Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘getting commissioned in journalism

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

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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

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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.

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