Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Archive for the ‘Journalism advice’ Category

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!

Read the rest of this entry »

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

leave a comment »

Kate Burt is a freelance writer and editor for publications including the Independent (“where I’ve also been a commissioning editor – so I know the other side!”), and the Guardian. She also blogs at yourhomeislovely.com

Publication: Melody Maker (RIP)

Fee: About £30 as I recall!

What were you doing at the time?

I was a staff writer on a teen magazine, my first proper journalism job. Then I met the editor of Melody Maker [a now defunct music publication] on the bus to work, which I took every day, and he kept on at me to write some freelance reviews for the mag as we’d always chat about music on the bus. It became a regular thing and started me on the road to full-time freelancing.

How did you get the commission?

My first commission following a pitch – rather than bus chat – was for the Guardian Guide. I had pitched dozens of ideas to them for months and been rejected over and over but it was my dream to write for them at the time. I learnt that I needed to give them something no one else would – so I offered an interview with the then obscure Derren Brown whose first late-night C4 TV show was called Mind Control or something.

I got the PR to provisionally agree that I could interview Derren if the Guardian said yes so I could put that in the pitch, which is important (what if they say no after you’ve pitched?). I outlined an idea that I would try out six of his mind control tricks on various strangers and write about how it worked. No staff writer had the time for that, it was quite quirky and funny and introduced a new talent that fitted the Guide’s entertainment remit. Getting the word “new” into a pitch, I learned, is key, as is being game to get out there and understanding what is a good fit for the publication.

Make your idea unique to you

Read the rest of this entry »

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

with 3 comments

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

6 journalism resolutions for the new year & how to achieve them

with 3 comments

1. Write More

It sounds so simple but it’s not. All writers know that they should be writing more. The successful imposition of the “write more” intention then requires rules and routines (tricks, really) that, crucially, forms a habit. Here are a few that I’ll be following:

  • 50 words a day

This rule is designed on the understanding that motivation is a fickle and finite resource. We only have so much of it and so the barriers to entry for any task should be as low as possible. The clearest analogy I’ve heard is for flossing your teeth. Instead of a broad goal that you should be flossing more you should have this aim: floss one tooth. Just a single tooth.

Now this is much easier you think. I can do one tooth. But of course you start flossing one tooth and then you end up doing another and another until you end up doing every one; fulfilling your goal without guilt or anxiety because you’ve already achieved your aim of flossing one tooth.

The same goes for writing. You may set yourself the well-meaning goal of 500 words a day, but this may be too daunting especially if you’re in the process of habit forming. 50 words a day is much more manageable; there’s even an argument for a more drastic 10 words a day, anything to get your bum on a seat and writing. Once you’ve written those 50 words, the rest will follow.

Read the rest of this entry »

5 Most Frequently Asked Questions about Being a Freelance Journalist in China

with 16 comments

Since I’ve been blogging sometimes readers will take the time to email me with some questions. Here are the five most common ones I receive, and my answers to them:

1. How do you get a visa as a freelancer in China?

This is usually the most pressing question. And my guess is that this is the biggest hurdle for those thinking of coming to China to do journalism. The official J-visa (full visa status and accreditation as a professional journalist allowed to do journalism in China) is difficult to get. It’s not easy to get even with the full backing of a major news organization. Suffice to say that unless you are employed or sponsored by one of these large media companies, it will be nigh on impossible to secure a J-visa.

Read the rest of this entry »

Part three: How to Make a Name for Yourself – As a Journalist

with 5 comments

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

Christopher Nolan is a film director with great power in Hollywood. He’s known for producing blockbuster movies – like his Dark Knight Batman trilogy – under budget and before deadline. Recently I read a brilliant profile of the British filmmaker written by Tom Shone; it’s an excellently reported piece.

What makes the article special is its description of Nolan’s commitment to his craft, emphasizing his abilities of focus to art and craft.

*

Cal Newport’s blog focuses on how people achieve success by continually bettering their skills. It’s a must-read blog for me. One of his mantras, culled from comedian Steve Martin’s memoir, is: “Be so good they can’t ignore you”. Newport emphasizes that to be not just good, but truly great, to rise to the top where the best get unduly rewarded, you have to focus not just on improving your skills – a given – but to concentrate your efforts on projects that will generate massive returns.

Needless to say, this can be quite difficult.

Read the rest of this entry »

Is It Worth Doing Journalism Work Experience?

leave a comment »

For my degree in multimedia journalism, I was required to do during the duration of my course a minimum of 4 weeks of work experience. My first ever bout of journalism work experience came earlier though, when I was 17 and still at college doing my A-levels.

At the time I was unsure of what I should do at university – I was good at English and good at writing. Although creative writing interested, I knew deep down that I was incapable of fiction and journalism took on more appeal.

At The Guardian offices, on work experience,  September, 2012.

At The Guardian offices, on work experience, September, 2012.

So I asked a staff member at college to help me arrange work experience with my local newspaper, The Hastings Observer. I spent a week at the newspaper and managed to gain three bylines. Two lessons stick out from that week: 1. That you could source a story from the Yellow Pages (remember those?) – a lesson not that useful now but opened up my awareness of how stories and sources can be located & 2. How powerful use of language can be and how even a slight variation in word choice can influence readers.

After that week ended I grew more attached to journalism and its raggedy, amateur art.

When it came time to select courses and universities, my stepfather and I went on a tour of the different journalism degrees. Some presentations were much better than others. Some were downright off-putting. It came down to two choices: City University in London and Bournemouth University. At the time City Uni did not do only a journalism BA. It was History with Journalism. Bournemouth Uni appealed as it taught multimedia journalism which was NCTJ approved and because it was by the sea.

Anyway, I deferred for a year, taking a gap year which eventually turned into two. I started my course at age 20.

A list of media work experience/internships that I did from 2009-2012:

  • The Brighton Argus
  • Splash News
  • The Press Association
  • Catch22
  • The Guardian
  • The Beijinger

The Press Association (video department) was a great experience as I got the opportunity to interview Boris Johnson (mayor of London) and MPs, participate in a press scrum and attend a beer festival. The UK’s national news agency has a great scheme that if I had pushed more, perhaps I could have got on to, but it would have required a three year commitment or thereabouts.

The Guardian work experience was offered to me by the editor as I had written a couple of articles for her previously (unpaid) and so they gave me a week. It was a dream to enter The Guardian’s gleaming offices near King’s Cross, London and I saw a couple of journalists I’ve long admired.

It is very much worth doing work experience, but in my opinion it is not worth doing it overmuch. You can also get lucky. A few coursemates of mine got jobs from them, and one of them is now editor at a major publication. It can also be helpful to gain contacts as it can make it easier to pitch later on. An acquaintance here in Beijing occasionally writes for Esquire (UK) as he once interned for them.

It will really help your time on your internship if you can pitch story ideas. Do not be afraid to suggest ideas to your editor. It shows initiative, charm and power. Anyone who has a store of good ideas is a source of power for a creative outlet. You will be seen in a much better light if you have the confidence to pitch and the boldness to articulate them. You lose nothing. Even if your ideas are not accepted, do not lose hope, it only takes one to strike for you to be given an opportunity.

It helps if the staff like you too. I have found in my experience that if the staff take a shine to you, they will overlook any deficiencies or weaknesses you may have simply because they like having you around in the office. Do not underestimate how important this is. Having good social skills is a skill and intelligence in itself. And those who possess it have an equally legitimate skill as those good with numbers or a facility for study.

How a story about Chinese journalism students led to a chance at the New York Times

with one comment

Recently, a piece I wrote, originally destined for CNN, was published on the Los Angeles Review of Books‘ China blog section. It took me a long time to find a home for the article after it was cancelled by CNN but its eventual publication, which was unpaid, has led to opportunities from, among others, the Washington Post and the New York Times.

The article is about Chinese journalism students, graduates and China’s journalism industry. It was fascinating to report on and some of the answers I found surprised and befuddled me. Here are some of the highlights:

“I think the Marxist view on journalism is right,” says Wang Zihao, a 22-year-old journalism major at Beijing’s Communications University of China. “Sometimes what the [Western] journalists do is just outrageous. They should have more professional ethics.”

According to 2013 government figures, there are over 250,000 journalists with press cards, which are mandatory for professional journalists in China.

“Sometimes one person has to do things that are supposed to be done by three people. So this is not discrimination against women, it’s just that men are better at working under pressure,” says Mr. Wang.

Issues of censorship and political agendas are, perhaps contrary to foreigners’ beliefs, much discussed on campuses and online. But the students’ opinions may not be what foreigners expect

For the whole article please use this link:   http://blog.lareviewofbooks.org/chinablog/study-journalism-china/

Postscript

It was while I was reading an article about how the Chinese government was putting extra pressure on its journalists in The Washington Post that I came up with the idea for this story. A section in that Post article mentioned how student journalists in China and university faculties were also facing pressure, and I thought: “hmmmm, I wonder what’s it like to be a Chinese journalism student?

So I pitched this idea to an editor at CNN’s website, who I had made contact with using Twitter.

Twitter’s a fantastic resource for journalists, and I have gotten email addresses, sources and contacts aplenty from it; usually I just ask – “hey do you take freelance, if so, what’s your email?” – or something along those lines.

The editor liked the idea, and off I went. I asked a Chinese friend to help me with the reporting and because she herself had gone through a journalism degree in China.

Cue lots of research and reporting.

I wrote up the article, during which the commissioning editor at CNN had gone on maternity leave.

My article got passed on to a couple of other editors, one of whom asked for the story to be re-reported. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with that – and they eventually spiked the story. It was my first ever story cancellation but I guess it happens.

Anyway, I tried to sell the story on to other outlets all of whom liked the story but felt it was perhaps a bit too niche a topic. It was picked up eventually as you all now know, although for free. I did hope that it would be a paid for, but the value of it being published anyway exceeded my expectations.

It was re-tweeted and favourited by dozens of journalists, writers and editors, partly I guess because the story is about journalism. I followed up on these and introduced myself. Cue opportunities to pitch editors who’ve seen my work – after reading the article – and who I now know enough to feel that when I pitch them that we’re not complete strangers (every little helps).

I will think and search for new pitches, because bylines in such storied publications as The Washington Post or The New York Times would be awesome.

Smog’s lesson in reselling freelance stories

with 3 comments

That time I spent every week going to London to practice pitching

One reason you shouldn’t study a journalism degree is to learn how to freelance. J-school is woeful at teaching the mechanics, processes and techniques of successful freelance journalism. A much better way of learning is to buy a couple of books on it, practice what they teach and start doing it. Freelancing workshops can be pricey but worthwhile.

In the second year of my journalism degree I spent a couple days every week, for 12 weeks, attending another journalism course in London (which is three hours away from my university).

On this course, at the start of every class, we were asked to pitch ideas for magazine stories. To begin with our ideas were plagiaristic, rudimentary and not much different than the headlines we’d noted on the various news websites we checked.

Over the duration of the program however, as the weeks wore on, and we became used to the habit of pitching and coming up with ideas for stories our skills noticeably improved. The slant of our headlines steadily grew more sophisticated, our angles more acute, our ideas more original.

Who knows what quantifiable difference it made to our progression but I do believe that that weekly exercise irrevocably strengthened mine and my cohort’s ability to think up story ideas and to think in such a way that allowed us to be creative in a strict form – that of the story pitch.

In the classroom in London. For more on my time on this course, you can read this: http://wannabehacks.co.uk/2011/07/13/lu-hai-liang-catch-22-review-the-social-enterprise-journalism-placement/

That time my journalism tutor said something profound about freelancing

Back at university, we were given a couple of lessons in freelancing, which were superficial and lackluster, but one thing a tutor said stuck with me.

“The trick”, he would say, on more than one occasion, “is not to sell 17 ideas to one publication. The trick is to sell one idea 17 times”.

It has taken me some time to fully understand what that meant, and just how you do that.

Along the way I listened to an editor talk about a friend who was brilliant at selling off different parts of an interview to different publications: “He’d interview Nick Cohen and he’d ask him some questions about being Jewish and sell that to The Jewish Chronicle; he’d ask him about the war [Iraq] and sell that to a political magazine”, and so on…

The point

What is missing in these lessons is how to repackage and resell an existing idea. It is what one freelance I heard refer to as ‘re-nosing’.

The fact is you cannot re-pitch the exact same idea again – you have to adapt it, change it up, modify, refocus the angle, sell in in a different format…there are lots of ways you can mine existing ideas or articles you’ve written to make more business.

In my experience, what I’ve done on Beijing’s air pollution problem – described sometimes as ‘smog’ – is a clear example. It all started as an article about how Asia can be a job opportunity for graduates. One of the sources for that story became a profile feature for a business magazine. I adapted the angle so that it became a news feature when the smog got bad again…and so on. Below are the headlines and stand-firsts of the different stories which hopefully demonstrates what I mean more clearly:

Does Asia hold the answer to your graduate career hunt? [link]

Doing business in China: Lu-Hai Liang speaks to the founder of a successful Beijing-based startup about what it’s like running a company there [link]

The expats offering a breath of fresh air in polluted Beijing [link]

Related –

Why is China such fertile ground for young, ambitious Brits? Young British people are choosing to emigrate to China, armed with strategies for chasing success. Why? [link]

The other Jamie on a food mission: Meet the chef teaching people in the East to love Western food [link]

Flying the flag for the best of British in China: A young English woman who forged a successful career in China after moving there as a teenage is now promoting British brands to wealthy shoppers in Beijing [link]

4 ways to instantly improve your pitching – freelance journalism

with one comment

  • Think Visual

If you can write a pitch where the editor can ‘see’ the story, see the characters and the setting, then you’re immediately inside the editor’s mind, a good place to be. Just a couple of good sentences that can bring a character or some aspect of the pitch to life. Be vivid and show details that can make an editor stop and think. These words from Guy Davenport were influential to me not just for journalism but for writing in general:

Harry Levin, at Harvard, taught me a lot, especially about iconography, how to read images in a text—that literature is as pictorial as painting or sculpture. [Source: Paris Review]

  •  Think visual, visual, visual

Sorry to hammer home this point but it’s one of the quickest and easiest ways to improve pitches. I like to play with font colours, use bold where necessary, inject relevant photos inside the email, and hyperlink anything that might need clarification. You can use these formatting tools to emphasize points or themes. Just don’t go crazy, your central idea should always be the focus but a bit of extra effort will help your email stand out.

  • Is it a complete story?

Don’t pitch topics or subjects, pitch stories. Pitch ideas that are wrapped in a story. What’s the difference between a story and an idea? To quote Richard Morgan, a complete story is one with “interesting characters in an interesting situation that changes over time in an interesting environment”. The story can also demonstrate a principle or universal theme adding depth and meaning, forming a ‘take-away’ feeling or message for the reader.

  • Have an outline

You should have an outline of what the story will look like, who you’ll interview, the basic structure of the piece, and the estimated final word count. It pays to imagine for the editor what the content of the article will be and how it’ll develop paragraph by paragraph.

Show you have the expertise by quickly sketching which named people you’ll interview and who they are. It’s also good sometimes to offer options in your treatment of the story: a more intimate interviewee-based feature, or an omniscient analysis with multiple characters? Editors like surety so demonstrate you have a clear understanding of what the story will be and how it will progress.