Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Archive for July 2014

Freelancing in Istanbul: the breakthrough – by Samantha North

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For this newbie freelance journalist in Istanbul, July 1 was a day of celebration in more ways than one.

Istanbul

Istanbul

It was the day I received a much-awaited delight by mail. My residence permit, (ikamet in Turkish), the document that has been the bane of my Turkey life for the last two months. This, at last, makes me a fully legal foreign resident of this country.

But that was not the only good news. July 1 was also the day I got published by a UK national newspaper. It was the day I felt like I’d finally arrived in journalism.

Ironically, it was the bane of my life that produced the winning story. I wrote a piece for the Daily Telegraph about the difficulties expats have been experiencing in Turkey as they struggle to obtain residency.

The ikamet situation seemed too serious to go unreported. Expats, including myself, were unable to leave Turkey while waiting for their permits to arrive. Any situation where expats are stranded in a country through no fault of their own, but due simply to poor bureaucracy, surely merits reporting.

During my own limbo period in Istanbul I saw numerous foreign travel opportunities slip through my grasp, including one which would have been my first ever visit to the United States. This left me feeling frustrated and on edge.

I got in touch with other expats on various forums and Facebook groups, searching for a solution to this problem. I discovered that an awful lot of people were in the same boat, many of them Brits like me.

That’s when the idea of pitching to the Telegraph came to mind. This kind of issue would be a perfect fit for their Expat section.

A fellow freelancer gave me the editor’s email address, and I pitched the idea to her. I had no clue what to expect.

But a couple of days later, she replied with enthusiasm, asking me to go ahead with the story.

I spent the next couple of weeks trawling through the Turkey forums, interviewing expats by Skype and Facebook, trying to wheedle out the truth from among the many rumours and red herrings.

It was a challenging story to write, mainly because the truth was so hard to pin down. The Turkish residency rules literally seemed to change on a daily basis.

My first version of the story came back from the Telegraph asking for a lot of edits. So I chased further information, verified as many things as possible, and added extra quotes. The Telegraph’s standards are high, and it was a great learning process for me.

Finally, the piece was watertight and ready to go.

On the day it was published, my story was most-viewed on the Expat section. It was shared all over the Turkey online forums and Facebook pages. I received plenty of comments and, so far, no abuse. There’ll be enough of the latter, no doubt, once I get something published in the Guardian’s Comment Is Free section…That’s one of my next goals.

*

Read Samantha North’s previous guest post: Why I moved to Istanbul

Samantha North is a British freelance journalist based in Istanbul. She specialises in city branding, and also writes about travel, culture and expat issues for Time Out Istanbul and the Daily Telegraph. Her website is samanthanorth.com and her Twitter handle is @placesbrands. 

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The Key to a Successful Freelance Life Abroad: A Diary

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IMG_0331

Photo may not resemble reality.

7.40am

The key to a successful freelance life abroad is to get another job. I get woken up by the alarm at this hour to commute to The Day Job. I need to pay the bills, for dinners and frequent travel.

But seriously, unless you’ve got various regular clients and have the energy to freelance all the time, another job helps to relieve the stress. Don’t worry, I freelance a lot too – for stuff I care about, not just for financial survival. That’s the benefit of having a safe, reliable income until you’re a big famous writer.

8.30am

I usually dismiss the alarm and sleep more. The Day Job doesn’t mind that I come in late.

9.15am

Get on the subway, it’s pretty crammed. Here I usually use The Guardian news app on my phone to read articles offline. It’s the start to my reading and I read a lot. It helps you come up with ideas if you read half the internet every day. In your journalism field of interest obviously, not internet fluff about boners and 21 Things You Need To Know Before You’re 25.

9.30am

While holding the subway rail and trying not to make too many eyes at the pretty subway girl in the corner, a half-formed idea comes to me. It might not go anywhere, but I note it down on my phone’s notes app. It could be half a sentence. Whatever. Ideas are the reason for your existence as a freelancer abroad.

10.00am

Swipe into the office, which is a TV station with studios, editing computers, banks of TV screens, a make-up room and a canteen that serves, in the vivid parlance of a colleague, “toilet water”. It is free toilet water though and honestly the food isn’t that bad. Anyway, here the work at The Day Job begins. I turn on the computer and log on to my favourite blogs, check my email and read my regular websites. I’m numb to the world as I fall into a content black hole.

10.35am

I am awoken from my reading coma – “Did you receive the script I sent you?”, a colleague asks. This is the bulk of my job at the TV station; editing and writing scripts for presenters and voice-overs. It is not overly taxing or time-consuming, leaving plenty of time for reading interesting stuff, thinking about pitches and, when it’s extra quiet, writing freelance articles and blog posts. Oh, and the pay is good.

11.30am

Go for a brief walk around the office. Idly flirt, snoop on what people are working on, avoid the boss. Chat to my American co-workers who are the loudest people in the office. A good walk is vital to oil the ideas and half-thoughts bubbling away in the soup of your mind. You never know when something good will rise up out of the slime.

12.30pm

Go for lunch. The dilemma everyday: eat bad canteen food for free, OR, eat better food not for free?

1.30pm

Decided on not-free noodles today. Tasty. Back in the lobby of the day job building. Walk around and practice Chinese with the office girls. Listen to the Aussie rant about his Chinese co-workers. Drink some coffee.

2pm

Take a nap.

2.30pm

If you’re going to be a successful freelancer abroad, then you’d better learn how to pitch. And know when 9am is in the country of the publication to which you intend to pitch. I assume that’s when emails are first checked. Editors: feel free to tell me what exact time you check your emails!

A good pitch should be confident, concise and have a few vivid details. A strong pitch should be easily imaginable.

3pm

Go and record a voice-over about Chinese models working in Beijing for the day job. While I’m reading it over I think “hmm, I wonder what it’s like being a model here?” BOOM! An idea, an angle. Stories are everywhere if you just observe the curious parts of any subject. Some of the stories I’m currently developing:

The dangers of eating spicy food

Why young foreign architects are heading to China

Education in China – how is it changing?

4pm

This week I’ve sent five pitches to three editors from two publications. It helps if you know more than one editor at one place. Sometimes I will stud an email with mini-pitches, little pitchlets, if it’s an introductory email. Or I will surround a pitch I think has the best chance of commission with other pitches to lessen the chance that all of them will be rejected.

5pm

By this time I’ve usually sent out my pitches to the UK editors. The US ones will still be asleep. I will have also edited several scripts and recorded some voice-overs for the TV shows we work on in the office.

6pm

Clock off, swipe out of The Day Job.

6-9pm

Eat dinner. Head to bar, drink.

10pm

Get home, read more. Hear back from one of the UK editors I pitched earlier. Send pitches to the US editors. Work on this blog post. Stream a TV show. Start to feel sleepy. Have a brainwave and wake up reaching for my phone. Type an idea into it.

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This post is indebted to Sarah Hepola.

Review: Letters to a Young Journalist

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Inspired by Mario Vargas Llosa’s Letters to a Young Novelist, this immensely readable book is thought-provoking, wise, and, for the young journalist who already knows the basics, extremely nourishing.

Written by Samuel G. Freedman, an author and journalist, whose day job is teaching at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, the introduction is enticing: “Thirty years ago, when I was a good deal like you, I drove off to start my first job as a newspaper reporter….I was a few months short of nineteen then, and I didn’t even own a white shirt or navy blazer for the occasion.”

Published November, 2011. 206 pages. “Structure liberates writing”.

This is not a book to learn the building blocks of how to structure an article or the process of reporting. For that I recommend ‘Feature Writing: A Practical Introduction’ and ‘Good Writing for Journalists’, both of which were excellent education. But Freedman does provide inspiration and rock-hard nuggets of wisdom.

Although coming from an era few student journalists would recognize now — of local newspapers with individual departments covering crime or arts for example — those with a literary bent will appreciate chapters focused on reporting or writing or career.

One section entitled In Praise of Gradualism struck me as a much needed antidote to impatience. In it he says that for those in their early twenties the important thing is to develop your day-to-day skills, even if it’s at a small and humble publication.

“I can say that I have never seen a truly gifted young journalist go unrecognized. Maybe in the short run but never over time. There just isn’t that much excellence loose in the world that news executives can afford to ignore it.”

He goes on to cite several named journalists, a few of whom he taught, who went on to work at the likes of Rolling Stone or The New York Times, charting their personal qualities and rise to eventual success, remarking how each internship or lowly job was important to the opportunity that followed.

The emphasis here is on the individual drive to become better: “What looks like spontaneous creation…is so much more often the end result of an assiduous work ethic and a conscious effort to develop skills”.

Some may find the book too high-minded, American or preoccupied with art and literature, but then you come across lessons like this: “what does the article intend to say? What one central idea would animate the article, a decision that guided the remaining reporting in a more focused, channeled way”.

This is a short book with insights that illuminate every so often, and though parts may at times be preachy, it was a deep comfort to be reminded of journalism’s ambitions and a career choice that can offer some of the slow satisfaction of art.

**

Other book reviews:

Apologies to My Censor: The High and Low Adventures of a Foreigner in China

War Reporting for Cowards