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The business of freelancing

The story of how Tim Richards came to be a freelance travel writer goes like this. He was working regular office job for the internet company LookSmart writing content. It was 2003, the year before Facebook started and the year Google launched Google Books. Redundancies were on the verge of sweeping through his company, so Tim did what anyone might do: he went on a holiday to New Zealand to think things over. And then he was made redundant.

Fortunately, one of the things Tim did while he was away was research some story ideas. His payout came through and he decided, ‘Well, I’ll try freelancing for six months and see what happens.’

From that initial trip, Tim managed to sell a couple of stories. Eleven years on, he’s working exclusively as a travel writer, with credits including Lonely Planet, Fairfax newspapers, international publications and the website Traveller.

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One of the interesting things about Tim is that, aside from a correspondent’s course in travel writing, he hasn’t got ‘any journalistic qualifications whatsoever’. But he was always good at writing, and said that he has always written either for work or as a hobby. In the 1980s he was part of the science fiction fandom producing fanzines. Later, he edited the online performing arts magazine Stage Left for six years and by the end, was managing up to 6 writers.

Looking back, Tim sees that his time at Stage Left was something of an apprenticeship in how to be a freelancer. ‘In running it, I was writing material, I was editing material, I was dealing with PR people and dealing with writers. So it was kind of a training ground for the sorts of things you do as a freelancer.’

Diving into freelancing full time, Tim learned through trial and error as well as off the back of other writers’ experiences. ‘Even in 2004, there were resources online for freelancers,’ he said. He’s now a member of the Australian Society of Travel Writers and part of a forum group called FreelineOz, where freelance journalists and writers swap tips and promote meet up events.

Encouragingly enough for those starting out, Tim says that while having experience under your belt helps with getting an editor to open your email, ‘editors really, when it comes down to it, they just want good writing.’

He added, ‘But of course, there’s a lot of freelancers out there as well so you have to try to be really good in what you’re doing. I always say my directive is “make editors’ lives easier”. Do [the job] really well, follow the brief, hand it in early, make it exactly the right word count, get the grammar right, make it beautiful, clean copy. That’s one way of being competitive.’

Tim also stressed the necessity of having imagination, coming up with interesting story angles, and being alert to great opportunities. And when it comes to pitching, according to Tim, you should never write the story first.

‘You don’t know what their ideal length is or what ideas they might have about how it should be written up,’ he said.

‘Mind you, when you start out there’d be an argument to writing the whole story and sending that along with a pitch. If you’re not known to them, there’d be an argument for showing what you can do.’

In spite of how long Tim has been in the game, he says that 90% of what he writes he still has to pitch.

‘You don’t get approached much at all. Editors are in a buyer’s market and they’re totally swamped by emails and pitches. But occasionally now, I will get approached by editors, so that’s nice. Editors will say, “I had this idea for a story and I thought you’d be the right person to write it”.’

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In asking Tim whether freelancing had been his first choice or whether he had first tried his hand at getting onto the payroll of a media outlet, he said that freelancing had appealed to him from the start. Then he addressed the assumption my question was based on. ‘People think that if you’re a freelance journalist that you somehow want to be a staff journalist or wanted to be and couldn’t make it or something like that. I find that a very odd perception. Freelancing is something quite different from staff journalism. And I’ve always seen it that way. Y’know, you’re running a small business.’

That may come as a surprise to some, but it makes a lot of sense. It’s a lot like self-publishing – you become a one-person outfit, having to do a lot more than if you were just one cog of a multi-faceted company.

‘You really are running a small business that provides writing services,’ he said. ‘You’re not being an airy fairy kind of writer first – that’s part of the job, but you have to run a business.’

It’s as challenging as it sounds, but Tim says he and other colleagues thrive off this; are obsessed with the thrill of making it work.

The challenge is being able to wear multiple hats. One needs not only to have journalistic skills – the ability to find stories, research, write and deliver to editors – but also to be darn organised at administration.

‘The main problem all that feeds into is making enough money,’ Tim said. ‘To be able to do that, you have to be incredibly good at balancing everything, including all the admin you do. I sometimes joke that I spend 90% of my time doing admin and occasionally I’ll write something.’

‘There’s a lot of admin: organising trips, doing all your paperwork, pitching to editors, invoicing people, chasing up invoices that haven’t been paid – all sorts of admin that doesn’t in itself directly produce money. And obviously writing the stories themselves does. But that wouldn’t happen without you doing all that admin yourself.’

Given how hard freelancing appears to be, a reasonable person may wonder why go there at all. And to that, Tim has an answer.

‘There’s an obvious autonomy and flexibility about it. You work really hard to make it work. But if you stick to it and you’re good, you can start to specialise in areas that interest you. You can’t do that all the time of course, but that’s sort of an attraction of it as well. It makes work worth doing; it gives you a real incentive to go to work.’

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‘Postcard from Honolulu, Hawaii: Islamic idyll’, published on the website Traveller, is based on a tour of the late American heiress Doris Duke’s house in Hawaii. It happens to be one of Tim’s favourite pieces.

‘It’s difficult to write an emotive piece of writing around a tour because tours are very linear and that can be a bit boring,’ he said. ‘I think I was able to get a feel for the place and what she’d done with it and the sense of her spirit lingering around its corridors, so I was quite pleased with how that turned out.’

At the conclusion of the article, a note reads, Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Hawaii Tourism and the Oahu Visitors Bureau. In talking through what that meant, Tim explained the practice of journalists being taken on media tours by tourism operators.

‘It’s typically something like five journalists on a mini-bus for, say, five days, zipping around.’

They see a ton of sights, and may even score a meal at a restaurant that’s beyond what a journalist earning a typical salary could afford.

Tim says that these media tours are a common way of doing things in the travel writing world, describing them as a means to an end. ‘In an ideal world, publications would cover costs, but they don’t. There’s no other way to afford being a travel writer, so you try to ethically stay within those lines where you’ll be given access but you’re not being directed by the tourism bodies.’

To make his dollar stretch further, Tim typically stays on a few extra days to conduct further research and interviews. But while going on tours to exotic locations on someone else’s dime might sound like fun to most, in using them as part of a business strategy it’s important not to get carried away.

Tim estimated that he spent 8 or 9 weeks of last year travelling – a bit more time than usual. ‘It’s not that much time proportionally because you need to be at home pitching stories and writing them to make money.’

He also doesn’t have the luxury of writing only one story per trip as he suspects staff journalists might.

‘As a freelancer, you have an incentive to write as many stories as you can possibly get, because you can make more money that way.’

‘If I’m going well, I can get a whole lot of stories out of a single destination. And then you’ve made yourself X thousand dollars out of, y’know, a ten day trip that cost you very little. So that’s what makes it profitable.’

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When Tim first started out, he wasn’t doing all that much travel writing. Instead, business writing was his bread and butter. As the years went past, however, he’s drifted into doing more and more travel writing, though he warns that freelancers have to be open to whatever work comes their way.

Seven to eight years in, Tim felt he’d finally cracked the code. ‘Like any small business it takes probably five years or something before you feel confident with it,’ he said.

His complacency didn’t last long. In this environment where the media is continually changing, Tim inevitably felt the impact.

‘There was a year when I started to I think that I was starting to get the hang of this. Y’know, this really, really good year, 2012. And at the end of that year I had three of my major clients for years who dropped out of taking my freelance articles or changed the way they worked or whatever.’

He laughed. ‘And I went, “Oh God. Here I go re-inventing myself again”.’

Visit Tim Richards’ website: www.iwriter.com.au. His novel, Mind the Gap, was published last year as an ebook by Harper Collins.

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Article published in the March 2015 edition of ACTWrite magazine, by the ACT Writers Centre. Originally published under the title, ‘The world of freelancing’.

Mind the Gap cover

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