Style & Then Some

13 things I learned at the Guardian Essentials of Freelance Journalism Masterclass

Back in November I went to my first Guardian Masterclass, a one-day event titled The Essentials of Freelance Journalism. I was hoping to get inspired because the secondment I’m on at work at the moment means I get Fridays off, so I plan to use the time wisely and pitch for more freelance writing gigs.

It’s going great so far. I got all my Christmas shopping done by early December, have been for lots of lunches with friends and colleagues and I’ve signed up for hula hoop exercise class with our new writer Anna this Friday. It’s not that the Masterclass wasn’t helpful. It was (and it was great value at £49 a head). It’s just that I haven’t been putting what I learned into practice. I’m hoping by recapping a baker’s dozen of the nuggets of wisdom I gleaned it’ll inspire me all over again.

Marina Hyde talks to Simone Baird at the Guardian Essentials of Freelance Journalism Masterclass November 2013 Guardian journalism masterclass event course 2013

Yes, I know this is a terrible photo, but I was there to learn about writing OK?

1. Payoff is really important. Head of Masterclasses Simone Baird, who ran the day, argued fervently that the way you end a feature, that final sentence, must deliver a killer blow. She also quoted columnist Michael Hodges as saying ‘80% of your time writing will be spent on first and last sentence.’

2. The Guardian’s Comment is Free section isn’t actually free. And that’s a good thing. They pay £90 an article, so any fledgling freelancers should be pitching them everyday. It’s extra easy because the CiF editor publishes a list of what topics they’re currently looking for copy on.

3. Know your pubs. I mean publications. You should study the advertising cards for any paper or magazine you want to pitch, to find out the demographic of their readers and thereby target your pitches more successfully.

4. Freelance journalism is the worst and best job in the world. G2 regular Stuart Heritage gave a hilarious presentation that explained why. It’s the worst when you’re sat at home in your pyjamas with no commissions and no steady income, but it’s the best when you see your work published and have generated enough contacts that you can turn things down and really be your own boss.

5. Be quick. When it comes to features writing, editors agree that quick and good is better than slow and brilliant. You must be able to meet deadlines. If you can’t you’ll be seen as unreliable and it’s unlikely they’ll give you a second chance.

6. Don’t be a dickhead. Be polite, not a cliched tortured genius hack whose emails will be instantly deleted on arrival. ‘You can fix bad writing, but you can’t fix a dickhead,’ said Heritage.

7. Print pays. Features in print command a higher price than online. For instance, those £90 Comment is Free articles would be worth £180 in print.

8. Don’t forget your SAE. No, not a stamped addressed envelope.  Subject, angle, execution is the template for a successful pitch, and the mantra drilled into us by journalist and digital whizz Alan Rutter. Essentially that means asking: What’s it about? How are you going to approach it? And in what style?

9. Kill your darlings. Eddy Lawrence, in his excellent session on ‘how to make your copy sparkling,’ said you can’t be precious about cutting down your copy. Your first draft will always be too long, so be brutal about getting rid of excess flab, even if you think it’s brilliant.

10. Read this book: Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. My Dad happened to find a copy in a book sale recently. I read it over Christmas and found it staggeringly useful. It’s really short (he practices what he preaches – brevity) but contains every common grammar error (and how to remedy it) that it almost doubles as a style guide. Read, absorb, and keep it within arms reach of your laptop at all time.

11. Read aloud. Reading your work out loud once it’s done will give you a different perspective on it and make it easier to pick up typos you might not otherwise spot. Also, anything that makes you cringe when read aloud, get rid of it.

12. You don’t need a journalism degree to be a journalist. And definitely not a media degree. Do your undergraduate degree in a real subject (you know the ones I mean), preferably something you want to specialise in writing about later. A journalism masters course could be useful (the City Journalism MA is very well-respected) but isn’t essential either. Experience is everything, so start practicing. Maybe you’ll like to write for this here blog? If so, get in touch.

13. Get on the listicles. Features that take a topic and split it into a numbered list, Buzzfeed style, are very popular with editors at the moment. For example, 5 Things to do Alone or 13 Things I Learned at the Guardian Essentials of Freelance Journalism Masterclass.

There isn’t another session of The Essentials of Freelance Journalism scheduled at the moment, but the Guardian has lots of other journalism Masterclasses to choose from.


One comment on “13 things I learned at the Guardian Essentials of Freelance Journalism Masterclass

  1. fruus
    February 5, 2014

    Great read! You should post this on

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