Read as Elizabeth Howell talks about her career as a Freelance Journalist. Find Elizabeth at http://www.elizabethhowell.ca and on her Twitter feed in the sidebar of this interview. Twitter @howellspace
What do you do for a living?
I’m a Canadian freelance journalist who focuses on writing in space exploration, science and business. Because I’m a freelancer, I’m fully responsible for myself, which is pretty awesome. I set my own hours. I have some flexibility about what stories I accept. But bear in mind I also need to pay for my office expenses out of pocket, which includes expensive items such as cell phones and computers and smaller things such as notebooks. I also need to make sure that I actually get paid for my work, and keep track of my income for tax time at the end of the year.
How would you describe what you do?
I write for a bunch of news outlets, such as SPACE.com, Universe Today, Sen and my former employer, the Ottawa Business Journal. I focus on space exploration, science and business, but after a decade in the business you learn to write about almost anything. The work varies month-to-month as sometimes clients only need work from me occasionally. I also tweet about space news on Twitter. I find it a great tool for meeting new people in the business and making connections, which hopefully will give me more freelance work.
What does your work entail?
I’m partly a reporter/journalist and I’m partly a small business. I typically write about 25 stories a week, but bear in mind that a lot of those are short (maybe 300 words) and that I also type really fast. (You do learn something after a decade in the business!) I also spend several hours a week writing invoices, trying to find more customers and more work, and of course, doing interviews with people (also known as “sources”) to get more information for my stories.
What’s a typical work week like?
I can set my own hours, but I find it easier to work during the day, Monday to Friday, because that’s when most of my customers are working as well. I typically get up around 6 a.m., take a walk around my neighborhood to relax and get my brain fresh, and then start work at 8 a.m.
Every day I review what stories are coming due and what I need to do to finish them on time (or early, if I can!) I have a running list of stories for all of my different customers that lets me know how far along I am to finishing.
It can take anywhere from half an hour to several days to write a story. For me, it depends on a few things: urgency (was a big discovery or business transaction announced today and are other journalists chasing after it?), complication of the story (does it require lots of extra research? Extra interviews?) and of course, the length of the story (it takes a lot longer to write 1,400 words than 400 words.)
Often I do interviews with people to add more information to my stories. An interview typically takes about half an hour, plus there is preparation time to make sure you understand the topic before you call. I do maybe two of these a day, depending on the day.
There’s also a certain amount of “business development” that I do, meaning that I work to make new connections every day. I’m trying to get more customers! Because most of my work is Internet-based, this means a lot of Skype calls and e-mails to introduce myself and find out if any work is available. A lot of people say “no” or “not yet”, so I just keep trying new people until I get to a “yes.”
Of course, I also have to spend a certain amount of my day issuing invoices for payments and making sure that I actually get paid. Sometimes customers take several weeks to give me money, so it’s best for both of us to stay in touch to make sure the payment is coming in a reasonable, but timely, fashion.
I try to finish work around 4, but again this depends on what is happening that day. I might have a meeting or interview to go to that night, or I might have a story that requires extra work. If I work really late one night, I then try to take some time off later that week to balance things out.
How did you get started?
I first got interested in space exploration when I was a young teenager; I saw the movie Apollo 13 in 1996 and decided I wanted to be an astronaut. As I grew older I realized that my strength was actually writing. So I thought, why not write about space instead?
I took a degree in journalism at Carleton University and every chance I had, whenever they offered me the opportunity to pick my own topic, I wrote about space. My first major story was about the 20th anniversary of Canadian astronaut Marc Garneau’s first flight in space. He happened to be the chancellor of Carleton at the time. The piece was long (2,000 words, I think), and it ran in the student newspaper. I used it as a portfolio piece for years.
While in school I became a section editor of the student newspaper, the Charlatan. In my last year of school I approached a few local news outlets and asked about freelancing. They accepted the work “on spec”, meaning they liked the idea of it but they wanted to actually have my work in hand before deciding if they would buy it. Luckily for me, my pieces sold.
After school I had a four-month internship at the Globe and Mail, and then I went through a series of contract or short-term positions. It was hard to get a job because the economy began to crash around 2009, shortly after I got out of school. So I would freelance for other news outlets on top of my day job to make sure I always had money coming in. It was a lot of long hours, but at least I could stay employed even when full-time work dried up.
I also took a masters degree in space studies part time at the University of North Dakota. This gave me more qualifications to write about space, which helped me (in the long run) get more customers.
After a while, I had so much freelancing work to do that I realized I didn’t necessarily have the time for a day job any more. I had to make a choice. So in September 2012, I made the choice to do full-time freelancing and began working for myself.
What do you like about what you do?
I love talking to interesting people that I feature in my stories – I learn something new with every interview. I also love writing about space exploration in general, so getting to do it for a living (some of the time) is pretty sweet. Additionally, I get to work from home, which is really nice, as well as set my own hours.
Also, I did freelance reporting at three different shuttle launches.
What do you dislike?
I dislike not knowing exactly how much I’m going to make month-to-month, but that comes with the territory. I keep a running tally of what articles I expect to be compensated for in the next month, but of course it’s a ballpark figure. So I’m always erring on the side of trying to do a little more work than necessary, just in case something gets delayed at the last minute.
How do you make money/or how are you compensated?
I’m compensated for writing articles for newspapers and websites. I submit invoices to clients and then wait for them to pay me back. It’s my responsibility only to make sure I am paid, so I am careful to note when I sent the invoice and when they will promise to pay me. If the deadline has passed, I politely contact the person to get an update and then keep at it until I get paid.
How much do Freelance Journalists make?
The salary range really varies. When you’re first starting out in journalism, you’re lucky to make even $25,000 to $30,000 a year. Often your first jobs are writing for community newspapers, who just don’t have a lot of money to spare. As you gain more experience, you might make $30,000 to $40,000 a year.
J-Source recently quoted a Statistics Canada 2006 survey saying that the average journalist makes $54,335 a year. Then they included a list of unionized positions that pay quite a bit more than that, up to $90,000 in some cases. Those numbers may be a little high for freelancing, but it’s hard to say as we aren’t surveyed to the same extent.
I would caution starting journalists not to expect salaries of even $50,000 a year for a long time. Bear in mind, too, that most journalists work very long weeks. I choose to keep it closer to a 40-hour week for personal reasons, but many journalists typically work closer to 60 hours.
How much money did/do you make starting out?
Starting journalists should keep their expectations low. A $30,000 position is considered pretty good when you’re starting, and as I said, it could take decades before you’re paid anywhere near the higher range of $70,000 or more – if you ever get that high. Especially with freelancing, it takes months and years to generate contacts.
What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?
You need to know how to write, how to interview a person to get the information you need, and how to be accurate in your stories. There are a lot of different considerations you need to bear in mind when writing a story. Is it legally correct? Could the work unfairly reflect on the person you’re writing? Are you being balanced in your reporting, representing all sides as fairly as possible?
Many people go to journalism school to learn these skills, but I also know of successful journalists who never did a journalism degree. A typical route is for a beginning journalist to go to a university, take a degree in something writing-related and go to work at the student newspaper. The degree doesn’t necessarily need to be in journalism, but usually employers want to see that you have finished one so that they know you can pick a challenge, stick to it and do well.
What is most challenging about what you do?
Making enough money to live for today while making enough connections to live for tomorrow. I can’t spend 100% of my time just writing articles, as the business will never grow. But making those phone calls and sending out those query letters to potential new customers is unpaid time. You need to balance both to be an effective business person.
What is most rewarding?
Learning something new as you write a story, and being able to teach that “something new” to the person who reads it.
What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
As a freelancer, you should expect and embrace unpredictability. This means you don’t know when your next paycheck will arrive, and your schedule can change substantially in a given day if an interview falls through or an extra story falls on your lap. So, learn to love it. Learn to know that not knowing what’s around the corner can be fun.
How much time off do you get/take?
All of my time off is unpaid. I try to take proper two-day weekends where I don’t do journalism, and for now I’m being conservative in planning vacation time. I lean more towards taking long weekends for time off so that I’m not away from the business for too long. That said, I am hoping to take a couple of weeks off (not all at the same time) next year. But I will still check in with e-mail to make sure I’m not missing out on opportunities.
What is a common misconception people have about what you do?
Just because I’m at home doesn’t mean that I’m relaxing; I’m writing articles, making phone calls and doing business-related stuff for 8-10 hours a day with very few breaks. You need to be very disciplined with your time. Otherwise, you won’t make enough money.
What are your goals/dreams for the future?
Right now I’m working on stabilizing my business as much as possible. As a former business journalist I know having a lot of customers is healthy for a business, so in the long term I am trying to diversify my customer base. I want to expand the roster of regular clients I have and also have the flexibility to take on a few one-time projects (like big magazine pieces.)
What else would you like people to know about your job/career?
It’s hard to predict all the questions I could receive, but know especially that older journalists are often friendly folks willing to help out the younger ones. On that note, I’m always around to give advice to aspiring journalists, so feel free to tweet me or get in touch through my website, http://www.elizabethhowell.ca.