Freelancing for Free: banking your first buck


Freelancing has an incredible attraction: one day you can be meeting Michael Bastian for a chat on his latest line for GANT (more to come on that!) and then the next you are doing coffee discussing the pitch for a new project.

The next day you get up a little later than usual and sip a tea over a new article, watching the rat race fly by outside in the relentless rain; later on you’ll pour out a vat of vin and copy edit everything you’ve achieved before send off.

I do all of these things; but it’s not because I can afford to.

It may sound like the life of an established freelancer: one who dictates his workflow; one who is always inundated with offers; one who pitches to the big dogs week-in-week-out. Rather, I may be in work but I only scrape a living.

So much so in fact that last month’s rent is a little overdue.

Freelance Desk

The glamorous life of a freelancer

Don’t get me wrong; I am loving life at the moment. I am immersed in events and articles I am incredibly passionate about and look forward to when I get up every morning. I am a style editor, a features writer and a fashion journalist all in one, but I don’t get paid for any of those roles.

Instead I began life freelancing with a few paid contracts and I still honour them today. In fact, the only reason I can support myself in London – and go to fashion interviews and coffee pitches – is because I still honour some of those contracts.

My first foot in the freelance door was working for Food & Drink Magazine. I was a sous chef for six years between 6th form and university holidays and my love for food and writing had made me apply for a freelance copywriter position at the Bristol-based magazine. I got the gig and was paid in dinner, desert and drinks.

Still no money for the Big Smoke.

I then applied for a mass-media freelance company that outsources work to various websites. It is an American business called Demand Studios. It makes me a decent-ish living and supports my other, more glamorous, unpaid freelance work.

They might just help you get your own freelance foot in the door.

Demand Studios

Freelance Demand Studios

Demand Studios gets a lot of stick from a lot of people due to its sell-your-soul, write-for-a-heartless-website attitude. The company is occasionally frowned upon by established freelancers because there’s no room for individuality; you’re a number in a system that produces very straightforward articles.

I don’t see it that way.

The company’s key content websites are eHow.com and Livestrong.com. Sure, they abide by fairly strict in-house style guides and their editing system can be fairly inconsistent – BUT IT’S MONEY.

I have always wanted to be a lifestyle/fashion/style journalist and eHow gives me that opportunity. Today I wrote 8 articles and they took me a good hour each: that’s a 9 to 5 job and I get paid for it. The articles I wrote were on European men’s fashion, flattering female underwear (picture research was my lunch-break), dating chemistry and celebrity hairstyling.

It was everything I wanted to write about when I graduated. It gives me my GQ-esque lifestyle and not only can I reach millions of people a month with my work (eHow takes 80,000,000 hits per month) but I have a respectable CV entry and portfolio to boot. I also earn enough money to pay my rent and don’t work so hard that I can’t commit to my other contracts.

Freelance journalism and writing is no easy living. There may be glimpses of glamour and I’ve-made-it moments but you are going to have to do a little bit of bottom-ladder writing. Demand Studios is just one of those rungs; and it’s not even the bottom of the ladder.

To hammer home the point, I was recently interviewed for a news-editor role at a high-profile, men’s daily mag. When I was asked and explained about Demand Studios, my interviewer replied: Wow, that’s fantastic. You’re reaching a lot of people and it looks great on your CV; not too bad!”

In this failing world of journalism, I’ll take that.

You can sign up for Demand Studios yourself; they’re always advertising for writers on journalism.co.uk and other graduate job boards. Visit their website to see if they are recruiting and bank your first buck!

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About Matthew Caines
Community & content for the Guardian Culture & Media professional networks | founder of @wannabehacks @withinreachmag | find him on Twitter @mattcaines

11 Responses to Freelancing for Free: banking your first buck

  1. Pingback: Anonymous

  2. The Student says:

    Great post about the practicalities of freelancing and a way to get into it. I’m tempted to have a look at Demand Studios and see if I can get some myself!

    I would be interested in the process by which you eventually get paid but I guess that’s for another post…

  3. gregnewcombe says:

    Are you finding it hard getting freelance work without having the foundation of lots of contacts in the industry? Freelancing always struck me as the type of job you take up as a journalist once you’ve worked at some of the big media outlets for a few years. Very interesting about Demand Studios though.

  4. aulelia says:

    I think Demand Studios is a red herring. I am happy for anyone finding work but their business model cheapens writing work by a great degree. They are also not profitable so their impending float in the New York is also a bad sign.

    • Aulelia.

      Demand Studios in no way should be anyone’s long-term solution. I very much look forward to the day that I don’t have to rely on it anymore. But like I said to Greg, British journalism and employment is in such a state that we’ve got to look at countries that can afford to pay their freelancers. The money isn’t terrible and it pays for my rent at the moment, which is crucial while I KEEP SEARCHING FOR JOBS! (You should never rest on what you’ve got; always aim for more!)

      I would advise someone to take up a writing role at DS for only a few months. Don’t move home on its pay and don’t take any big risks thinking that this is going to have you settled for a few years. Instead, build the foundations of your writing portfolio.

      In terms of your “cheapening” comment, I think that with DS you can be as cheap as you allow yourself to be. Of course, the business model CAN LET YOU GET AWAY with writing cheaply, but if you really want to make a name for yourself in the freelance or journalism worlds then you’re going to have to take pride and passion in your work: make it the best you can be. DS doesn’t discriminate against good writers.

      Also, I think DS can teach you vital lessons in editing your own work (if your article requires more than one edit, forget about getting paid) so you have to care for your spelling, grammar and relevancy. You also have to reference and search your articles so you’re not selling your soul as much as actually getting something in return.

      DS taught me to self-edit, negotiate with copy editors, write to specific styles, abide by guidelines and think about my audience. I think that’s a fair experience if even for a few months because YOU GET MONEY, simple as…

  5. @gregnewcombe: Of course, freelance work should be based on existing work models and people that you have spent the time to meet and greet over the years. This is usually why freelancers often become freelancers after they have held down various permanent positions and taken the time to network and build a strong contact book.

    However, with the current state of journalism and publishing (jobs are so scarce and so highly-competitive), it’s just an option that people like me have to take out of desperation. I’m sick and fed up of employers “keeping my records” or telling me I don’t have “enough experience.” Where am I going to get this experience in the first place? Freelancing, in a way, is much like an internship in that you learn to write for a company. Sure, it’s not a magazine or a newspaper but it is a start and it is experience to an extent. Send off a CV that shows you work for somebody (OK, so it’s in America and its big business) and you might just catch the eye of an employer.

    In terms of networking; there’s going to be a new Freelancer article coming up on it soon!?

    Stay posted…

  6. Maxine says:

    Thanks for this very informative post. I’ve seen DS advertising on journalism job sites a lot but never really known much about what they do until now. I’m just starting out as a freelance journalist and also about to start a one-year distance-learning course to specialise in home-tutoring children with dyslexia as a reliable income in the long-term. I’m very attracted to DS as a means to help fund my course, that’s more financially reliable than pitching articles to conventional newspapers and magazines, plus more flexible. The only thing that sounds like a bit of a catch is where you say “if your piece requires more than one edit, forget about getting paid.” I mean, obviously they want articles that are well-written and don’t take them hours to edit down, no editor would say otherwise, but how is their acceptable standard defined? I’d be interested in what the ratio is of articles submitted versus articles they actually accept.

    • Hi Maxine! Thanks for the comment! In terms of your question, DS only ever allows one edit on your piece (i.e. you submit an article, get it given back with edits, then you change it for the last time). I can only really speak from a personal experience, which is that failed re-edits are extremely rare (1 in every 200 or 300!?) and these are usually due to differences between editor and writer. Even rejections can be appealed so it’s never the end of the world.

      If your writing gets particularly good then your articles may be approved on first submission anyway. Re-edits are usually for trivial things such as dodgy links, rewriting confusing sentences or clarifying names or places. Editors are helpful in laying out your edits in a clear and sensible order, offering as much help in their editorial comments as possible.

      Editors are paid to sub your article as well. That means that if they can rework your words into a more readable / acceptable article they will. They WON’T rewrite the whole thing so don’t be afraid that your work won’t become your own.

      Real trouble only occurs when you have totally missed the point of the article title or failed to abide by the DS guidelines. DS guidelines are given to you when you sign up and – I’ve got to admit – may take a little getting used to. New writers are given more help though (I’m certain the editor knew they were my first submissions) and before you know it, you’ll know the rules/blacklists/guidelines inside out.

      This isn’t to say there aren’t any problems because there are, including subjective editors and points of personal interest. However, if you abide and study the in-house style carefully and take the time to write well-resourced articles with interest and flair then you will have a smooth relationship with DS.

  7. Maxine says:

    Hi – thanks for the response! I’ve applied and been accepted for DS, which is great. Unfortunately, at the moment I’m a little bit dispirited looking through the assignments that are currently available. Lots of the categories look very promising when you see them in the category list but when you expand them, they are full of seemingly mis-categorised articles (articles about ‘electronics’ and ‘engineering’ under ‘mental health’), heavily US-centric articles (eg: ‘Tax ID Number Regulations in New York State’) or hugely technically-specific articles (‘how to download songs onto a Sony WXYZ cellphone’). I’m not sure I have wide enough general knowledge for this!

  8. Pingback: The Guardian Panel, Service Journalism and new commissions… | Matthew Caines

  9. Pingback: Introducing ‘Pitch Perfect’ for National Freelancers Day « Wannabe Hacks

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