Pitch, research, interview, write, file, edit, repeat: The joys and challenges of freelance writing
Updated: Apr 3
It all starts with an idea. Something you have stumbled upon. A story you think would be interesting to write - and not least read.
I have been doing freelance writing for 3 years now and I've been lucky enough to find editors who are willing to publish my work. I write about life. It's as simple as that. I'm not a trained journalist and for various reasons (while living in China) I don't want to get into politics. But life. That appeals to everyone I think? I cover things such as wellness and fitness, traditions, interesting communities, travel and features about extraordinary people. But how do you keep the momentum going, the motivation up and new ideas coming when you're your own boss and no-one is forcing you to write?
It's not always easy. But if you're interested in getting into freelancing, here are some tips that might help:
Always be on the lookout for stories
Most people have an interesting story to tell. I have used friends as sources for many of my stories. Penny in the "case study" below is a good example.
Don't be shy to pitch
If you have a good story that you believe in, don't be shy to pitch it to editors. And should the first one not be interested - send it to someone else (see below for more tips on pitching)
Work hard on self-discipline (easier said than done)
My phone is right there, ah I forgot to write down this appointment in my clalendar, oh, I feel like making myself a cup of tea, let me quickly check those flight tickets, what a beautiful day - maybe I should go for a walk, did you say lunch with the girls? I'm in! Distractions, distractions, distractions. This is definitely the area where I struggle the most and I have therefore decided to start a coaching programme where I hope to get more structure to my everyday life as a freelancer - and get my priorities straight.
Make sure you have good quality pictures
A photo speaks louder than a thousand words - and many publications require that you submit high-resolution pictures together with your story. It is therefore one of the first things I ask my sources about. In the case of Taiwanese chocolatier Warren Hsu whom I recently portrayed, I was lucky enough to receive a large selection of pictures and the photo editor was spoilt for choice. When I wrote about amputee athlete Roberto Zanda, I interviewed him in person in Italy and took the pictures myself - using simply my iPhone 8 (portrait mode). I have had the pleasure of working with SCMP photographers on a couple of occasions and Simon Song took the pictures of the wonderful Beijing drag queens.
Remember the reward: seeing your name on print/online - and getting paid
Getting paid for your work is definitely nice! But if you're just starting out, it might be a good idea to start off by doing something for free - in order to simply gather experience. When I pitched my very first article to a Beijing magazine in 2016, I said to the editor "this one will be for free - if you like it you'll pay me next time".
Behind every article lies so much work and I must admit that I get a kick out of seeing my name on print/online! I keep all my printed articles and have promised myself to make a scrap book someday.
Ayahuasca in Asia: an article comes to life
My article about the amazonian hallucinogenic brew Ayahuasca was published by South China Morning Post on 12 March 2019. If you would like to read it before I tell you how it "came to life", here is the link.
1. The idea
I first heard about ayahuasca through a Danish TV documentary a few years ago. When a Beijing based friend, Penny, told me that she had tried it in Peru and that she had some wild hallucinations and a violent physical reaction from it, I became intrigued and asked her if she would be interested in featuring in an article. She was - so on to the next step.
2. The pitch
Pitching is when you...well pitch your idea to the editor. Your pitch needs to be as elaborate as possible - although some pitches are further developed together with the editor if he/she likes the overall idea. In the case of my ayahuasca piece, the editor liked the idea but requested that I find an Asian angle to the story - since it was for a major Hong Kong paper.
I knew that Ayahuasca is illegal in Asia but I started researching to find out whether there are ceremonies taking place anywhere in this part of the world. I came across a blogger called Lee Walpole. He had participated in an "underground" ayahuasca ceremony in Thailand - and I decided to contact him.
Walpole was the first person I interviewed (I usually interview my sources over Skype or WeChat). His story was interesting and I immediately envisaged one of his quotes as the opener of my article.
Then it was Penny's turn. She was amazing and was very keen to help me and put me in touch with people who might want to participate.
One of the sources I got through Penny was a certain Don Roberto. He turned out to be a larger-than-life character - and a shaman who has led several ceremonies in Asia. He became a fundamental source for this story - and for my Asian angle. Penny also put me in touch with Diana. An aspiring shaman who is currently living in isolation in the Peruvian jungle for her training. I sent my questions by email to Diana as she had little internet access at the time.
It was now time to put all my notes together and start writing. I knew that I had 1400 words at my disposal and that I wanted to try and get something from all my sources in there in order to tell the ayahuasca story from different perspectives . The writing took several days, Partly because I was busy with other things at the same time, partly because that famous self-discipline was nowhere to be found.
5. Send to sources
I know that not all writers send their draft articles to their sources but I prefer to do it for 2 reasons:
1. Out of courtesy. They have contributed a lot after all!
2. To avoid trouble! If, for example, I misquote a source, I like to discover that before the final piece is published.
I usually have very little time between sending the piece to the sources and my deadline. So it's often a "speak now or forever hold your peace" situation :-)
When I file (send the article to the editor) there is always a certain sense of relief. You feel happy that you've produced a good piece of work.
But the relief doesn't always last long. Soon, there will be questions and comments from the editor ticking in. It can be anything from clarification of names, facts or photo captions to being requested to re-write certain passages or have more of this and less of that. The editing process (with rather frequent exchanges of emails between myself and the editor) usually takes about a week .
Publication day is always an exciting yet sometimes nerve wrecking day. I recently had a rather negative experience about one of the pieces I had been most passionate about and which had taken me ages to write. I don't usually choose the headline myself and an online editor chose a somewhat controversial headline which I felt didn't catch the essence of the article. At the end of the day, it's your name that's on the article so it is very frustrating when the title is beyond your control and you cannot change it.
On to the next idea. Have you heard a good story or met someone interesting? Get pitching :-)