Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Archive for January 2014

Great journalists and great journalism: How to make a name for yourself pt. 2

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I spend a lot of time reading. I like to consume and devour long articles and essays especially, like the ones found in The New Yorker and The Atlantic. I also like to read about the lives and careers of rising stars in journalism.

I had the opportunity to interview Nicole Tung in September. Tung is an American photojournalist and a war photographer. She went to Syria where she smuggled herself into the country, hung out with rebels, saw mercenaries from Libya and Oman, and was a witness to bombing and carnage.

Her first experience of war came a few years earlier. Here is someone who took herself to Libya, without assignment and of her own accord. She was 24 and barely out of college. She went for the experience.

Quite a lot has been written about the amount of photojournalists, green and sometimes shooting with iPhones, who made their name during that conflict. And the dangers are very real. Everyone needs to start somewhere.

During that interview with Nicole, I was intimidated. Here is someone who is fearless, deeply concerned about the plight of those caught in conflict, but also someone deeply ambitious.

Or consider Michael Hastings. Hastings died in a car accident at the age of 33. He was a Rolling Stone writer and a senior reporter for BuzzFeed. A hard worker and tenacious, he wrote a profile of General Stanley McChrystal, a NATO commander, that, through his patient and intimate reporting, led to the General’s resignation. Here’s someone who worked extremely hard and has the bravery to challenge those around him.

Or consider Paul Salopek who is spending seven years walking. Walking over 20,000 km around the world, covering early humans’ migration out of Africa, for the National Geographic. Sometimes, the best journalism is slow journalism.

These are people who take risks. It is not the only way. Brilliance flourishes in quiet, unassuming ways too. But ambition speaks. The willingness to work hard speaks. But perhaps the desire and the effort used to take yourself out of your comfort zone matters most of all.


This is a continuing series exploring the strategies of success of journalists and writers. Parts one and three in the series can be found here and here

How I Got My First Ever Paid Freelance Gig

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It had all started with a burning desire. The time was 2009/10, the setting mostly my university dormitory. It was the first year of my journalism degree and I had one hot desire to be published in a national newspaper.

And in late spring, in the dog months of the academic year, when students were beginning to laze around dorms and on campus, settling into dreamy thoughts in the warming days when finally the effort was rewarded, culminating in a byline freshly and eternally emblazoned on a piece of paper that had been printed by The Guardian.

I went about it quite systematically I guess, looking back. At first it all started with asking questions. You’re watching TV with your flatmates and something is mentioned on the news or in a sitcom. “Huh, I wonder why that is?” or “yeah that’s interesting, but I wonder if X is also like that?”

One time I was thinking about Robin Hood, because the film starring Russell Crowe was due to be released. I thought to myself “hmmmmm…I wonder if there are real-life Robin Hoods?” IDEA! 

At the time I was also reading books like ‘Feature Writing: A Practical Introduction‘ and ‘Good Writing for Journalists‘ which I either bought or loaned out from the uni library, and paying particular attention to the sections about pitching. They mentioned that you should always pitch to the relevant editor, the editor who’s responsible for that section ie music or film or business etc. It advised that having a name and addressing your email to that name was vital. I proceeded to ignore some of that advice.

I checked online and on Wikipedia and found that there were indeed several cases of real-life Robin Hoods.

I found the phone number for The Guardian’s switchboard and asked them to direct me to the ‘music and film desk’. They did so and I found myself speaking to an editor. I proceeded to pitch over the phone (not really something you should do often). I explained to them that I had this article and that it would be good to coincide with the release of the new film.

The editor explained that they had already planned some content around that movie. After this failure, I proceeded to blanket email the desks of most of the national newspapers with my article. Here was the email I sent:

Hi there, to coincide with the release of the film Robin Hood, I have written a 600 word article on real-life Robin Hoods.

The article is structured in a list system, with each figure as a headline and subsequent info. They range from modern to historical times.
The article could go in the paper, or in the online edition.

My name is Lu-Hai Liang and I have published in local papers and student media. I am a Journalism BA at Bournemouth University.

Thanks for your time, please get back to me if you are interested.

Suffice to say, my first ever pitch was a no-go. But I continued to walk the road between asking questions and then turning those questions into saleable pitches. It’s not completely natural to think in this way. It requires, like many skills in life, commitment, patience, and most importantly, practice.

It took me a few pitches more before I struck lucky. And I was very fortunate – sometimes it can take 10, 20 pitches before you land your first. In fact, it took me a long while before I got a byline in a national again – more on that later.

This is the pitch which led me to my first ever paid freelance article:

Dear Ms. Wooley,

Would the Guardian be interested in a short article about the difficulty of Chinese exams, specifically the gaokao, the chinese university entrance exam, which chinese teenagers have just taken. The exams are the only thing considered by universities, so no interviews or recommendations, and ‘questions’ on the exams include obtuse prompts such as: “Looking at the stars with your feet on the ground”.

Many thanks, Lu-Hai Liang

Notice the difference between this pitch and the previous one. I am addressing a named editor. I’m offering interesting, tantalizing details about the article. There are many flaws too. First of all, I’d already written most of the article – not something a regular professional freelance should do (we just can’t afford to). There’s a very noticeable looseness in the sentences, like as if a breathless, eager young journalism student had written them. One line sentences, not multiple sub-clause sentences, are the name of the game in pitches. But there’s a certain charm to the pitch I suppose.

Here is the editor’s response:

Dear Lu-Hai Liang
This sounds quite fascinating. Can you send me any cuttings of your work?

Very terse. Editors are terse people. Busy folk, they are. Below is my response:

Dear Ms. Woolley,
I’m a Journalism student at Bournemouth University. I have written by-lined articles for my local newspaper, The Hastings Observer – including a news report, film review and band interview. I’m going home tomorrow where my copy of the newspaper is, so I can’t scan them for you until tomorrow.

I’ve written up the article for your consideration. For a journalism student, by-lines are, of course, much needed. Any edits or further information needed, please let me know.

I have also written for my student magazine. My online portfolio can be found here:

Many thanks, Lu-Hai
p.s. I will scan the cuttings and the magazine article for you tomorrow, if your interested.

And then her response, which was one of the sweetest, finest emails I’ve ever received:

I really like your article!
I will need to edit it a bit but I would like to use it in Education Guardian asap. Too late for next Tuesday’s issue but hopefully the one after.
No need to scan your cuttings as I am happy with what you have done.
Do you have a mobile number for any queries?
Best, Alice

The 400-or-so-word piece was published by The Guardian, both online and in the newspaper. My fee was £151. I was deliriously happy.

It took me 2 years before I was published by The Guardian again (online and unpaid), so don’t think it’s so easy to break into but it’s much much more accessible than people realize.


If you’re serious about freelancing I am sure you have the wherewithal to Google how to do it, read the right books and practice. But here is the single most important piece of advice and inspiration that I’ve come across (which unfortunately cannot find the source):

“You know as editors we always want pitches, actually I’m surprised sometimes I don’t get more”.

And here is an uncommonly good guide to pitching:

How does a journalist make a name for him/herself? Part 1.

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Patrick Kingsley (left) is a 25-year-old journalist, currently Egypt correspondent for The Guardian. His rise has been precipitous.

Some journalists and writers seem to rise out of no-where, their names shared around all of a sudden. Laurie Penny arrived after being noticed for blog-posts about politics. Owen Jones arrived in similar fashion, helped along with the publication of his zeitgeisty book.

Some have a dizzying ascent, characterized by bravado and a ferocious intellect. But a rapid fall can also occur: Johann Hari, Jonah Lehrer. Say what you will about Hari but he made his name with a series of columns – one in which he seduced a homophobic neo-Nazi – that were breathtakingly audacious.

On this blog you can find posts with interviews and profiles of journalists who’ve ‘made it’. Their paths to success can be determined or rather fortunate. But we all like to know other people’s ‘secret’ to success, so that we might copy the route.

It’s certainly something I like to ponder. But having vaguely defined goals or even closely set markers of achievement may not be enough. There has to be a system.

Of the journalists whose bylines are worth remembering, there seems to be 3 underlying factors to their success:

1. The Precocious Upstart

They write a book, an article (or series of), or start a blog which either catches some part of the popular imagination, or comes to the attention of a few influential editors, writers.

Examples: Owen Jones, Caitlin Moran

2. The Master Craftsman

After many years refining their craft, they ‘break out’ with sensation-making articles, noted for either their writing style, depth of reporting and story-telling skills, or innovative choice of subject matter.

Examples: Malcolm Gladwell, David Grann

3. The ‘Lucky’ Student

These are those who are given an opportunity – work experience at The Guardian say, or who got a chance start at a national newspaper or magazine, and then proceeded to impress with their originality, cleverness or diligence.

Examples: Patrick Kingsley, Helen Pidd


Getting your name recognised and winning a certain level of renown is not simply down to you of course. Other people have to be talking about you, discussing your work and wondering about the person behind it. Maybe they admire your way of thinking or your audacity. It is not a science.

To get to that stage, it should go without saying that doing good work, showing originality and verve in your work is requisite. But plenty of freelancers or even seasoned journalists do this. What separates those who do good work but remain relatively anonymous, their bylines not expected with a certain drool-worthy eagerness, from those whose writing and reporting commands attention, higher fees and reader loyalty?

Over this spring season, I’ll be analysing just why in this series. Look for the ‘How to make a name for yourself’ blog titles.


Journalists mentioned in this post and articles about their rise:

Patrick Kingsley, Egypt correspondent for The Guardian – Patrick Kingsley is one of life’s overachievers: Guardian feature writer at just 23 and voted by MHP Communications as one of the top five young journalists to watch in 2012.

David Grann, staff writer for The New Yorker – The Storyteller’s Storyteller: No journalist working today spins a yarn quite like The New Yorker’s David Grann

Helen Pidd, northern editor of The Guardian – How hairy armpits can get you a job at The Guardian

Malcolm Gladwell, acclaimed author and staff writer at The New Yorker – Outliers: Malcolm Gladwell’s Success Story

This is a continuing series exploring the strategies of success of journalists and writers. Parts two and three in the series can be found here and here