Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

A freelancer’s journey in payment: my first 5 paid-for articles

with 5 comments

The idea for this blog post comes from reader Sam Shan who asked via email about how, when you’re starting out, you first start asking for payment and how to negotiate this aspect of getting paid for your writing. I replied with my advice. A background blog post about my beginning days and my first five published articles for which I got paid I thought would be a good structure in which I could detail my thoughts and struggles of negotiating payment. As well as the stuff I did for free that were beneficial in other ways. Before anything though I will say this, always, always, at least try to get paid for your writing, the sooner the better really. And thanks to Sam for this post’s topic!

1) The Guardian: Chinese students suffer…, 2010. £151

So 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 favourite one. I didn’t really care about the fee, but the fee is always a validation of your work. I got what to me was a substantial sum, for about 400 or so words. When the receipt of the payment came from them, the fee was split into a sum for the newspaper article, and then a much smaller sum for the online edition. I don’t think they divide it like this anymore. It was a good strike for me but it took two years before I got published in the paper Guardian again (and that was only following the fact I wrote two unpaid “blog posts” for them for their Student blog section).

2) musicrooms.net: various reviews, 2011. £75.50

In my second year of university (I did a journalism degree), I started a film blog, and I wrote film and music reviews for a website: musicrooms.net. It was a reviews and entertainment website started up by an individual with an entrepreneurial streak. At this time, I was also writing reviews (unpaid) for music website allgigs.co.uk. They would send out an email to their freelancers with listings of CDs. We would reply with which ones we wanted. A week later we would receive said CDs in the post. Listen to CD, write up our review. It was neat to receive these CDs and then getting your reviews published about them. Good practice.

Anyway, the payment from musicrooms.net wasn’t for a single article. It was for a series of reviews. And we were paid according to how many hits our reviews got. Our fee was determined, by some baroque measure, by how many hits we accumulated. I must have published around 10 or so articles over the course of three months. I stopped writing for them at the end of these three months – I just wanted to move on – and cashed out with £75.50.

3) Acoustic: Scott Matthews interview, 2011. £100

Scott Matthews and I at Bournemouth's Old Fire Station. Scott is 6'4". I am not.

Scott Matthews and I at Bournemouth’s Old Fire Station. Scott is 6’4″. I am not.

While I was at university, doing my journalism degree, I would, on occasion, write for the student newspaper and the student magazine. One time I pitched an interview and gig review of a musician who was coming to play at our student union bar. The musician was someone whose music I admired and enjoyed, so I thought it would be a hoot. I was successful. The musician in question was Scott Matthews, a singer-songwriter with a love of acoustic guitars. I had a brainwave and thought: why not pitch this interview to a “real” magazine, and then I’d get paid for it too. So I went to a newsagents and browsed the shelves for potential markets. I hit on a magazine called “Acoustic”, a niche music magazine aimed at lovers of acoustic guitars and the kind of music they play. I looked for the masthead in the magazine and found the email address of the senior editor.

I did the interview and it was a gorgeous experience. We eventually spent almost an hour talking, and he was a brilliant interviewee, humble and forthcoming. He even played the intro to his most well known song “Elusive”, or rather the initial idea for it, and I blushed at the amazingness of it, similar to how Jack White blushes when he sees Jimmy Page play the intro to Whole Lotta Love in the documentary It Might Get Loud.

I wrote up the 2000-word interview for Acoustic magazine, and a truncated version for the student magazine. I got a signed CD and was at his gig, and brought along two friends for free. Perks of the job. However, there is a sad coda to this story; the publishers of the magazine went into insolvency just after the feature was published so I didn’t get paid unfortunately. Happily however the magazine survives and is still going, under new publishers.

4) Wanderlust: Under-£250 feature, 2012. £250

Here I am falling off while mountain biking in Cyprus

Here I am falling off while mountain biking in Cyprus

In my third year of university, I wrote a couple pieces for The Guardian’s student blog, like I mentioned, which were unpaid. I was glad of the bylines however and it did eventually lead directly to paid work from them, as well as two weeks work experience at Guardian HQ. Entering that gleaming white building in King’s Cross, London, was a dream and a wonderful experience.

Anyway, in the winter of 2011 I saw a Tweet on Twitter that advertised a competition run by Wanderlust magazine, a great little British travel magazine that specializes in more rustic, solo wanderer-style travel ideas and features. The magazine was looking for entries to an under-£250 travel competition. We were invited to submit ideas for a holiday, where the total cost of the trip (including flights, accommodation, activities, food & drink etc) would come to under £250. We were given free rein: so we could go to New Zealand for a month if were able to go on such a budget (of course NZ was not possible). I did a bit of research and came across a factoid that Cyprus was the furthest and sunniest place in Europe. I based my pitch on this idea and researched costs too. It worked out. The place was cheap to go to and it was a reasonably priced island. Being the most southerly country in the Mediterranean, it would offer a little warmth when I proposed to go in January.

At this point, in the third year of my course (UK undergrad degrees are three years), we had a lot of free time, so I could afford to take a week off for this exciting travel writing assignment. Wanderlust would pay in £125 before I went and the remaining half upon publication of the article. It would be up to me to keep costs down to budget. I sent out requests on couchsurfing.org and stayed with a British couple in Paphos, Cyprus. It was my first and thus far only experience of travel journalism.

5) IGN.com: Where are all the British games?, 2012. £150

For one of our assignments for the final year of my journalism course, we had to undertake a project exploring a topic of our choice. We had to create a full multimedia package, with a feature report, timelines, video, podcasts, magazine layouts, all in support of a main story. I chose to explore the theme of British video games. This in part was motivated by the fact I had been commissioned by ign.com – one of the world’s biggest video games sites – to write a feature exploring British identity in video games, if such a thing existed.

There existed an identity in British film (think The Full Monty; Lock, Stock…; Trainspotting) and an identity to British music; was there a specific British identity to the video games we made?

I thought why not kill two birds with one stone by making my project on this, that way I had extra impetus to do it – getting paid for the report for IGN, and learning about the whole thing too for the university assignment.

All through my journalism course, I had concentrated far more on doing real journalism, pitching, getting published, rather than focusing on the journalism assignments we were given by the journalism degree course. In fact I was totally baffled by my coursemates who put so much store by the academic tasks given. I actually left with a 2:2 for my journalism degree – to US readers, that’s like a 2.5 GPA – and wrote about the very fact of that 2:2 for The Guardian (paid), and a lot of journalism students would kill for a Guardian byline so the irony is not lost on me.

Anyway, the feature for IGN took me about two months to report and it was a very great learning experience for me, to construct a feature of that type, which is investigative, socio-historical and narrative-led. I had to figure out who to talk to, who to talk to following that person, how to structure the narrative and fit in the elements I wanted to fit in, as well as how to offer an answer as an ending. It was my first entry in video games journalism (I’ve been a gamer since I was little) and I distinctly remember sitting in my university library, reading comments on social media when it had been published, and people like Tom Bissell and Simon Parkin, writers whose writing I adore, complimenting me and I got all teary-eyed reading what they said, in that library…and I realized how much this shit means to me.

*

Advice

Whenever I pitched or sent out emails to publications asking if they accepted pitches in my beginning days, a lot of publications of which were online-only, I would usually ask if they paid. If they did not pay, and I saw that they were perhaps not a big name, or had not a good future, then I would make the decision not to write for them. Writing for small perks such as free shit, free gig tickets, or movie screenings, might seem cool to begin with – but it is not sustainable.

So I chose to aim my pitches for publications that were large enough to pay. I never really thought about writing for no-name blogs or shitty publications that might email you with some bullshit promise that they may, may, give you something more in return in the future. Usually I would be offered a fee for my services, which is how it should be. I have no time for writers who write for free, it just creates downward pressure on prices, means you don’t have confidence enough to value your own work, and puts working, professional freelancers out of work.

Whenever possible I would negotiate for higher fees. I did this with The Independent when I hadn’t written a thing for them, and I did it at Acoustic, nudging them toward a higher figure. I see nothing wrong with this. If they are a reputable publication and they’ve already shown interest in your work (and therefore buying it), then you can negotiate. In the current economic climate for print media, the room for negotiation is incredibly small, but that room should be yours to claim, if you simply believe you deserve something more. That’s my advice but use sense and think critically about how to write or make videos, in journalism, for a living. It’s a learning experience and mistakes will be made, but you will learn for next time. Any questions, hit me up in the comments!

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5 Responses

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  1. […] I’ve only done one piece of pure travel journalism in my career. A long time ago now. […]

  2. […] Link […]

  3. […] and then write about the film for my blog. I’d submit these reviews to another website which paid me on the basis of view […]

  4. […] in at number six, it’s A freelancer’s journey in payment: my first five paid-for articles. This blog entry was a journey through my proto-freelancing life and how I took the first tentative […]

  5. […] Finding stories and coming up with story ideas These skills were not taught on the journalism course. I learned how to come up with story ideas by reading about how to do it, slowly parsing the kind of mindset needed to think about story ideas, getting to grips with it and then applying that to the other skill of pitching. I have written about this aspect, of self-learning how to pitch and coming up with story ideas here, here and here. […]


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