Better now than it used to be: freelancing in Canada
by Tannara Yelland
Freelancing full-time is a kind of uncertain work advisable for only serious risk-takers. Your pay is never assured. You’re at the mercy of editors who may have more pressing concerns than responding to pitches. Once you have something accepted and printed, pay can take weeks or months to get to you. It’s a grim world out there.
Unfortunately for the risk-averse but journalism-minded, freelancing is one of the only openings in Canadian journalism these days. Fortunately for those looking to get into freelancing or improve their game, the Ryerson Journalism Alumni Association hosted a panel called Freelance: How to do it right at the Bond Place Hotel in Toronto last Thursday evening.
Lauren McKeon, freelance writer and editor of This Magazine; full-time freelancer John Lorinc, whose work appears regularly in The Globe and Mail, This Magazine and Spacing; and Canadian Writers Group founder Derek Finkle, also the first intern at Toronto Life and former editor of Toro Magazine, addressed a rapt audience as they discussed their struggles with and knowledge of freelance writing.
It’s certainly not all doom and gloom for freelancers, according to the panelists.
“I think things are actually better now than they used to be,” Lorinc told the audience. “In Toronto we’ve got lots of media, you’ve got lots of corporate clients, so once you’re established, it’s easy to get momentum and keep going.”
While Lorinc, McKeon and Finkle each had their own take on how best to succeed in freelancing, a few pieces of key advice came up consistently…
• Just start doing it. There’s no interview for freelancers, no entry exam, no way to get work unless you start sending out queries. Come up with some solid ideas, figure out where to send them, and send off your first pitches. Make sure your pitches are properly suited to the publications you’re pitching, and that they haven’t recently published anything similar recently. Figure out which editor you should be contacting (it’s not always the person at the top of the masthead) so you don’t waste everyone’s time, including your own.
• Cultivate relationships with the editors who accept your pitches. This will come in handy for future work, both because they’ll be more likely to accept your pitches and because this is part of the all-powerful tactic of networking. If an editor doesn’t accept one pitch, be persistent: tell them you’ll get back to them with some more ideas a few days later (and then do that).
• Do a variety of things. Develop some ideas for long-form essays, because those are rewarding to write and pay quite well; but do plenty of short posts for online outlets and newspapers that pay quickly and well for the time you spend on them. Finkle said most of the successful freelancers he knows do a lot of shorter pieces that may not pay particularly well but also don’t take much time to create. “And a lot of people who do that, there’s a bit of a grind element to that. You’ve got to keep doing it over and over and over and over.”
• Even if it’s not your preference, look into business journalism and corporate writing as well: they’re a great way to pay the bills. “Storytelling is becoming such a valued skill,” McKeon said of corporate writing. “People understand, in the business world or report-writing world, grant-writing, that stories are what connect us to people. It might be that you’re telling that story on behalf of a brand, but you can also believe in what you’re doing and find value in it.”
• Be dedicated! Persistence truly is one of the most important skills any journalist can develop. “If you pitch and you get a ‘no,’” Lorinc told the crowd, “say, ‘Okay, I’m going to come up with another idea.’ And then in a couple days, send them another idea.” Likewise, if an editor seems interested in your pitch but rejects it, try reworking it from a different angle and sending it back in. As Lorinc also said, “No doesn’t always mean no.”
• Develop self-discipline.Working on your own, free of coworkers and bosses to keep you on-task, takes serious self-discipline. Whether you’re in a coffee shop, your home, or a co-working space, staying focused and dedicated is an absolute requirement for any freelancer. You’ll also need to be dedicated to getting paid. Unfortunately, getting the cash you’ve already earned is sometimes more difficult than sending in a properly formatted invoice. Be prepared to stay in contact with editors whose publications haven’t paid you.
• Get an accountant who works with freelancers. This piece of advice came up toward the end of the evening in response to an audience question, but the panelists were emphatic. An accountant experienced with freelancers’ finances will be invaluable in helping you write off everything you can, and in helping navigate your taxes.
Tannara Yelland is a Toronto-based writer and the editor of The Albatross.