Top tips from How to freelance in a digital age

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On the panel were:

Lisa Smorsarski, the award-winning editor of Stylist magazine and current PPA editor of the year

Jo Hunter, group digital editor at Cedar, which creates consumer print and online content for companies, including Tesco and BA

Joanna Moorhead, who contributes to the Guardian and Mumsnet and runs freelance writing courses

David Nicholson, founder of, an online team of freelances.

The session was chaired by Gill Hudson, editor of Reader’s Digest.


How to maximize your chance of a commission


– tailor your material to different deadlines. Even titles with long lead times now have the option to take fast-breaking stories on their websites

– focus on what can you offer that no-one else can

– make sure your ideas deliver on three key measures: why this, why now, and why this publication/website?

– be passionate/knowledgeable; if you’re not excited by a subject you’ll never enthuse someone else

– email then follow up with phone call. It’s all down to good relationships, and personal contact is much better than being at one remove…

– …but don’t pester. Teams are much smaller these days, working with tighter budgets, and are under a lot of pressure

– tap into the news agenda; make your story relevant.

– be nice! Be polite! Don’t vent on social media! The editor is always right (even if they’re not…)

– make sure you get to the right person; call the editorial assistant and check who to send what kind of material to. Put your subject header and a short sell in the header line – editors get hundreds of emails so get your idea across fast

– if an idea gets turned down, sometimes just a little twist can turn it into a usable story for someone else

– never write a piece first; never pay for video upfront. Remember that it’s a collaborative process and editors will want to have input

– agree the fee upfront. Women are particularly bad about raising the subject of payment. Send your invoice in with the completed work, and be prepared to chase up payments.

– compare your rates with those on the NUJ website, which lists what others have been paid for different size publications. Rates are extremely varied across the industry so factor in how easy a piece would be to write

– specialists tend to get slightly higher rates

– online tends to pay less, but does still pay. Formats like “Top 5s” are of more interest than long-form journalism

– but don’t think you can just put any old content up online. Stats will tell the media owner exactly how well read your piece has been


Should you ever write for free?


Preferably not. But sometimes it’s worth it – eg to get a lot of exposure, or to prove your worth on a one-off basis to a title who might otherwise be reluctant to give you a go, and can’t afford to waste money on a non-starter. And a good link can pay dividends.


Exploiting social media


– Google can sometimes do the job for more established writers with lots of cuttings, but otherwise you have to have a website (DN used and for his). It’s a world of brands out there, and you need to be one too. Be clear about what you can offer and showcase it on your website, including examples of your work. Editors need to get a sense of your natural tone/personality

– be prepared to work at it. Building a Twitter following takes a lot of time – broadcasting your own ideas, retweeting and following people in your field. Companies/web teams are interested in using people with big Twitter/Facebook/blog followings as they can benefit from the associated coverage

– a lot of work opportunities now lie with companies/brands outside the traditional publishing model, who are looking for good-quality SEO content to drive traffic to their websites – effectively becoming publishers themselves.

– use tools like Google Insight or Google Adwords to help SEO

(DN spent £5k on SEO-ing his site – but it brought in over £100k of work).

– content remains king: do you have a compelling story? The secret is then making it fit the right platform – don’t put the platform first

– the basic journalism skills haven’t changed but now you need more of a portfolio career, and to keep evolving your personal brand.

– The more strings to your bow, the easier life will be. Social media changes the dynamic – you can be approached for work rather than always having to do the pitching

– print isn’t dead, but the emphasis is shifting to content provision. But improvements in in-house and 3D printing could make print more central again at some point.