Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

How I Got My First Ever Paid Freelance Gig

with 6 comments

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?
Alice

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: http://buzz.bournemouth.ac.uk/?author=299

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:

Lu-Hai
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: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/08/how-not-to-pitch/279193/

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6 Responses

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  1. […] 7. How I Got My First Ever Paid Freelance Gig […]

  2. Thanks for the advice. This is awesome stuff! I’m about to pitch my first article. Wish me luck!

    jen

    January 28, 2015 at 2:55 am

  3. […] How I got my first ever paid freelance gig […]

  4. […] I’ve written about this before, here – How I Got My First Ever Paid Freelance Gig. Needless to say I was determined to get my byline into a national newspaper and The Guardian is my […]

  5. […] I have written about this aspect, of self-learning how to pitch and coming up with story ideas here, here and […]


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