Freelance journalism: A leap of faith or plain stupidity?
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Freelance journalism: A leap of faith or plain stupidity?

“Don’t quit your day job,” is the advice I usually give budding freelancers, particularly travel writers. Of course I did it all completely different. But in this case, it’s more a “do as I say not as I do” scenario. Somewhat foolishly, I decided to become a freelance journalist at the tender age of 20 years, armed only with an Australian University Degree in journalism and some newsroom experience. In retrospect it wasn’t the wisest move. But somehow, through dogged single mindedness mostly and a love of my craft, I’ve turned out with some success, I think…
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/>The reality was after three years of being trained to be a news journalist I discovered two things on entering the job market – I didn’t like being told what to write and I didn’t like being in a newsroom with all the competitive urges that often come with journalism. So I left. 
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/>Possibly the skills I acquired at the University of Queensland saved me in the end during the rather tortuous transition into freelancing. Some of these skills included an all pervading sense of ethics and honesty, the need to meet deadlines no matter what (copy was considered late if it was even seconds past the hour hand), the importance of tight and concise writing and the need to develop sources and maintain relationships with them. The rest of course, I learnt on the job as the nature of journalism essentially is that it is a trade. You need the hours on the job to get the work right.
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/>When I left school in Brisbane in 1993, it was considered par for the course that you went to University. It was almost deemed untoward if you weren’t going or seeking to get there. It was a strange era and I was aware of the pressure to have a tertiary degree.
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/>I then spent three, often tedious and hard years, studying about Journalism in Society, the Law and Journalism, Journalism Ethics and the History of Newspaper Reporting. Actually in the beginning it seemed all we did was study mind-numbing subjects about journalism without really practicing it. But it did instill in me a sense of what my profession was about and the issues involved.
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/>For the first 12 months we were only allowed to write hard news stories and had our heads knocked against the wall repeatedly (metaphorically speaking) to cut out every unnecessary word possible until our copy was clear and concise. My dad used to say my work read like someone had left the tap on. After my first year at Uni I’d turned the proverbial tap off. When we were finally allowed to write features I had to learn how to be descriptive all over again but now my copy was both clean and colourful.
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/>By this stage I knew the benefit of developing sources, how to interview, note take and I was ready to go. Third year was almost all practical and we had become efficent writing machines. None of this really had anything to do with freelance travel writing of course but the skills were useful.
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/>Once I had elected to be a freelancer, with no real clear idea about how to go about the process, it all went downhill from there. It was a disaster. For two years I struggled financially. I coached sports, I did wedding photography or portrait jobs, I worked as a PR manager for sports clubs and social justice groups, I even cleaned houses and babysat. Still I barely had enough to pay the rent so in the end, at 21 years, I took off for India, having landed a job there in a school teaching Physical Education – a far cry from the world of journalism.
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/>But during my second year in India, the journalism teacher left and suddenly I was back teaching the very skills I’d learned at uni. Not longer after this I was invited to visit the exotic and relatively unknown land of Bhutan, and realized when I got there that I was having a travel experience people would want to read about. So I studied the format of a few travel articles, wrote a piece and sent the copy to Brisbane News, one of our quality lifestyle magazines. It was the first piece I was ever paid for.
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/>From there, my university skills kicked into gear. I kept note of potential sources for articles, new papers or magazines I could write for and I discovered my love of travel could also help pay for itself. A travel writer was born! From India I went to Nepal, England, Italy and through Europe, into Africa, back to Asia and the Middle East.
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/>It was still a slow process building contacts and getting known by editors. Many didn’t bother to respond to my initial queries or pitches and I often got a single line that largely all read something like, “Thanks for your submission which we are unable to use at this time”. One editor I religiously sent material to for two years, finally deigned to respond to me with the line “please phone me” and listed a number. I was in Europe by this time and rang from a public phone in Italy.
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/>So I guess I was just persistent. I started getting clips together slowly in The AustralianSydney Morning HeraldThe Chicago TribuneThe Sunday Mercury and so on. But when I attempted to become a guidebook writer I hit another hurdle – to write for a guide you needed experience on another. A Catch 22. I met a researcher by chance one day in Italy and we really clicked and she recommended me to her publisher and I was soon covering locations for them in Europe and Asia. We’re still good friends to this day.
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/>Today I’ve been involved in quite a few guidebooks, I continue to work for a number of inflight magazines, as many leading papers as I can and of course Asian Correspondent. I have also delved into humanitarian issues and have re-entered news journalism again to some degree. So what advice would I give to budding freelancers? Yes a degree or journalism course is very useful. The strict, demanding rigour of a three year degree was probably excellent for me in restrospect and has made me the writer I am. But a shorter course, if you already have some skills, could be just as beneficial.
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/>The truth is that freelance journalists don’t need accreditation, they don’t really even need to fulfill any education requirements. There’s no board of licensees assessing your suitability anytime you go for a job. If you perform some kind of malpractice you might never work for that publication again, but there’s nothing stopping you hawking your wares elsewhere. Basically in journalism if you can write or if you know the right people, you get a job. And obviously the more ethical, honest and hard working you are, editor’s come to trust and respect you. So it’s in your interests to get it right anyway.
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/>Having said all that, the university degree I did at the University of Queensland set me on the right path. I probably could have arrived here by another method, but this was the one I took.
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/>Freelancers also need to be dedicated, determined and disciplined in their work practices. That means finishing articles, sticking to a work schedule even from home – my friends know 9am-5pm is work time for me during the week just like anyone else – and keeping up to date with industry practices. That means upgrading computers, cameras and other equipment along with understanding new social media such as blogs and twitter.
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/>If you’re keen on freelancing, drop me a line for advice or just get your pen to paper. The old adage really holds true here – practice makes perfect.