novelist | journalist | istist

How to become a (paid) freelance writer

Not that long ago, a man named Eric, someone I don’t know, e-mailed me asking how to break into the news business.

I’ve worked a great number of jobs in my life so far.

I’ve done everything from attack dog dummy to cook to mechanic to blackjack dealer to vacuum cleaner salesman.

But, this is the only career where other people have asked me how they can do it, too.

I usually get a few queries each year from lost college students, bored retirees, and desperate dreamers hoping to find some easy money churning out news articles.

After all, it’s only journalism. Any chimp with a typewriter can do it.

Right?

I generally tell these would-be writers what my mentor told me when first I called him: you do this job for love because the pay sucks.

OK, I’m paraphrasing. What he told me was much less poetic.

Irregardless, I started off as a wannabe writer who worked his way up from starry-eyed freelancer to full-time stringer to honest-to-goodness staff writer to editor and, finally, to owning my own newspaper; well, half-owner.

There is so much more that goes into becoming a journalist. And, while I would much rather have gone to a journalism school to learn the trade, I do believe a motivated individual who dedicates themselves to the craft can become every bit as good a newsman as them what hails from the land of certificates and degrees.

Anyhow, below is the response I gave Eric.

The one thing I forgot to tell him was to get a copy of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. No writer should ever be without that book.


Eric,

I suggest you do a few things if you are serious about becoming a journalist.

Let me preface the following by saying that, if you’re just looking to make a living, find something else to do.
The hours are long, the money is crap, and people hate you even when you’re doing your job the right way.

Now, if you love news and want to serve your community by providing them with unbiased and important information, then this is the way to go.

As one who learned the news business on the streets, I can only tell you what I did to go from unpublished writer to newspaper owner.

  • Read every news article—not regurgitated opinion blogs—you can get your hands on. The best journalism still lives on the printed page and with major news outlets like The New York Times, Washington Post, regardless of popular propaganda.
  • Get a copy of the AP Style Manual. It contains all the rules journalists must follow as it pertains to news style. It will tell you how to write your time/date/place. It will tell you why you hyphenate certain words but not others. It also contains sections on libel, which are important if you wish to avoid being sued.
  • Read the book from cover to cover three times. You’ll read it many more but it takes about three times to start to get an idea of what you need to do.
  • Write! Write! Write! You must be able to put forth cogent thoughts into succinct sentences in order for your readers to understand the material you are covering. I thought I could write when I first started wanting to become a journalist way back when. I had some natural talent and a knack for wordsmithing but I was nowhere near where I needed to be.
  • Find a small community newspaper or a local entertainment rag and ask them if they need any feature stories written. They’re always hurting for contributors. And, while you probably won’t, and shouldn’t, get paid until you’ve got your chops down, it is invaluable practice.

I suggest finding some popular local event and pitching to a local editor that you would like to cover it for them. Most towns have a winter fest or the like. I’m sure you do, too.

Be sure to pick an event that is three or four weeks away so you have time to write and rewrite the material, and because getting hold of interviewees can sometimes take awhile for new reporters who are unknown to officials.

Writing the story

  1. Call several people involved with the event.
  2. Find out the time/date/place of the event.
  3. Ask them what the event entails: is there live music? Who will be playing? Is there food? Is it free? Is there a charge? Who is this event for? What is this event official’s favorite part of the event? etc.

Follow the basic news style of writing a story:

  1. Lede – An interesting sentence to grab the reader’s attention
  2. A paragraph giving more information about the event
  3. A quote from an event official about the event
  4. Intersperse the rest of the information throughout the rest of the story with quotes from others you talked to.
  5. Include information like phone numbers, website addresses, e-mails where people can get more information.
  6. Ask the editor, once he accepts your story, to go over it with you to show you what you did right and wrong—this is an invaluable learning experience.

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