Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘what it’s like being a freelance journalist

The secret anxiety of being a freelancer

leave a comment »

I am not the world’s most prolific freelance journalist. I tend to report and write fairly slowly. I don’t pitch all that often and I’m not insanely busy with assignments. These are all great faults that I need to improve. And yet even with this somewhat leisurely state of affairs I find myself feeling stressed, anxious and under pressure.

This boils down to one thing and something perhaps unique to the freelance trade. And that’s you always feel like you should be doing more. 

I find myself constantly worrying about story ideas, about the fact I haven’t written enough pitches, or that I haven’t pitched enough, or about new ideas. In bed, at cafes, at diners, my mind is abuzz with activity, always whirring, constantly active. A lot of the time it’s cycling through trivial, arcane bits of matter, pop cultural references and connections, things people said and the songs that are for some reason stuck.

And yet this constant activity is conducive to making the sorts of connections and curiosity that can be a freelance journalist’s source of power: that ability to generate story ideas that people have not yet identified previously.

But it can be tough on your sanity to be living with such an always-on state of mind. I know other, better, more experienced, more meticulous freelancers will be more organized and have routines that best manages their workflow. I guess I still need to fumble and reach toward that ideal.

April. It’s a transitional month. It’s still fairly cold at night here and the days are sometimes warm enough for a light jumper. But it’s windy and everyone is expecting real warmth to arrive. I feel April should be the month you spend, if you’re a freelance, on those tasks, some of which may be leftover from the previous year, that are important but not urgent.

Any creative will have those ‘just-started’ or ‘half-finished-but-haven’t-looked-at-it-for-months’ projects that they know are important. Even if it’s just something they want to produce, create, get out into the world, they know it’s important to finish such projects because the value of these things can be great.

I’ve been working on an essay (nonfiction memoir) for a while now and I have no idea if it’s even halfway complete, but I know that once it is complete it may be worth more than those urgent journalism pieces. Why? Because it’ll capture something important for me personally, and for others it may be a piece of writing that leaves a more memorable and longer lasting impression than a news report. But I hope the anxiety of living, working, doesn’t leave me bereft.

Advertisements

4 awesome things about being a freelance journalist and 4 terrible downsides

with 6 comments

20140831_185258

The Awesome 

The freedom

Go to North Korea? Sure, why not. Write about entrepreneurs in China just because it interests you and you might learn something and get paid for it? Of course, yes! So take a 20 day trip to Thailand. Take a break. Think about things you want to do, the “bucket list” kinda stuff. Do them. Write about them. Get published; get paid.

The variety

Here are the five most recent articles I’ve had published:

The ability to live vicariously

From doing journalism, I’ve learnt that it’s possible to move abroad to a foreign country and in two years start and sell off a business. I know it’s possible to live on a farm in Wales and just make videogames for a living. I know what it’s like being a tour guide in North Korea. How tough and incredible it is being a British charity worker in Burma. What it’s like to travel southeast Asia first as a freelancer, then as a correspondent. The methods and tactics of how to catapult yourself into becoming a media brand and a TV chef in China. I know all of that simply because I have a good enough reason to search someone out and talk to them.

The ability to give it all up should you want

‘Cause maybe one day you’ll want the opportunity to work in a normal environment. Those jobs don’t come for free though, so you’ll have to be eagle-eyed and work hard at making sure you’re so good they can’t ignore you.

The downsides

The bittiness

A piece there, a feature here, a report there. Freelancing can be piecemeal work and can sometimes leave you frustrated. Where’s my opus? you wonder. Where’s the work that I’ll be known for or at least acclaimed for in the short term? Staff writers have a greater chance of becoming known, to be appreciated and perhaps find fulfillment. But to be honest, the antidote is to start writing books. That’s the ambition, always.

The small-time salaries

It is possible to make a decent salary from freelancing alone, although you’re just as likely to see a shooting star in the morning. I’ve copped out a little bit by having another job which makes me about 40% more than what I earn from freelancing. This gives me leverage in what I want to write about: the freedom. But unless you have a very diversified freelance portfolio, are very productive or a star writer then it’s quite hard to be a wealthy freelance journalist.

The seeming lack of progression

If you work at a newspaper, progression is more obvious. The editor starts you off writing short pieces, nibs, round-ups, before giving you meatier reporting gigs, and then you become better known and start writing weighty features. When you’re freelance, progression is less clear. How do you move up as a freelancer? It’s a question I’m trying to answer. I’ll let you know when I’ve found it.

The overabundance of freedom

If you’re going to be a successful freelance journalist you’d better make damn sure that you’re organized, diligent and disciplined, independent and in possession of a giant’s store of initiative. For every well-chosen break or indulgent stroll in the park you should be working on the weekend pushing out that article or making plans in your “free time” to meet up with sources and always, always trying to make new contacts and rooting out possible stories.

The Key to a Successful Freelance Life Abroad: A Diary

leave a comment »

IMG_0331

Photo may not resemble reality.

7.40am

The key to a successful freelance life abroad is to get another job. I get woken up by the alarm at this hour to commute to The Day Job. I need to pay the bills, for dinners and frequent travel.

But seriously, unless you’ve got various regular clients and have the energy to freelance all the time, another job helps to relieve the stress. Don’t worry, I freelance a lot too – for stuff I care about, not just for financial survival. That’s the benefit of having a safe, reliable income until you’re a big famous writer.

8.30am

I usually dismiss the alarm and sleep more. The Day Job doesn’t mind that I come in late.

9.15am

Get on the subway, it’s pretty crammed. Here I usually use The Guardian news app on my phone to read articles offline. It’s the start to my reading and I read a lot. It helps you come up with ideas if you read half the internet every day. In your journalism field of interest obviously, not internet fluff about boners and 21 Things You Need To Know Before You’re 25.

9.30am

While holding the subway rail and trying not to make too many eyes at the pretty subway girl in the corner, a half-formed idea comes to me. It might not go anywhere, but I note it down on my phone’s notes app. It could be half a sentence. Whatever. Ideas are the reason for your existence as a freelancer abroad.

10.00am

Swipe into the office, which is a TV station with studios, editing computers, banks of TV screens, a make-up room and a canteen that serves, in the vivid parlance of a colleague, “toilet water”. It is free toilet water though and honestly the food isn’t that bad. Anyway, here the work at The Day Job begins. I turn on the computer and log on to my favourite blogs, check my email and read my regular websites. I’m numb to the world as I fall into a content black hole.

10.35am

I am awoken from my reading coma – “Did you receive the script I sent you?”, a colleague asks. This is the bulk of my job at the TV station; editing and writing scripts for presenters and voice-overs. It is not overly taxing or time-consuming, leaving plenty of time for reading interesting stuff, thinking about pitches and, when it’s extra quiet, writing freelance articles and blog posts. Oh, and the pay is good.

11.30am

Go for a brief walk around the office. Idly flirt, snoop on what people are working on, avoid the boss. Chat to my American co-workers who are the loudest people in the office. A good walk is vital to oil the ideas and half-thoughts bubbling away in the soup of your mind. You never know when something good will rise up out of the slime.

12.30pm

Go for lunch. The dilemma everyday: eat bad canteen food for free, OR, eat better food not for free?

1.30pm

Decided on not-free noodles today. Tasty. Back in the lobby of the day job building. Walk around and practice Chinese with the office girls. Listen to the Aussie rant about his Chinese co-workers. Drink some coffee.

2pm

Take a nap.

2.30pm

If you’re going to be a successful freelancer abroad, then you’d better learn how to pitch. And know when 9am is in the country of the publication to which you intend to pitch. I assume that’s when emails are first checked. Editors: feel free to tell me what exact time you check your emails!

A good pitch should be confident, concise and have a few vivid details. A strong pitch should be easily imaginable.

3pm

Go and record a voice-over about Chinese models working in Beijing for the day job. While I’m reading it over I think “hmm, I wonder what it’s like being a model here?” BOOM! An idea, an angle. Stories are everywhere if you just observe the curious parts of any subject. Some of the stories I’m currently developing:

The dangers of eating spicy food

Why young foreign architects are heading to China

Education in China – how is it changing?

4pm

This week I’ve sent five pitches to three editors from two publications. It helps if you know more than one editor at one place. Sometimes I will stud an email with mini-pitches, little pitchlets, if it’s an introductory email. Or I will surround a pitch I think has the best chance of commission with other pitches to lessen the chance that all of them will be rejected.

5pm

By this time I’ve usually sent out my pitches to the UK editors. The US ones will still be asleep. I will have also edited several scripts and recorded some voice-overs for the TV shows we work on in the office.

6pm

Clock off, swipe out of The Day Job.

6-9pm

Eat dinner. Head to bar, drink.

10pm

Get home, read more. Hear back from one of the UK editors I pitched earlier. Send pitches to the US editors. Work on this blog post. Stream a TV show. Start to feel sleepy. Have a brainwave and wake up reaching for my phone. Type an idea into it.

*

This post is indebted to Sarah Hepola.