Christina Frangou on freelancing
One of the best shares her advice
Subscriber reaction to my advice for young journalism colleagues was so positive I decided to keep the series going. My first task was to find people who know more than I do about important things. Of course one of my first calls went to Christina Frangou. I was so happy to get this formidable Calgary-based writer to write for Maclean’s; she promptly won a Gold and a Silver National Magazine Award for her feature writing. This week she won the 2022 Landsberg Award from the Canadian Journalism Foundation and the Canadian Women’s Foundation. Here’s her advice on succeeding as a freelancer, the best such counsel I’ve seen. Christina and all other occasional contributors to this newsletter will be properly paid, thanks to my subscribers. - pw
I’m flattered to be Paul’s inaugural guest writer here at To the Trade. Paul and I worked together eons ago at long-gone Southam News where I was an editorial assistant and he was the youngster columnist who could opine brilliantly on pretty much everything.
In 2001, I started freelancing to make extra money for grad school. I sort of eased into it as a part-time gig — the idea of full-time freelancing was terrifying. To be a freelancer means you’re running your own business and you’re doing so in an industry where businesses often fail. Twenty-plus years later, I’m still freelancing and for most of those years, I’ve been at it full-time. This past May, during a panel at the Canadian Association of Journalists conference, I was asked why I like being a freelancer. The answer is easy: autonomy. I have control over where and when I want to work, and what stories I choose to write.
It's hard to make a living as a freelance journalist, but there have never been so many ways you can make money as a freelance journalist. The opportunities exist; the challenge is finding the sweet spot where you are earning enough to continue while having a life outside of work. You’ve got to answer a few questions for yourself: What do you want to write about? Who do you want to write for? What kind of hours do you want to put in? And how much do you want to make?
I talk to a lot of freelancers and would-be freelancers about how to survive in this industry. These are my best tips for life as a freelance journalist.
1.You’ll have labours of love and labours of income. They’re both important.
It’s easy to get caught up in the kind of writing you enjoy the most. For me, that’s long-form feature writing. For others, it’s travel or food writing. But these aren’t always the most lucrative assignments.
The labours of income often subsidize the labours of love. That’s how I look at it. For side gigs, I do a lot of writing and editing for scientists and physicians, and some of it is super technical. It’s steady, interesting work that helps support me through the ups-and-downs of feature writing. Another advantage is that it’s not as emotionally laborious as feature writing. When I close a long feature, I’m usually pretty tapped out. So it’s nice to have something else to fall back on as I gear up for the next big feature.
2. Figure out how much you need to make per month and doggedly pursue that goal.
I can’t remember who said this to me but the most important gift a writer can give themselves is financial stability. For me, that means making sure I earn enough every month to pay down my mortgage, cover my living expenses and put some aside.
It's challenging to think about monthly income when you’re focused on feature writing because long stories don’t happen on a monthly schedule. They’ll often span three to six months, with bursts of work and bits of downtime. Payment for these big assignments can be significant (relative to the rest of journalism), but very delayed: Some organizations pay 60 days after acceptance or on publication, and that’s after you’ve spent months working on something. I try to find smaller assignments to fit in at the same time as large features. Even better, these smaller assignments will pay on a speedier schedule. That ensures some money coming in every month while these pieces are in the works. My calculations don’t always work out perfectly, but I’m generally pretty close. In other words, don’t think just assignment by assignment, but look at your workload in terms of a monthly or quarterly income goal.
3. This is your job. Treat it as such.
Freelancer Jen A. Miller calls this the “no, I can’t pick you up at the airport” rule. Generally, people who don’t freelance will assume that you can and will bend to their schedule because your hours can be flexible. After all, you don’t really have a job. They are wrong. Set your hours and stick to them.
4. Find a niche.
A few years ago, while prepping for a workshop I was teaching on the business of writing, I asked editors why they choose to work with freelancers. The answer I heard most often was that they’re looking for expertise, especially for stories about complex subjects. They want writers they trust to deliver on time and who have a deep understanding of the subject. Freelancers benefit from having specialization on subjects like health or business or even true crime—subjects that are difficult to just dive into. These specialty areas are where the market for the written word (as well as podcasts and film) is growing. There are loads of trade publications focused on subjects within business and medicine, and these organizations generally pay better than general interest magazines and newspapers. Trade publications are wonderful places to learn your craft; the editors here know these subjects inside and out. Other potential clients in these specialties are business owners or health professionals who want a professional writer to help craft their message.
5. Think of every pitch and every story as a job interview.
You want editors to ask you to write for them again. So: File on time. Be organized. Be reliable. Be honest with your editor about challenges that arise in the reporting. If you think you’ll need an extension, ask for it as soon as possible.
Remember that you’re interviewing editors, too. You don’t want to write for someone who treats you poorly. For me, I want to write for editors who are supportive, who commission stories that excite me and challenge me, and who are clear about what they want in a story. I want to write for editors who will go to bat for me to be paid on time. I highlight that because payment delays are not uncommon in this industry and any editor who is nonchalant about delayed payments to writers is not someone I want to write for. I’m reluctant to write for editors and publications where scope creep is an issue. If someone commissions a story at $700 and asks for 1,000 words but then upgrades to 2,000 words in a second draft, they should pay a higher rate than outlined in the original contract. They should be willing to have discussions about higher pay. I just had an editor ask me to nearly double the length of a story on second draft, and she immediately increased my fee accordingly. I will write for her forever.
6. Build your network of writers.
This is advice borrowed from my friend, The Globe and Mail’s Jana Pruden. Jana isn’t a freelancer, but she’s one hell of a writer and the ultimate community builder so she’s earned honorary freelance status in my mind. Your writer community will help get you over all the bumps in the road. They’ll talk to you about your story ideas and help you figure out where to pitch. These are the people who will read your early drafts and tell you where to find the documents you need. They’ll know the answers to questions about the business side of freelancing. And they’ll put your name forward for assignments that they’re unavailable for. In trade, you must show up for them. Give them support, cheer on their successes and be their sounding board. I got some of my biggest stories because someone recommended me to an editor in need of a writer.
7. Set out to learn everything you can about journalism and freelancing.
There is no perfect in this industry. You need to keep getting better. I go to one journalism conference a year with a dear friend, also a freelancer. We’ve gone to the Canadian Association of Journalists conference and the Power of Narrative in Boston. We split hotel costs, which is the only way I can afford to do these conferences. We both come back recharged with new ideas and connections. I wish I’d been more diligent about conferencing and networking for the first ten years of freelancing.
You don’t need to spend the money on going to a conference either. There are exceptional resources available online for free: for instance, freelancer extraordinaire Katherine Laidlaw recommends the Longform podcast. And at a reasonable cost, Edmonton wunderkind Omar Mouallem offers courses at Pandemic University’s Pop-Up School of Writing with top-notch instructors who get into the nuts and bolts of writing. (I think I’ll be teaching there again this fall! Details to come.)
8. Read. Read. Read.
The more you read, the better you’ll write. Practice x-ray reading of stories and books. Keep a file of your favourite ledes and kickers. Take notes on structure. Read stories aloud. Follow writers you admire on social media; sometimes, they’ll give you a look under the hood of their stories, or they’ll give virtual talks that you can attend. Find old stories that are new to you. I’m a huge fan of used bookstores where I can sometimes find brilliant anthologies like The Stories We Tell. I’ve read this one so many times that the pages are falling out.
Read, read, read and then read some more. Here are few of my tried-and-true recommendations for freelance journalists:
• The Open Notebook (*The website is great but buy the book, too. Even though the book is intended for science journalists, it’s a goldmine for freelancing tips.)
• The Writers’ Union of Canada’s Tax Guide for Writers (it’s the best $9.99 a Canadian freelance writer can spend)
• Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo (and all of her magazine and newspaper stories!)