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Last updated: Sept. 16, 2002

Making it as a Freelancer Journalist
Yes, it is possible.

By Sreenath Sreenivasan, Columbia Univ journalism professor and WABC-TV Tech Guru
(writing samples at

These tips and thoughts are garnered from my experience (as a freelancer and an assigning editor), from talking to editors and freelancers and from attending countless panels.

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Top Tips | Pitching | Web sites | Online portfolios | Rates | Reference works | Tools | Notes from 1999 Writers Panel

Top Tips

  • There are lots of assignments out there. You have to know where to look. Thanks to growth in the Internet and the trade press, there are plenty of places that don't want to hire full-time writers. Yes, even in this bad job market.
  • One obvious place is Writer's Market, the "listing of 8,000 editors who buy what you write," from the Writer's Digest folks. Or go to the site of your favorite publication and look for writer's guidelines. There's a bunch online at Writers' Guidelines Database.
  • Join a journalists networking group. There are so many kinds out there for every type of interest; there's at least one for you. Attend meetings, meet editors, meet reporters. Your contacts will be a good source of future assignments. Guaranteed. Here's a list of U.S. journalism organizations: every kind of journalist--travel writers to cat writers to music writers.
  • Create a peronal homepage and an online resume (see below in the online portfolio section). You will save postage costs of mailing clips and stand out from the crowd. Here's a column I wrote on the subject. And here are some tips on setting up a personal Web site and some examples of journalists' sites (add yours there). Nowadays, I just send an e-mail and include my URL:, which has several of my clips and a bio.

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Pitching an Idea

  • Try to learn as much as possible about the style of the publication you are writing for before you send your query. Try to read at least a few recent issues.
  • Be professional with your editors.
  • Use e-mail/fax/snail-mail to make initial contact with them.
  • Nothing worse than cold-calling a busy editor.

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Web sites for Freelancers

Online Portfolios

A well-designed personal Web site is a boon for freelance journalists. It helps separate you from the rest of the pack and is easy for both editors and sources to see your work.


Freelance writing rates vary so much it's hard to keep track... Now that the dot-com boom is over, prices have come down, since there are fewer places to publish. Here are some articles with guidelines:

Reference works--What I have on my desk and use several times a week

  • The Merriam-Webster Instant Speller
  • Random House College Dictionary
  • The Associated Press Stylebook
  • The New York Times Manual of Style & Usage
  • Roget's International Thesaurus
  • The World Almanac
  • Writer's Market 2000

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Tools I use

  • Microsoft Word: of course (but I try not to use attachments)
  • Timelogger: Keep track of tasks and phone calls and billable hours
  • Microsoft Internet Explorer 6.0
  • Web site with stories
    See personal sites of journalists
  • Macromedia Dreamweaver: Web authoring software
  • Photoshop: image editing software
  • Interland/Host Pro site hosting

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Notes from New York Financial Writers Association panel

New York Financial Writers Association
March 22, 1999

Getting that first assignment is the hardest part. After that it can become routine.

More freelancing opportunities out there than ever before.

Technology makes it easier for both editors and freelancers to communicate with each other.

The industry getting more flexible, so needs flexible people.

It is difficult to make a living doing a lot of little pieces--look for bigger stories and bigger assignments with bigger checks.

What editors are looking for:

  • Good, dependable writers, who deliver on time, every time.
  • People who can work on different topics within a field.
  • Long-term relationships with their writers.

International freelancing: Lots of interest in international stories. If you are planning to pack your bags & go overseas for a while, tell some editors where you are going to be. The less journalists there are where you are going, the more likely it is that you can get assignments.

Supervising producer, CNN FN

I know you can make a good living freelancing.
Pays per hour & per diem
Lots of full-time freelancers
Uses a lot of freelance print journalists trying to make the switch
More opportunities for those willing to coming in very early in the morning.
Has positions for entry-level production assistants has need for fill-in copy editors

Best way to make a pitch: snail mail, with follow-up calls

Don't be afraid to be persistent.

Pay: Starts at $20/hr

Deputy Sunday business editor, The New York Times

Because NYT is such a heavily edited paper, handing in your copy is only two-thirds of your work. You may have to do a lot of re-reporting and rewriting, answering questions the editors have.

Always open to new ideas, especially for the 900-word profiles in the Sunday "Money & Business" section.

Prefers what you do is exclusively offered to the NYT first.

Pay $75 - $1,000 for a sunday biz cover story

Senior editor, Journal of Accountancy & a freelancer herself

Needs a lot of freelancers. As long as I can trust your reporting.

Most freelancers don't listen or follow instructions.

Don't get bent out of shape if we edit the heck out of your copy.

We print e-mail addresses. We expect people with the bylines to get their facts right.

Don't pay expenses.

Pays $1 a word

Editor. Barron's Online

Need freelancers on occasion.

Big issue is finding good people

Depend heavily on recommendations from others.

Internet has changed everything

Print& TV will continue to fine

Brevity without sacrificing quality.

News is a commodity online. Add value by providing analysis.

Pays $750 for the 900-word pieces > tips > freelancing tips