6 Tips for Freelance Writers in Richmond

You can’t make a living as a freelance journalist in Richmond — at least for the long haul.

How do I know? Because I’ve been on both sides of the business — selling freelance work and hiring freelancers — for more than 20 years. I can’t name a single person in Richmond who’s consistently paid the bills and made a career solely from writing freelance stories for local media outlets.

If you’re a freelancer, you’ve seen firsthand how tough it is to land a byline in Virginia’s capital, even if there seems to be an abundance of media. The right editors can be difficult to reach at the right time, resources are tight, opportunities seem elusive and competition is heavy.

But don’t dump out your coffee and close your MacBook yet. If you’re looking to gain experience, hone your craft, build a portfolio of stories and perhaps find your way to a part-time or full-time position, you can do it. Here are some ways aspiring freelance writers can stand out:

1. Recognize Your Value.

Didn’t I just say that you can’t make a living at this for long? Yes. But that doesn’t mean you don’t bring value to the table.

Maybe it’s a fresh perspective or personal background. Through the years, much discussion has centered on how to diversify the talent that appears on local pages and websites. This should encourage writers who can bring new voices to the table.

Recently, Samantha Willis, the arts and culture editor of Richmond magazine, made a concerted effort in a Facebook post seeking “talented Richmond-area writers of color, who turn in clean copy, meet deadlines, respond to editors in a timely fashion and pitch their own ideas.” Other outlets have made efforts to find talent outside of traditional channels, and beyond established networks. Success has varied.

Richmond newsrooms should seek you out, and if they aren’t, it’s to their detriment (a subject worth its own blog post). But you also can help them find you by using some of these tips. Break through their traditional talent pool and open their eyes to what you can add to their journalism. If they don’t see it, someone else will.

Beyond your background and perspective, maybe you have unique qualifications or technical experience in a field where readers would benefit from your expertise. Maybe you’re a veteran journalist looking for a new way to express yourself. Maybe you offer innovative ideas — or made the most of an opportunity that gives you a competitive advantage.

All of that is worth something. Sure, there’s value in getting your name out there and gaining experience in exchange for lower rates when you’re starting out. Maybe it’s an internship, or agreeing to smaller, trial assignments. My first full-time reporting position in Richmond didn’t even top $12,000 — yes, you read that right.

But be cautious about giving the work away.

In my last year as an editor at Style Weekly, a young photojournalist contacted me about a photo he’d taken at a news event. He realized that no other Richmond photojournalists were there, and that Style might want to use the picture. Yes, we did. I replied to his email ready to pay him for the photo. Unfortunately, he’d already offered it to several local outlets. Some wanted to use it, and he was so eager that he gave it to them for nothing.

Surprise: Those outlets took advantage of his offer. To his credit he thought it was unfair to make another outlet pay if some were getting it free. So he ended up getting nothing for his work, even when the money was available. I gave him a call with some tips for next time, and encouraged him to recognize his value before giving his hard work away.

2. Go Where the Work Is

Figure out which writers are on staff as full-time employees, which ones are regular freelance contributors and which ones are occasional freelance writers. That gives you a hint about what kinds of stories are most likely to be freelanced. That’s the kind of story you’ll want to start pitching.

You’ll also want to pay attention to editorial calendars. When are those big packages coming out that require editors to look beyond their newsroom for help? Start communicating with editors about how you can play a role, in plenty of time to get assignments and carry them out.

3. Know Before You Go

Take the time to gain an understanding of the media outlets you’ll be pitching. Find the appropriate editor to talk with. Seek advice from freelancers who’ve worked with the outlet. Ask colleagues about their luck, or lack of it, in working with those outlets. Where would you fit in? How best could they use your talents?

Don’t pitch something you don’t see. This isn’t the time to convince an outlet that covers family life about why it should accept your in-depth profile on a local startup. Or why a publication should launch your fashion column when it doesn’t cover fashion on a regular basis.

That doesn’t mean the outlet won’t see your new ideas as opportunities if you can show that a seemingly off-topic subject would fill a niche and connect with that outlet’s audience. But the best time to push the boundaries is after you’ve built up a relationship with the outlet.

4. Make the Pitch

Before you send a single email or make a call to anyone, be ready to answer this question: What story do you have in mind?

Editors at Richmond publications are juggling paperwork and budgets, long-term projects, reader inquiries — and, yes, working with their full-time team to get to press or meet the next online deadline. They aren’t sitting around with a pile of freelance assignments ready to dole out to the next lucky soul. They don’t want to hear: “Hey there, I’m a freelance writer. What do you have for me?”

The most successful freelance writers have done some reporting on the story before contacting the media outlet. They realize why it would fit that publication. They know that the same topic didn’t appear as a cover story a few weeks ago — in that paper or in a competing outlet. They can answer an editor’s questions about what angle they might take, the people they might interview and where it might appear.

Some questions you might hear:

  • Why is this newsworthy?
  • This sounds like a good feature, but why would we publish it right now?
  • I remember seeing X publication write about that. What did it miss? How is your story different?
  • Who are you going to talk with?
  • How is this interesting or important, and how will it benefit our readers?

5. Be Prepared and Persistent

In addition to your story ideas, if you’re approaching an outlet for the first time, you’ll want to be ready with your resume and writing samples.

Don’t be a pest, but don’t feel embarrassed to follow up with a phone call or email if you don’t hear back on your first query. Ask a lot of questions. Perhaps seek a short coffee meeting with the appropriate editor. It never hurts to ask. Yes, they’re busy. But most Richmond journalists are open to helping out with advice where they can, or sending you to other outlets that may be better receptive to what you’re pitching. If you can’t get an editor, try connecting with a reporter whose work you admire. You might just gain an ally and cheerleader inside the newsroom — and valuable insight.

Be prepared when you do land the assignment, or have an editor express interest. Longtime managing editor of The Richmond Times-Dispatch, Louise Seals, told me she got so many column pitches that she started saying simply: Sure, sounds interesting — send me the first three columns you’d write. I adopted her practice and rarely, if ever, had someone follow through.

If you get the assignment, keep the editor in the loop, meet your deadlines and surprise them with the quality of your work.

And be receptive and accommodating to notes, feedback and requests for changes. Every good writer understands that the best work results from a partnership with an editor.

6. Keep Going

It may take a while for pitches to land anywhere. Don’t let that stop you. There are more opportunities than ever to publish your work independently. Network at Richmond writers groups and meet-ups. Seek out fellow freelancers for encouragement and advice. Try pitching outlets beyond the Richmond area while your hometown editors catch up with you.

You also may want to take a stab at some alternative places for writing content, even if they aren’t pure editorial. Virginia Commonwealth University has a communications arm that acts as an internal newsroom, publishing stories about itself that may or may not be picked up by local outlets. Some public-relations firms are hiring writers who can fine-tune helpful, informational and entertaining content for content marketing projects.

If you’re a reviewer, learn more about the art of critical writing, and the topic you hope to critique. Continue to practice, read local news and go where the outlets aren’t going. Consider yourself a reporter on alert, seeking out fascinating stories, people and places that Richmond readers should know. This freelance thing may not land you a mansion in Windsor Farms, but it’s a worthwhile place to start. Good luck!

Jason Roop (jasonroop@springstory.com) has worked as a reporter, editor and freelancer in Richmond, and now serves as the chief content officer for Springstory, a content marketing company in Richmond, Virginia. Sign up for our free email newsletter here.