How to Become a Freelance Journalist and Build a Killer Portfolio (2023)

How to Become a Freelance Journalist and Build a Killer Portfolio (2)

If you’re wondering how to become a freelance journalist, this is your unabridged handbook on everything from writing a cold pitch to finding knockout stories.

Journalism has gone through some major shapeshifting in the last decade. From the advent of platforms like Medium and Substack — which empowered independent reporters — to the sweeping shift to digital news, the journalism field has been forced to reinvent itself.

The good news is, this has opened up room for freelance journalists to play a more sizable role in the industry.

In this post, I’ll cover my own, very much impromptu journey as a freelance journalist, and share my top tips for those just starting off.

In a heavily bedazzled box at the back of my closet, there’s a pile of my old stuff — middle school yearbooks with sharpie hearts around my crushes, angsty tween fiction books (Massie Block was my hero), and the sort of arts and crafts only a mother could invite into the home.

It’s fair to say most of it is certifiable junk. But there are one or two items that always stand out to me.

One of them is a grade 6 project entitled “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It consists of a folder plastered in magazine cutouts of late 00’s celebrities (think Jamie-Lynne Spears and Vanessa Hudgens) alongside heart-shaped stickers.

Inside, there’s a thick pile of papers that could easily be mistaken for a 25-page graduate thesis. That is, if you didn’t peek at the humongous handwriting within.

The carefully curated mess contains all the reasons why I wanted to become a journalist. And how I’d make it happen.

But, as it does, life happened first: distractions, insecurities, getting a taste for the safety of a desk job.

In all honesty, my path towards journalism was almost decisively disrupted. Until the COVID-19 pandemic hit. A strange rescue no doubt.

But being stuck inside my apartment while listening to news headlines predicting the economic downfall of my entire generation urged me to search for a distraction. So I began using my extra time in quarantine to start freelancing.

My journey was by no means straightforward. But it did teach me countless lessons. In this post, I want to share these with other aspiring freelance journalists.

I’ll discuss common challenges I faced while starting as a freelancer as well as the tips and tricks that got me through them. By the end of this post, you should have a good idea of where to start if you want to become a freelance journalist as well as how to handle the hurdles that may come your way.

Freelance journalism is when a self-employed writer takes on editorial and news reporting assignments for magazines, newspapers, and just about any media publications.

Freelance journalists need to be jacks of many trades. They complete contract work, write commissioned articles or receive a steady flow of regular assignments for news media. They could’ve landed the job by pitching an idea themselves, receiving an assignment or getting a contract through a client.

The latter often happens when you’ve already built a relationship with an editor via freelance pitching.

Freelance journalists can work by the piece, by the hour or by the word — I’ve done all three.

What distinguishes freelance journalists from a classic journalist is their independence from a single company or organization. And as we’ll see, this has certain benefits and disadvantages.

Before we dive into how to become a freelance journalist, it’s important to discuss the skills necessary in the field.

Now don’t roll your eyes and continue scrolling.

Understanding the skills necessary to be a successful freelance journalist won’t just help you prepare for the role. They’ll help you understand what abilities to showcase to employers if you want to continue getting a steady stream of assignments.

Let’s dive in!

1. Courage and ambition

Cheesy? Perhaps. True? Most definitely. As a freelance journalist, your job is to get to the bottom of a story by asking tough questions and finding details that make your piece unique, authentic and reliable. So you’ll need to be bold and prepared to take risks for the sake of a good story.

2. Writing skills

Pretty obvious but grossly understated. Writing ability is about more than just grammar, syntax, style and tone. Although those are crucial as well. As a freelance journalist, you’ll also need to have a knack for narrative and be able to clearly organize ideas in both logical and unique sequences. In addition, your words have to be memorable and scroll-stopping, while avoiding platitudes or run-on sentences.

3. Journalistic integrity

In the era of fake news and media distrust, journalistic integrity may seem like a token statement splotched at the bottom of online articles from seldom trusted news channels. But if You want to be part of the change to that stereotype, then journalistic integrity is a prime skill to master.

Journalistic integrity refers to a set of ethics and standards for journalists. Whether you’re writing an investigative report, a news report, or an affiliate marketing article, it’s essential that you as the author convey information in an honest and ethical way.

Here are some key pillars of journalistic integrity to keep in mind:

  • Obligation to the truth: Every piece that a freelance journalist writes should represent reality and be written with honest intention. This protects the consumer and preserves the integrity of the organization the person is writing for.
  • Independence: In journalism, keeping media independence means that there is no external influence over what information is shared or not shared when reporting facts.
  • Fact-checking before everything: Looking into your source material, only interviewing qualified sources and fact-checking are vital to maintaining the integrity of the pieces you write as a freelance journalist.

4. A knack for storytelling

As an author, you have to have an impeccable knack for weaving narrative and rely on your storytelling skills to captivate the reader. That also means, manipulating the facts of the story in order to maintain the reader’s attention is totally out of the question. As is sensationalizing or stretching the truth.

5. Editing ability

Effective editing goes beyond grammatical improvements. It also means having the careful reading skills and talent to make structural changes to the narrative and find intriguing ways to unravel a story. Journalists who work as part of a staff writing team have the benefit of their work passing through a team of editors before being reviewed by management. Freelance journalists don’t always have this benefit and need to have superb editing skills of their own.

6. Aptitude for self-promotion

As a freelancer, you probably already know the importance of self-promotion. If not, start learning! Self-promotion is the process of marketing your own skills, portfolio, talents and abilities. You’ll have to master social media, attend networking events and seize word of mouth opportunities to connect with other industry professionals. Developing a portfolio and/or website to showcase your best work and describe the services you provide is also a must.

Once you get a hang of the essential skills needed to become a freelance journalist, it’s time to start hustling.

Below, I’ve broken down the 5 steps to consider when starting off as a freelance journalist. While there’s no one-size-fits-all path, these steps will help provide a framework for your strategy. They’ll also help edge you in the right direction if you feel like you’re going off-course.

1. Get a certificate or degree in digital journalism or a related field

Okay, this one may be a bit controversial, so before we proceed, let’s get a few things straight. You do not need to have a degree in Journalism, or even a certificate to get started as a freelancer — I sure didn’t.

As a freelancer, your goal may be to enter the field with the help of a portfolio. Or perhaps, your objective is simply to write as a side hustle without making a commitment to entering the field full-time. In those cases, a degree or certificate is not necessarily the way to go.

That being said, if your goal is to stay in the industry for a long time, taking an accredited program may work to your benefit. And no, you don’t have to go back to school for another four years. There are countless certificate and diploma programs that are equally valuable. Not to mention many of them teach you just as much as a traditional degree but on a flexible part-time schedule.

Alongside colleges, many short-term continuing education programs available through universities will offer a multimedia journalism program. This should be your go-to program as it will demonstrate your readiness to tackle journalism in a tech-driven world.

2. Submit to local publications

Whether you’re in the process of earning a certificate or degree, or decide to forego that route entirely, you’ll need to start submitting your work to publications. If you’re in college or university, your school will almost always have a school newspaper or literary magazine that you can submit to.

On the other hand, if you’re like myself and starting your journey post-grad, you’ll need to do a bit more research and eventually submit a cold pitch. A cold pitch is a short paragraph describing what the article you want to write will be about, why it’s worth covering and how you’ll go about reporting the story.

To find ideas for your pitch, you’ll need to keep track of trends and emerging stories on platforms like Twitter and Reddit.

If you already have a winning idea under your belt, start compiling a list of newspapers or magazines you’d like to submit it to. Make sure to consider the audience of this publication and how your piece will suit their themes, style, and so on.

Once you know where you want to submit, look up the publication’s masthead online. This will be a list of writers and editors working for the publication and details about the section they’re in charge of. Try to find people who oversee segments that are directly relevant to your topic of interest (e.g., if you have a travel story, submit to the culture or travel section).

An email address will usually accompany an editor or writer’s name in the masthead, however, sometimes this is emitted. In this case, try typing the publication’s name alongside “submit pitch” in Google and see what comes up.

You’ll usually find an email dedicated to freelance pitches. However, in some rare cases an email may be hard to find or purposely emitted. While many would say that this is a sign that freelance pitches are not wanted by the publication, my experience has shown me that this isn’t always the case. You may just need to put in a little extra effort.

Try searching the name of the publication on LinkedIn and you’ll get a list of people who currently work there. Try to find the person with a job title that is most relevant to your purpose — i.e., they’re likely to have some say over what goes in the magazine. This includes editors or senior writers — don’t message the intern please. Then, try sending them your freelance pitch. If there’s no response, don’t sweat it. At least you know you’ve exhausted all avenues and will gain some valuable research skills for your next assignment.

3. Start building a portfolio

This is a big one. A portfolio will showcase the work that you’re most proud of as a writer. It gives future employers a taste for your work and the types of freelance writing projects you already have experience in.

Your portfolio should be housed in a digital, and preferably, online channel. This way, you can easily forward a link when you’re sending your freelance pitch to prospective publications.

Try to highlight published pieces from multiple genres, to show employers the entire range of work you’re capable of. It’s also advisable to include links to articles you’ve written that have been published online.

If you don’t yet have a solid amount of published work that you could put into a portfolio, you may want to consider beginning an online blog. This is a great way to give employers a glimpse of your writing style as well as show that you’re able to take initiative in your work.

4. Enhance your writing and research skills

I cannot stress this one enough. Once you get your first client, you’ll start getting busy. Especially if you have a full-time job on the other end. But as easy as it can become to dive into your work and abstain from reading and writing in the after-hours, it’s vital that you continue to strengthen your skills.

I’ve often come across writers who say that after reading and writing countless research documents, writing and reading for themselves is out of the question. I myself am absolutely guilty of this. Some days I feel repulsed by my laptop and the patronizing stack of books on my windowsill that I have to hide them elsewhere.

But reading regularly, writing often and attending lectures or seminars by other writers is vital if you want to succeed as a freelancer.

As your career develops and your portfolio grows, your skills should as well. As a freelancer, it’s going to be your responsibility to work continually on both personal and professional development.

5. Network and self promote

For new freelance journalists, networking and self-promotion is your bread and butter. It means creating video content, regularly updating your web portfolio, making the most of social media and continuously reaching out to others in the field. You’ll also want to join writing communities, attend conferences for writers and reach out to people directly through Linkedin.

Whichever approach you choose, it’s important to remember that you’re actively developing a personal brand. In the long run, you’ll want to have a brand identity with a signature writing style and even brand colours and slogans that instantly remind readers and clients of who you are.

This will be a long-term process, but ultimately, networking and self promotion will help you consolidate your brand as a writer and continue to grow your client base.

Becoming a freelance journalist isn’t a linear journey, but it’s definitely an exciting one. If you’re able to commit to your craft, you can learn a lot — not just about the industry but your own skills and abilities. The important part is to embrace the ups and downs and accept the challenges as part of the learning process.

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Author: Domingo Moore

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