Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Part one: freelance journalists on their first ever (paid) commissions

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Brent Crane is an American journalist who moved to Asia in 2014. He has since traveled around China and Myanmar, scoring bylines in the Daily Telegraph, Vice, Aljazeera, and Roads & Kingdoms, among others. He can be found tweeting @bcamcrane and his blog is thecongeechronicles.tumblr.com

I first got paid for writing in a place where writers typically never get paid: an internship. I spent last winter in Washington DC writing for an international affairs journal called the American Interest. My main gig was producing short 200-400 word news analysis posts for their online blog. At the end of my time there I wrote my first-ever feature story and that is what I got paid for ($200).

Photo courtesy of Brent Crane.

Photo courtesy of Brent Crane.

My chosen topic was the unprecedented dangers of freelance reporting from the Syrian civil war and how this related to the sea change that was taking place in the world of journalism in general. I’d been turned on to the idea from a book that I found in the AI office, a memoir by freelance photojournalist Paul Conroy called “Under the Wire”.

It took me forever to narrow the subject down from “the problems faced by freelance war reporters” to “the problem faced by freelance war reporters in Syria and why this matters for journalism as a whole”; but I had a lot of help from the editors at AI.

Pitching is something you can only get better at with practice, but that experience did teach me to never stop asking myself “Yeah but why should anyone care?” when formulating a story idea. A topic being interesting is not enough. It must be newsy in some way if an editor is going to bite.

My 1500-word feature went through numerous edits. It was a major learning experience for me.

To research it I spoke with eight highly accomplished freelancers, most of whom had reported from Syria. Being able to pick their brains about how they operated as freelancers was invaluable to me as an aspiring journalist. And also they made for great first-time interviewees, having all been in my shoes at some point. Talking with them humanized the field.

Before that, a freelance journalist in my mind was a kind of mysterious character and freelancing was more of a theoretical career choice than a realistic one. Actually meeting some lone wolf writers I had a kind of lightbulb moment: If these people can do it, so can I. That was a huge confidence booster for me and a major push for me to take the leap.

And for the first time in my life I’d actually made an actual sum of money writing. Holding that check for $200 in my hands I thought anything was possible.


Helen Gao is a writer from Beijing. She is a columnist for Prospect and a contributor to the New York Times, the Guardian and Foreign Policy. 

Publication: The Atlantic website

Title: Clash of civilizations: The confusion of being a Chinese student in America

What were you doing at the time? 

I was an editorial intern for the print magazine.

How did you get the commission? 

I wrote a pitch about a story idea on Chinese students coming to America to study and how they dealt with the negative portrayal of China in western media. In retrospect my pitch was probably too long, but luckily the editor was happy to take it.

How have your pitching skills developed?

I am better at keeping my pitch short (usually no longer than three paragraphs and three or four hundred words).

Top advice

It would help to put yourself in the position of the editor who will read your pitch. Perhaps also try to limit the number of adjectives.

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2 Responses

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  1. […] popular blog posts 2015 and it’s another one about freelancing and payment. It is — Part one: freelance journalists on their first ever paid commissions. The post is filled with useful tips about how to pitch and how to contact editors. Part two is […]

  2. […] at the Phnom Penh Post, to Nepal. Brent’s a prolific freelancer (and a guest contributor to the site) and by the time I’d met him in Chiang Mai he’d already sold features to The New […]


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