How to be a freelance journalist: Q&A with self-employed writer David Nicholson

A successful freelance journalist for more than 25 years, David Nicholson gives the nitty gritty on being a self-employed writer and how he made his dream a reality...

How did you start out as a freelance journalist?

My career started after I graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge with a degree in English. I spent six months working for The Business of Film magazine as deputy editor and then went freelance, writing about film and other stuff for various magazines and papers. I started calling editors and getting commissions. It helped to have a degree in English from Cambridge and that I already knew quite a few journalists and editors. I now have 25 years of experience editing and writing for newspapers, magazines, websites and corporate literature.

Why did freelancing entice you away from full time work?

The promise of freedom from office life, being recognised for a talent, travelling widely and meeting interesting people. Freelance journalism is an excellent career if you are happy with the insecurity, irregular pay, thinking on your feet. If you relish meeting new people, enjoy travelling, can write extremely well and can persuade editors to commission you. Otherwise it can be difficult, badly paid and miserable.

The diversity of the subjects I cover does help me to stay focused because I don’t get bogged down in repetitive work. Not sure that it helps me stay positive, I think that’s just a natural trait.

What does being a freelance journalist actually mean?

In my case, I accept commissions from publishers, broadcasters and other companies to write news, features, reports and website content, to provide audio, photography and video reports and to act as an editorial consultant.

What skills and experience do you need to make it?

Imagination, persistence, numeracy, IT literacy and an urge to be self-employed and create your own business. Being sociable and adventurous also help. Having some previous experience can persuade editors that you are competent to do the work. The more you know about journalism (and the subject) the more credible you are.

What’s the difference between being contracted and freelancing?

You can be freelance and have various contracts with companies or publishers. It just means that the terms under which you are working are more formal, there are typically clauses detailing what your responsibilities are, how you will be paid and sometimes a non-disclosure agreement.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of using freelance journalists over regular staff?

Freelancers involve less fixed costs such as office rental, PAYE administration, pensions, sick leave etc. They are typically more flexible and have a wider breadth of experience than regular staff. But they are potentially less reliable and harder to pin down, since they are not usually in the office. And they may not be aware of certain issues that regular staff would, such as political sensitivities.

And what about the disadvantages of being freelance?

Financial insecurity, an occasional sense of isolation and sometimes a lower perceived status than some other branches of journalism. 


How do you go about getting work?

In general, I do not sell work. Editors approach me, having found my details online and commission me to work for them. But the experience of discussing work differs from job to job: we negotiate on price, on the amount of research that needs to be done and on the deadline, among other things. They normally provide a brief or else I provide a synopsis of what I propose to do. I never write articles and then try to find an outlet.

Since I have various websites, most of my new work comes through editors and other people finding me or by word of mouth, so it is relatively straightforward. For many journalists, it's a matter of contacting editors, suggesting ideas and agreeing the terms of the commission. For the first 10 years of my career, most of my work came from me proposing ideas to editors. Since the emergence of the internet, most comes from people approaching me. I prefer the latter situation - it’s less stressful and better paid. 

Commissions do differ, depending on what an editor is looking for. Some will ask you to do a lot of research, others just send you material and ask you to use it in the article, while others want you to fly around the world and interview 20 people. And the rate they offer to pay can differ widely.

What type of publications do you work for?

I work on both specialist and general publications, for UK national papers like the Financial Times or the Guardian, international publications like the Wall Street Journal and magazines like Business Week. I also like to take on work in fields where I've no previous knowledge, as a challenge and a way to learn about new things. My work is a mixture of writing regularly for some publications and occasionally for others.


How much freedom are you given by editors when writing?

There is always a certain amount of freedom, but when editors provide guidelines, they are usually helpful rather than restrictive. Generally send a short brief, with perhaps some contact details of people to interview, then let me get on with it. Editors don’t generally supervise writers, although they may email you occasionally to see how you’re getting on. Sometimes they have questions after you’ve written the article and may ask for more information but it’s a pretty hands-off relationship.

What deadlines do you work to?

The average is about a month, so my schedule is quite relaxed. Nevertheless when you have a lot of commissions, you have to rattle them off quickly. I generally write about 500 words an hour, although my record is about 2,000 an hour.


Are there any legal or ethical areas you must be vigilant about as a freelancer?

Personally there are some areas that I don’t touch, such as hacking people’s phones or ambulance chasing – I don’t write for any tabloid papers. Otherwise, it’s important to pay your taxes and write accurate, truthful journalism.

Are freelancers insured while working for recruiting publications or have copyright contracts?

Freelancers can choose to take out insurance, but it’s not obligatory. Copyright is dealt with in UK law, rather than in individual contracts, most of the time.


How do you work out how much to charge as a freelance journalist?

You are able to negotiate prices for selling work depending on the person or organisation commissioning. Sometimes I name my price, sometimes they name theirs, sometimes we negotiate. When negotiating I discuss prospective work on the phone or in person with whoever is commissioning and agree a fee with them. I’m prepared to refuse commissions if they are too badly paid.

In a year I write hundreds of articles, reports, news stories and books. On average at least four or five per week.

Are there certain times of year when work flows more freely?

More new commissions tend to arrive in spring and autumn than in summer and winter. I think this is because these two seasons are good for making plans and looking ahead, whereas people are more preoccupied with holidays in the summer and winter.

How do you manage your finances on your own?

I employ an accountant to submit my annual tax returns; otherwise, I keep up to date records of all my financial affairs, particularly invoices.


Has the market for freelancers become more or less competitive?

I think it has stayed fairly stable, but there are more companies looking for freelance journalists, especially to provide content for their websites. More people are looking for multimedia content, along with new media formats such as blogs, tweets, YouTube videos etc. As far as subjects are concerned, these change according to what sectors are hot. So the internet, healthcare, finance, travel...they all rise and fall.

There is increasing competition through the internet, as commissioning editors can find journalists who are willing to work for low pay. So it’s increasingly important to demonstrate that my work is of high quality and therefore worth the fees I charge. There are lots of changes in the way that journalism is created and consumed at the moment. More of it is online, it is more multi-media, there is more citizen journalism. These are all challenges, but freelance journalists always have to adapt and take on new ways of working, so we are maybe better placed than people on traditional papers and magazines who find it harder to change.


Would you encourage up-coming journalists to pursue a career as a freelance journalist?

If someone has the temperament to work on their own, a thick enough skin to put up with repeated rejections (in the early years) and financial insecurity, an excellent, unique writing style, a nose for original stories and a good business sense, then maybe. It’s a very competitive market and becoming more competitive all the time thanks to the internet, so I’d advise people that it can take several years to make any kind of living. But the rewards can give you tremendous freedom and job satisfaction.

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