Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘freelancing

What I learned from five months of freelancing and travel

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This year, I left England in April, and I travelled for five months. I stayed in Hong Kong for a couple of weeks where I slept on a friend’s couch. I left for Taiwan where I stayed for almost two months, in a hostel, in a student district of Taipei. Next, I flew to Beijing, for an assignment, where I dwelled two weeks at a friend’s apartment.

After that I went to South Korea for half a month, stayed in a hostel. Finally I went to Singapore, where I stayed for just over a month, in hostels and a friend’s apartment. Overall, I travelled to five different places.

  • Hong Kong/last two weeks of April — I wrote a feature (Dynamic Yield) for a newspaper based in the UAE and an interview feature (Hao Wu documentary) for a UK magazine.
  • Taiwan/May & June — I started writing a big feature (Money) for the BBC, and wrote a nonfiction book proposal. I completed two more features (coffee culture in China & virtual banks) for the UAE newspaper.
  • Beijing/July — I worked on an assignment for a US college magazine. And finished off the big BBC feature (which has still not been published, although I have been paid.) I also successfully pitched a feature idea (videogames) to the UAE newspaper.
  • South Korea/July — I successfully pitched an article idea (migration for work/life) for a UK website. I also went to Gwangju for the 2019 FINA Swimming World Championships, and caught up with a friend. I met someone who gave me the seed of an idea for another article.
  • Singapore/August — I met up with a BBC editor; pitched a significant number of unsuccessful article ideas; and successfully pitched the idea (feminism) that originated in South Korea to a HK-based web publication. And pitched another big feature (Time) to the BBC.

I came back to England on 6th September. It’s nice to be back, enjoying the late summer sun and the beginnings of autumn. I am fortunate that I have a family home where I can stay when I am back. It is probably the basis of my ability to travel in the way I do; so I recognise that I have this fortunate foundation.

The biggest lesson I gained from the five months of freelancing was that geography and timeline doesn’t draw as tight a connection to successful pitches and feature ideas as I thought. That time and geography are pretty flexible for a freelance feature writer.

For example, I can pitch an idea in Beijing, start writing it in South Korea, write more of it in Singapore, and finish the article and file it in England. Similarly, I can get the germ of an idea while in South Korea, pitch it while I happen to be in Singapore, and research and interview sources in England.

This is a useful lesson that I will put into effect on future freelance forays. Here are some other things I learned:

  • It always takes time to adapt. It wasn’t until halfway through my time in Taiwan that I finally became comfortable with my nomadic freelance schedule. I came to embrace it.
  • It’s important to remember what you’ve achieved on a daily basis (ticking off or writing down the things completed that day). This gives you a sense of progress and stops ennui.
  • Twitter remains a valuable resource for generating article ideas and making professional contacts. But too much of it is a real downer.
  • It’s a good idea to meet editors in real life. Just for a quick coffee. The physical meet-up remains a powerful networking tool.
  • Accommodation prices in first-tier developed cities are exorbitant.
  • Never be afraid to renegotiate fees or ask for more money.
  • A little bit of praise can go a long way.
  • I have a tendency to tarry so I need to get better at scheduling.
  • South Korea has a lot of Dunkin Donuts and it is hella good.

There is probably more stuff but I can’t remember all of them. I will now probably stay at home for a bit. But already, after two weeks at home, I can feel myself starting to get restless. Soon enough I will be on the road again. To write, to connect, to experience. Onward.

Singapura

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Singapore’s UNESCO World Heritage listed Botanic Gardens. Image taken on a Fuji X70. All images: LHL

Initially, I was joyful to see the sunny dispositions

of Singaporeans

and their warm, unwavering, spotless streets.

It looked prosperous, clean, multicultural, industrious.

Excellent infrastructure, a well regarded greening policy, a much admired economy.

It took me a little while — a process of slow but inevitable discovery —

to see the unsunny side.

The darker, more complex reality.

Here follows a WhatsApp text conversation, over a period of a couple of weeks, between me and a Singaporean woman of similar age to me, whom I met while I stayed in Singapore. She is Chinese Singaporean, speaks Chinese and English, and works in a bank:

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Written by Lu-Hai Liang

September 8, 2019 at 5:52 am

The story of my WIRED commission

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In my last post I said that out of the 12 pitches I sent to editors in January, I only received one commission. That commission came from WIRED (UK), a publication I have long admired, and is a branch of the original mag founded by one of my heroes, Kevin Kelly.

Anyway, that commission has now been published. You can read it here.

This is the story of how I got the idea for the pitch and what led me to pitch WIRED, who I had never contacted, or written for before. It may be of interest to the aspiring freelance journalists out there, to gain some insight into how I come up with ideas, and how I go about pitching.

It all started with a library visit. I joined my local library, and I go there every so often to take out books and to browse the magazines. Reading magazines and other publications is an excellent way of coming up with story ideas.

But you have to be alert for potential items of interest. I was sat in the library, reading through The Economist. I read an article about Tencent, videogames, and government regulations in China, when I came across the following paragraph:

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This was very interesting and I hadn’t known these things before. I read it again. I took a photo with my phone of this paragraph.

This paragraph has angles. There’s the female gamer in China angle, which is significant because it’s a higher proportion than in the west. There’s this game, Love and Producer,  which has been “wildly popular” with Chinese women in their 20s.

Story ideas should be specific, based on details, not generalised. You can’t pitch a story about videogames in China, but you can pitch an idea about a very popular game that’s hooked millions of young Chinese women that’s about dating four men, and by the way, women gamers are almost half of the market in China, unlike in the US or UK.

I then contacted a few Chinese friends to ask them about this game. I got some information from them, preparing my knowledge for a potential pitch.

I use Twitter and I follow lots of editors on there. I happened to see the tweet of a WIRED editor who had tweeted a call-out for pitches themed around love and romance, obviously tech or science-related, and with her email address. I took a screenshot of this call-out, for reference.

Then I pitched this editor the story idea. And the rest, as they say, is history.

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More pitching blog posts:

https://theluhai.com/2015/01/05/part-one-freelance-journalists-on-their-first-ever-paid-commissions/

https://theluhai.com/2014/01/17/how-i-got-my-first-ever-paid-freelance-gig/

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

February 12, 2019 at 2:01 pm

Doing the location independent thing

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Dear reader,

I am writing you from Hoi An, Vietnam.

Last week I was in the Philippines, taking in El Nido, Palawan, and Manila. I am currently in Vietnam, having stopped in Hanoi and Da Nang. Next stop will be Malaysia. From there it might be Cambodia next, once we reach November, but I haven’t made up my mind yet.

I am working while on the road, traveling with a regular-sized backpack and an H&M carry-on. Vietnamese 4g is excellent by the way.

I’m not rich. The flight ticket from Beijing to Manila was cheap. From Manila to Hanoi, it was just over half that: about £60.

I’m currently staying in this hotel, and it costs £20 a night for a double room including breakfast (and the pool of course).

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For October and November I will be traveling and making money with my location having nothing to do with my work.

But I’ve been able to make this change due to having spent a large amount of time accruing value and contacts in Beijing. That is my foundation.

Beijing is a massive metropole that is connected to international companies and the global economy. It is the capital city of the world’s second largest economy with many brands and businesses hoping to tap into such a large consumer base. It is a good place to make contacts, whether friendly or professional (they can often be the same thing), and a large enough entity to find valuable professional niches.

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being a tourist in hanoi

I have a like-hate relationship with Beijing, but I’ll always recommend tapping into the commercial opportunities inherent in such a large, dynamic, and globally connected city that’s a spearhead of a developing nation.

I migrated to Beijing in 2012 looking for adventure and new experiences. I learned a massive amount in six years. This is what many young people do: migrate for work. It’s a rite of passage for many citizens of the world. Whether it’s trying out Manchester or London; or going further afield in Berlin, Budapest, or Bali, there are opportunities available across the world. All it takes is a little courage.

Location is both important and not important. The modern knowledge economy is based on technology: the Internet to be exact. But having some expertise — how to market to Chinese consumers, or the language, for example — gives you greater value. That’s why I think accruing some sort of expertise before you start blogging your way around the world might be a good idea, or traveling with that mindset to begin with.

But I don’t have all the answers. Next year I’ll probably try the location independence thing longer term, with an emphasis on journalism. One of the great things about freelance journalism is traveling with a sense of adventure and mission; to discover new things that might not look so photogenic on Instagram, but that is often more rewarding.

How to Become a Freelance Journalist in China

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This is a brief guide to the posts on this blog. I arrived in China in the autumn of 2012, and had just graduated a journalism degree. I learned the ropes of freelance journalism when I moved to Beijing.

This blog started in the autumn of 2013 after I had begun to freelance more professionally. The posts from previous years were written while I was still learning, but I hope that they may be of use to you.

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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.

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

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There is still a massive demand for information, news and stories

Publications are hungry, starving for new and exciting information and stories. If you are placed in a niche or location that’s in demand, then you could be hot property.

6 Things I Learned about the Freelance Journalism Market While I Was In China

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Four months equates to a season, in a year, and so 2015 was irrevocably marked by this season of difficulty. But, there have been bright spots. Most notable among these was the money I earned from freelancing. This year’s haul is almost four times as much as what I earned the previous year from freelancing.

A Year in the Life of a Freelance Journalist Abroad

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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).

Part One: Freelance Journalists on their First Ever (Paid) Commissions

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Meet your fellow journalists
Find them on Twitter, LinkedIn – search out bylines and reach out to them. Most will gladly meet up for a coffee. Some may even share freelance and job opportunities down the line. You’re all in the same boat, so having that network can be invaluable.

5 Things To Do Upon Arriving in a New Country as a Freelance Journalist

There are many more posts about freelancing, and the experience of freelancing in China. Please have a browse of this site if you are interested.

It took me four years before I started making good money from freelance writing. Could I apply this to other fields?

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A painting (based on ancient cave art) I did last week. It’s not great, but what if I kept practicing? Wouldn’t professionalism eventually be an option?

I’ve been freelancing since the autumn/winter months of 2012. Back then I’d recently moved to Beijing and was interning at a listings magazine called The Beijinger. And in order to supplement my meagre income I started pitching to UK publications.

I’d learned how to pitch and the rules of how to do freelance journalism while I was still a student on my journalism B.A., so I knew the fundamentals. But doing it while I was a student was like a game.

Doing it for real, in order to try and make money, as a professional freelance journalist, was something I learned how to do as a necessity.

For several years the majority of my income came from the full time jobs I had; freelance journalism was what I did on the side, both as a very satisfying sideline (with longer term career prospects) and extra income stream.

Last year I turned fully freelance, and it was tough, but since the start of 2016 it has become a viable and comfortable means of living.

It took me four years before I reached this state of affairs. I now control my time, am earning a comfortable income, and have many opportunities for travel, leisure, and socializing, while at the same time indulging in my interests and thinking of other ways to develop.

One of these interests is painting, and I attended a painting class very recently in Beijing. I discovered how much I enjoyed it and that I displayed a natural knack for it. And I’ve been thinking to myself, “What if I kept at this for four or five years?”.

What if I started learning how to draw, then how to paint, and steadily kept at it. Wouldn’t it, at some stage, reach a level where it could be professional?

At this point, two dissenting voices will come to light. They will come from family and friends and will go something like this…”He goes to one painting class and now he thinks he can be a professional artist!” Or it will be something like this…”You think it’s too easy, so easy to do it, but you don’t know how hard it is”.

That voice, which comes from a place of doubt, and short-term thinking, is one you do not need to listen to, especially at the beginning. If you are a person who shows discipline, dedication, obsession, adaptability, and a huge appetite for learning and, perhaps more importantly, an appetite for self-learning (and how to do that), then you need to simply disregard that voice.

The second dissenting voice, and this one is more serious, is the voice that says your motivation is wrong. This voice is one I respect much more. What it’s saying is that you shouldn’t automatically think you can just be a professional and think it’s so easy to make money from being an artist or writer or photographer. This voice says you’ve got it backwards. You need to first appreciate the process, before you can enjoy the outcome.

That’s a voice with serious authority. Too much have I seen other writers or journalists, aspiring to make a living from it, not dedicating serious commitment to actually getting better at it. I write, and edit, for a living, and I write for a hobby and in my spare time. Because I love it. And I try to constantly improve. So forgive me if I’m a little skeptical about the aspirations of amateurs.

This is exactly what a professional painter could say to me, with my little dream as an amateur of someday making money from painting. The only way you could disprove that skepticism is by putting in the time. By putting in about seven years or so into learning the craft. Why seven years? Well, I took four years learning the freelance game, but I spent three years previously learning more on my journalism degree. So there’s seven years of experience (not including earlier, perhaps foundational experiences before that) that has led up to this point.

However, I think there’s nothing wrong to have that dream of making money from an art or craft, as long as you respect the process of getting there, and the time and effort needed. For me, that thought is the little fire powering some of that motivation. The motivation of learning how to paint or write. What serious writer doesn’t harbour dreams — along with critical acclaim and crowd adulation — of, if not stupendous riches, at least very comfortable earnings from the work they produce?

If I want to become a professional painter, then I’ll need to commit. See you in about seven years then.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

November 20, 2016 at 4:51 am

Freelancing is lonely — that’s fine, just try to lay down roots wherever you can.

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The life of a freelance writer is categorized by loneliness, but this loneliness pervades all life, to varying degrees. And this depends on how much you feel it in the company of others, and how much you feel it in the company of yourself.

Traveling and staying in various places in Asia solo; waiting at the airport solo; checking into a hotel and staying there solo; eating at a restaurant solo; residing in a cafe solo, is something I’ve done many times. Note that I don’t use the word “alone”. Because I don’t often feel alone when I am traveling.

I often feel free and relaxed, rarely troubled, fixated on the present and the immediate future (“where shall I go to eat now?”). It’s just one of those things you learn about yourself, and that I only really accepted very recently, when I was in Bangkok and Chiang Mai.

You realize that perhaps not needing company is okay.

There have been times in Beijing — my early days — when I was quite alone. It was tough, but not awful.

Sitting now, on my couch, typing this on my laptop that’s propped up on a desk chair, and looking out at my balcony — filled with the bright but cold light of November in Beijing — I feel fine. Healthy. Relaxed. Money is okay. There are things I want, but very little I need. My thoughts always bend to the future (the curse of an overactive mind), but I try to remain in the present and to enjoy it and to appreciate it.