Eight golden rules for freelancers

[words by Narina Exelby / photograph © Mark Edward Harris, The WideAngle]

Magazine Land has to be one of the most curious places on earth. Mystical to those who’ve never visited, it’s elevated to glamorous heights by those who worship its glossy pages – and yet in reality, it’s often cranky, crazy, untidy and sometimes very small and dusty. It is, however, a wonderful place crafted on caffeine, key boards and late nights, by people with fast fingers, wild imaginations and an insatiable curiosity. It is a place of passion, frustration and ecstasy. Littered with press releases, desk tops are often consumed by books (many never opened), drawers cluttered with products sent by hopeful PR companies, and piles of dated magazines to which the makers are too emotionally attached to recycle. It is a place that is always – always – ruled by deadlines. Eagle-eyes are usually a prerequisite for entry and things like where to put a comma and finding the precise words for a caption are infinitely important. It can – and often does – take days to choose the correct words to grace a cover. Finding the right photograph? Weeks. Months sometimes. But what makes Magazine Land particularly strange is that it exists in a time-warp. Your diary says it’s February? Mag-Land’s living in April, honey. In fact in some parts, your next season has already come and gone.

After living and breathing magazines for more than 13 years, these quirks have become my normal. I never gave words like flatplan, spread, wobbler, blow-in, blurb or bucket  a second thought until a few days ago, when the intern’s forehead crinkled in utter confusion. As I took her on The Grand Tour of our magazine’s production cycle, I was reminded that there is no comprehensive guidebook to working in magazines and that getting in and getting around can be daunting. If you want to break into print media, doing an internship is probably the best way to learn the industry. But if you’re out on your own it’s a different world – and if you’re just starting out and want to write articles on a freelance basis, these eight guidelines will be very, very useful:

1/ Understand magazine time

Monthly magazines usually work two or three months in advance. Find out how far ahead the magazine you’d like to write for plans its issues, and pitch accordingly. At Women’s Health, for example, our March issue went on sale early this week; most of our April issue has already been designed; the copy for May is coming in now; the June line-up is being finalised and will be commissioned within the next two weeks. National Geographic has their feature line-up planned two years in advance. As a freelancer, this knowledge is important – there’s no point in pitching an idea for a summer article when the autumn issue has just been sent to print.

2/ Ask for editorial themes

While most editors keep their editorial line-ups a closely guarded secret, they might be willing to let you know what themes they have planned for the next few issues. Ask if they give these out – it might help you to put together a pitch that is relevant to them.

3/ Develop relationships with editors

Feature editors often have a list of favourite contributors and freelancers. These will be writers and photographers who have skills in particular areas (for example, they’re good at doing interviews, or shooting portraits, or tackling scientific stories); the editors will know that they can rely on these freelancers to deliver quality copy – on time. Work on developing a good relationship with an editor, and chances are you’ll be top of their mind when a relevant story needs writing or shooting.

4/ Understand the magazine

Magazines follow set structures, and every magazine’s structure will be different. Sure, writing a 10-page feature is the ultimate assignment, but take look at the regular pages that a magazine runs and pitch ideas to fill those. Editors are often more likely to “risk” using new writers for these pages. If you can wow them with your brilliance here, you should be on your way to writing features for them in no time.

5/ Think print and online

Take a look at the magazine you want to write for, and its website – and look closely at how content is used across both print and digital formats. Some brands take content from the magazine and place it straight onto the website a month or two after publication. Others will put content online that links in some way to the magazine that’s on shelf. If this is the case with the magazine you want to write for, include clever ideas for writing online extras in your pitch. The more words you’re commissioned for, the more you’ll be paid. Usually.

6/ Don’t overwrite

When they commission stories, editors know how many pages they’ve assigned it to – and they know how many words their magazine runs per page (the word count will vary according to the page’s position within the structure). You won’t be paid for the extra words you write, so don’t waste your (or the sub-editor’s) time.

7/ Know how you’ll get paid

Media companies have different payment systems. Some will pay you within a few days of you submitting your copy. Some will need various forms of identification before payment can be made. Some will pay only 90 days after publication of the story. Some will pay a kill-fee of possibly 20 percent of your agreed rate if for some reason they don’t use the story they commissioned. Be sure you know what the payment terms are before you start to write.

8/ Never – ever – miss your deadline

Every magazine will be produced according to its own systems and set of deadlines. To run efficiently and get to the printers on time, each member of the team has to do their job properly. As a freelancer, your job is to get your polished copy in on time. Respect your deadline.

New to writing? Take a look at these 10 tips for getting published. If you’d like to get into travel writing, here’s one thing you really need to remember.


  • Well done NE!
    I’ve been freelance writing for 16 years and god knows how many books on the subject I slogged through in the early years. Must have read through everything available and there are more useful insights here than in a keep of ‘how to freelance’ guides. And thanks for the reminder about not missing deadlines…now back to work!

  • Karen R says:

    Very well said in non-magazine land speak! Wish I’d had this info to hand when I was starting out all those years ago. And those poor eds who had to (or more likely didn’t) wade through my rambling pitches/pieces would agree : ).

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