Freelancing abroad: 12 steps to doing it better

Planning to freelance in another country? After reporting for more than three years in Africa and Asia, Karen Palmer has twelve easy steps for freelancers heading somewhere new.

Karen Palmer

Karen PalmerDuring my freelance career, I’ve received emails from people asking for advice about freelancing in Africa. Most of the emails go something like this: “I stumbled across your blog (hope you got your fridge issues sorted) and thought I would ask your advice about freelancing from Africa.”

Then the person either says he is moving to Africa in about three days and would appreciate any advice or contacts (meaning he would like my contacts, please) or, the person says he is thinking about moving to Africa in about three months and would appreciate any advice or contacts (meaning he would like my contacts, please).

And so, in the name of efficiency, here’s my “How to be a Freelance Journalist Abroad in 12 Easy Steps” advice. (Much of this advice works for journalists planning to freelance from just about anywhere away from home, although my examples are from my experience in Africa):

1. Don’t send emails asking for another freelancer’s contacts.
This shows you have never freelanced, have no contacts and have no idea how difficult it is to establish contacts. Once you’ve spent a few months combing the Internet for the actual address of the foreign editor for a freelance-friendly paper in Dallas, you’ll understand why freelancers can be so territorial about their contacts.

2. Buy The World on a String.
It’s an excellent guide, particularly for people with limited journalism experience, covering everything from scouting markets to cold calling editors to sending pitch letters to writing invoices.

3. Buy the Writer’s Guide or Writer’s Market or Similar.
Nothing makes me angrier than Canadians who decide to freelance from overseas and can think of no other outlets for their articles but The Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star. The world is a big place and there are tons of markets in it.

Don’t forget about trade mags, specialty publications and websites. Some of them pay big bucks.

Look at where other freelancers working outside your intended area are working — many keep blogs or websites with clipping files — and take some clues from it.

Decide where you’d like to pitch and then start sending out emails introducing yourself, your credentials, your intended destination, your date of departure and a line or two about story ideas. Be realistic. If you have no writing experience, you might want to save The New York Times for a few months.

Whatever you do, keep it short. This is good advice for all of your contact with editors. They fancy themselves busy people and get annoyed at any emails that go beyond a page. If they respond to your email — many editors don’t bother if they don’t take freelance or aren’t impressed by your letter — make sure you ask for the contributor’s guidelines and freelance agreement. It’ll be easier to sign and fax when you’re in a place rife with telephones, Internet access and fax machines. Get an email for their assistant and another for their deputy.

4. If it’s at all possible, get a newsroom job before you leave home.
Even if it’s sorting mail and answering telephones. Even if it’s only for a couple months, you’ll learn so much about the pace of a news organization, what gets them excited, what makes them angry, what causes their eyes to glaze over. You’ll meet lots of people with plenty of advice and a few war stories and you’ll make great contacts. You’ll see your potential list of editors to contact blossom and they’ll be more likely to respond to an email from someone they know. And you’ll get a chance to look at the “sked” of stories. You’ll have a sense of what makes it into the paper, what the writing style is and how best to summarize your story into a nutgraph.

5. Practise pitching.
It’s the key to your success. If you can’t pitch, you can’t freelance.

Pitches, generally, should mirror the top five or six paragraphs of your actual story. If you send in a boring skedline, it shows you’re a boring writer. If you send in a scattershot pitch, shotgunning all the elements of your story, it shows you’re an unfocused writer who lacks a good sense of news.

Generally, a pitch should borrow from the top of your story, give the word length, reveal whether there’s photos and offer a date by which the story can be delivered. You want to include your contact information. And again, keep it short.

6. Read about the country/city/town you are going to live and work.
For Africa, for example, there are amazing books out there by Africans and non-Africans, as well as some real crap. Some good Africa-specific examples: try Achebe, Robert Guest, Beryl Markham, Emma’s War, They Poured Fire, Purple Hibiscus, The Village of Waiting, Blue Clay People, The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born, The Fate of Africa and Soldiers of Light.

7.  You need to know where the news is going to be and whether you’re equipped to handle it.
Finding a suitable market is like peering into a crystal ball. Be realistic: most editors don’t know anything about Africa and have no interest in it. The same is true of many places. You need a place with good, interesting stories and a reliable communications system and a good transport system. You don’t necessarily need to be in a newsy place, like Lagos or Nairobi or Jo’burg; lots of editors are looking for quirky stories about culture or trend pieces about science or technology or innovation in Africa. It may come as a shock, but in the case of Africa, lots of editors are looking for “good news” stories that don’t involve famine or drought or AIDS.

Once you decide where you’re going, contact a local journalist or a foreign journalist working in the area and ask them specific questions. “Any advice and contacts” is a phrase to be avoided. One thing you need to know is who else is there and who they’re working for. You don’t want to arrive in Kampala only to discover that the city is flooded with freelancers who have a lock on the market.

(And please, don’t be one of those assholes — pardon my French — who decides to move to Africa and work at an African news outlet, whether paid or unpaid. You’re actually not more qualified than African journalists and you’re just stealing a job from someone who needs it.)

8. Google everyone.
Contacts you make may not have your best interests at heart. A case in point: a young man just turned up here in Ghana with the idea to go to Zimbabwe and do some stuff for The New York Times. He contacted a local journalist who offered to act as his fixer. The Reuters correspondent recommended checking into the local journalists’ background and turns out he works at a government paper where some pretty rough stuff has happened. Who knows what he might have walked into if he hadn’t done his homework.

9. Be safe!
If you’re a freelance journalist, no one has your back. No one.

10. Resell, resell, resell.
Read those contributor contracts carefully, because the way you make money is by reselling your pieces, so if they require exclusivity, you need to weigh whether the pay is worth it.

11. Visit the place you want to work.
Seems obvious, but if you’re going to relocate, you should probably try it out first.

12. Diversify
If you’re a print journalist, get some radio equipment and a decent digital camera. If you’re a radio reporter, get a decent digital camera. Turning your pieces into print stories and radio pieces and online pieces triples your income. Easy.

A version of this column originally appeared on Karen blog, Palmer in Africa.

Karen Palmer is a former Toronto Star health reporter. She freelanced for more than three years in Africa and Asia and is now back in Canada working on a book about Ghana’s witch camps, which is set to be published by Free Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, in 2010.