in you or your story won’t go to waste.

3. Make a journalism portfolio

Once you have a better idea of your background and skills or have at least nurtured them and have decided on a beat, it’s time to make a journalism portfolio.

But what is a journalism portfolio?

Well, it’s just a collection of your works that you can show clients or organizations to show you have what it takes to be a freelance journalist.

So how do you make a journalism portfolio? Start by writing various samples in different categories. You can have a few news reports, a few feature stories, some profiles, interviews, and maybe some investigative journalism.

Different samples help editors know that you can easily tackle different stories and not be a hassle in editing and production.

Once you have written some stories, create a free blog, and upload the articles there. You can use platforms such as Medium and WordPress to create a free portfolio.

If you want to take it to the next level, you can even create a custom site by your name — it just adds a bit more authority to things and lets people know that you are seriously into the business.

However, having a custom site is not mandatory. It’s your writing that speaks and resonates.

4. Get a journalism internship (optional)

It is pretty hard to break into a field without knowing the trade of it. Freelance journalism can look like an underpaid career if you start, but fret not! You are here to go a long way. Once you are out of college and have skills, you can approach media organizations for an internship.

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You can still approach them for internships if you have never been to a journalism college. However, you will be at a disadvantage here since it might be easier for media organizations to prioritize people who have a journalism background.

But that’s not all too disappointing. Why? Because you have a solid portfolio. You can write to editors and organizations asking for an internship opportunity and present your portfolio to them. If you meet them in person, you can print your stories and show them to them.

So how do you find a journalism internship?

Start by hitting your local media offices and reaching out to them to find out if they have a position available. Considering the college schedules, some organizations have a specific period when they hire interns, so you might have to prepare things beforehand and apply before that period to (maybe) be on their priority list.

You can also get testimonials and recommendation letters from your college’s journalism or writing department to further strengthen your application.

Have a favorite organization you would like to join as a journalism intern? Write to them, share your portfolio, and wait for a response. Follow up after a week, maybe follow up again — don’t bug them, though. If they are interested, then they will get back to you. You can also send your portfolio to multiple organizations at once and wait for a response.

Remember to have a healthy conversation with them if you get selected at multiple places.

If you think it is hard to find an internship and the process is only tiring you out, you can gladly skip this step. A journalism internship only gets you into the rush of things — it gets you to look at what a real or a virtual newsroom is like. But since our focus here is on becoming a freelance journalist, it is not all too mandatory.

This step is straightforward; you will want to move on to the next part, which is figuring out who to write for and how to find publications that pay freelance journalists.

5. Find out publications that pay freelancers

Now that you have come this far, it is time to find out how you can make money as a freelance journalist by writing for publications that pay.

There are several ways to do that. If you as some budget — as little as $10 — then you can subscribe to someone like Sonia Weiser, who can send you a weekly newsletter comprising all the calls for pitches. That way, it will be easier for you to track down publications looking for stories.

A screenshot of Sonia Weiser's newsletter
A screenshot of Sonia Weiser’s newsletter

The newsletter is quite good, with all the links to calls with details on payment and what they are looking for. Writejobs is another place where sources call for pitches and writing jobs.

If you do not want to spend money subscribing to a paid newsletter, you can head over to Twitter and search for keywords such as:

  • Call for pitches
  • Write for us
  • Looking for your beat writers

And more…

For more specific searches, you can highlight your queries in quotes.

I am mentioning Twitter because that’s where the juice is. Most of the publications are on Twitter, sending out their calls for pitches. So why look anywhere else when you can directly target the source?

Once you have a list of publications you would like to write for, it’s time to reach out to them. But before that, I would suggest that you have everything in order. A free task management platform like Trello can help you organize things neatly.

A sample Trello task board

A sample Trello task board

You can still use spreadsheets if you are into the classic form of taking notes. Stickies, other task management apps, notepads, and handwritten notes also do the job.

Now that you know what publications you would like to contribute to as a freelance journalist, it is time to send your pitches.

6. Write a journalism pitch that sells

What is a journalism pitch?

A journalism pitch is your proposal for a story you would like to write — one that you send to the editor of a publication.

So how to write a journalism pitch that does not suck and has a high chance of converting?

Most of the pitches are ignored by editors because they suck. Here, I will briefly get into how to write a compelling pitch.

Introduce yourself briefly

Introduce yourself briefly in your pitch email — a couple of lines on who you are and what you do. If you are breaking in, then you can let go of the large bit of the introduction part and skip to the next.

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Talk about your idea

Talk about the idea in a way editors can envision your piece — you should paint it for the. Let them know which section would your story fits best. Introduce the topic and then discuss why it is relevant — has there been much coverage recently? Is it something worth exploring?

Once you introduce your topic and make sure it is relevant, you can further improvise on the pitch idea in the next step. You cannot look into stale angles. Find a fresh angle that hasn’t been spoken about.

Provide strong sources

It’s great to have someone talk about your story in the piece. Let the editors know that you have done your homework and that you have people to speak to. Yes, it would be great to get a few quotes from expert sources. Sources are good juice for the story and help establish authority.

Conclude the pitch

Yes, it’s that simple. Keep it short and sweet. 300-350 words is a good word count for a pitch. While concluding the pitch, talk about yourself, and link to relevant samples in your beat. Show off your portfolio.

Mention a word count if you have one in mind, or ask them what’s the count that they are looking at. However, it helps if you have an idea of the word count. After all, it’s your story, right? If unsure, look at similar stories in their publication and figure out the average word count.

It all depends on the story. News stories can be up to 600 words. Features can be 1200-1500. Long-form stories are easily more than 2,000 words. Long-form features, interviews, and profiles can even hit 3,000 or 4,000 words.

Finally, end things by saying when you can get back to them with the story. Please provide them with a timeline for your first draft, so they know when to expect it.

I suggest you submit a pitch daily (or more) to better your chances. You will want to send multiple monthly pitches to increase your acceptance rate. You might even need to recycle your existing pitches. Some publications, however, do not allow simultaneous submissions, so keep that in mind.

7. Deliver the story

Now that you have a commissioned story, you will want to deliver it — of course, you have to deliver it. All this work for nothing? No way!

Give it your best shot. Write crisp sentences that speak the point. Interview your sources and write a good draft.

If you want to polish your writing further, you can use free writing tools such as Grammarly and Hemingway to improve your writing.

The rest of the work is done by the editor. Please submit your story within your timeframe; apologize and provide a valid reason if you are late — maybe let them know beforehand. Once you send the story, the editors will work with you to improve it. Maybe you will have a couple of editing rounds to improve the story.

8. Get published and paid

Get paid after all the hard work.

Get paid after all the hard work.

Great, so you are published! Do not forget to ask for a byline (your name and short intro on the story) to strengthen your portfolio further. But how do you get paid? If your publication is in your country, they may consider sending you a cheque or doing a wire transfer. That’s easy. Just send them your details.

You might have to get on a platform like PayPal to make it easier to get paid. It is popular, and most clients will use it. It takes minutes to set it up. Some clients, however, might prefer a bank transfer. In that case, you’d have to provide the SWIFT code of your bank. This tool helps with it.

9. Improvise and repeat

The next step is getting better at the process — an essential step in the process of becoming a freelance journalist. Identify the loopholes in your process and get better. The more you pitch, the better you become. Discipline is the key to it as well, and you will need a lot of it to become a freelance journalist.

Have a pitching routine that you can follow. Once you have some bylines around, getting more assignments with better rates will be even easier. You will also be building work relationships with editors to better your chances of getting your stories in. They will know that you have what it takes to write a solid story, right?

Wrapping up

Great, you have come to this guide’s end and hopefully have not lost it. Stick to the discipline — it’s rewarding.

Until then, good luck! Share this guide so that others also get an idea of how to become a freelance journalist. Sharing helps. Ask me if you have any questions. I am here to help — at least, this article’s point.

Stick around. See you soon!

Happy pitching! 🙂

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Editorialhttps://beingdigitalnomad.com
Being Digital Nomad provides verified information and reporting on digital nomad visas, remote jobs, destinations, and resources. Subscribe to the newsletter for more.

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