Journalist, copywriter and content producer, Rachel Smith is the founder of Rachel’s List. This immensely useful resource was the best kept secret in the media freelance arsenal before it was launched online in 2012. It is now Australia’s leading jobs board for the media, digital, PR and comms industries.
Rachel spoke to JournosGetOnline about life as a freelance, the highs and the pitfalls and the one thing she would change if she was starting afresh.
What makes a good freelance journalist?
RS: A lot of people might automatically answer this question with ‘well, you must be a great writer’. And while that is of course super important, it’s only a tiny piece of the puzzle.
There are lots of great writers out there who get briefed by editors and content managers and just write what they’re told to.
So to be a great freelance journalist, you must have a good news sense, a curiosity about the world and about people. You need to have an innate ability to find stories and pitch them successfully. You have to have a thick skin to deal with the inevitable rejection. You have to have a near-obsession with the hustle, with finding new clients, with prospecting (even when you’re busy) and with researching new ways to find those leads. You need to recognise you’re running a business and do all that comes with that – from keeping on top of invoices, to admin, to marketing yourself on social media, asking clients for testimonials and networking with others in your niche. You also have to be comfortable talking about money and negotiating, because you’ll be doing it A LOT.
Do you advocate niching? Or being a good all-rounder?
RS: Choosing a niche definitely works for a lot of freelancers, but I think you need to be a good all-rounder whatever you do.
If you’re a health writer, for example, you might write for consumer health magazines and websites but you may also branch out into custom mags, health-related business mags, do social for health-related clients, take on some copywriting for a Big Pharma client. Or you can have a number of niches or specialities (like health, parenting, interiors) and spread your work around those industries, but being mindful of the market: most magazine writers I know have branched into other areas including content marketing, native content, copywriting, blogging and social.
Having your finger in a few different pies is, I think, the key to future-proofing your income.
Have you noticed a change in the work landscape? Is it more competitive?
RS: The rise of the gig economy means there are more freelancers out there – and of course the nature of work is changing; there’s a shift in the kind of writing we do and who we do it for.
However, I think there’ll always be a demand for good writing and I believe there’s enough work for everyone if you’re well-connected, reliable and good at what you do.
In light of such changes, do you think there are new skills freelance journalists skills need?
RS: I think you need to:
- Know your way around Dropbox and Google Docs and be able to upload files to these as many editors now work solely with these platforms
- Know your way round a CMS, especially WordPress
- Have a basic knowledge of SEO and inserting keywords into your copy, as this is often required. Extra points if you know how to use the Yoast plugin
- Knowledge of how to write metadata (also often required)
- Be comfortable writing compelling shortform copy (as often you’ll be asked to write social teasers to go along with features and posts – and it can be a nice value-add offering for clients, too)
- Take a decent photo and be able to edit it / upload it
- Be good at sourcing quality stock images and editing them for the web using programs like PicMonkey or Canva
- Knowing Mailchimp and being able to put together an EDM for a client could also be very handy as well.
What tools do you recommend?
RS: Surprisingly little! You can get started with a smartphone, laptop, internet connection and ABN.
I do interviews using Quicktime and my phone on speaker, but you could invest in a Dictaphone and bug if you wanted to.
Other than that, you don’t need much. You don’t even need a home office – the kitchen table, local library or a co-working space is fine.
What do you enjoy about freelancing?
RS: I adore being able to write for loads of different people and clients. One week I might be working on an article for CHOICE, re-writing a client’s LinkedIn profile, writing an ebook for a childcare centre, or writing and designing a website for an interior designer. It’s never boring.
While some of the jobs I do are more bread 'n butter stuff than things I’m really passionate about, I like the freedom of being my own boss. All the different things I’m asked to do stretch my skills further, I think, than if I was going to the same job every day.
How long have you been a freelance journalist? Do you think there is a secret, a plan or a strategy behind your success?
RS: I’ve been freelance for 18 years. OMG. I hadn’t thought it was that long til you asked me that question and I had to work it out!
I have had success, yes, but I’ve also had lean years – like anyone. And I still have ups and downs. I still have slow patches.
But how do I keep going and keep getting work? There’s no real strategy to it but I think over the years, I’ve become quite good at reinvention. I’ve lost clients and had regular gigs snatched from under me, and that does topple you, but I’ve become quicker at dusting myself off and moving on.
I also try to upskill wherever possible so my skills and knowledge are relevant to what clients want. Being reliable and consistent in the work you hand in is also key, as is forging strong relationships with clients, editors – and other freelancers. Creating those networks is essential for two reasons: potential referrals, firstly, and secondly to create that sense of virtual community. A good freelance posse is everything.
Do you think there is a best practice for applying for the jobs listed on RL?
RS: Yes! My tips would be:
- Research the company and read the job ad carefully to determine what they’re looking for.
- Craft a tight cover letter or intro when applying that shows you’ve done your homework and understand their ‘pain points’, while also succinctly highlighting your talents (the ones that match their brief).
- Inject some surprise or humour into your application – anything that’s different from the 20 applications the job-poster has read before will stand out and it might make the difference between yours being popped onto the ‘short-list’ pile.
- Before you click send, proofread. And, read aloud to make sure your application flows and there are no typos.
- Always ensure you get a green ‘tick’ and an email from us confirming your application has gone through (if you don’t get those things, check with us right away).
- Lastly, don’t take rejection personally – we have a lot of members! And we’re out there working hard to bring you great new opportunities as much as we can and if this isn’t the right job or gig, there’ll surely be another on the way.
Is there anything in your freelance journey that you would have done differently?
RS: Yes. I would’ve been far more proactive in updating and optimising my personal website. I’m so busy with Rachel’s List it has been sorely neglected over the years. And while it does the job in giving me an ‘online presence’, it could be bringing in more leads and be far better optimised than it is so that is definitely on my list to fix for the coming year!