What you need to get started

Before you dive into your cool new career as a freelance journalist, spend some time planning your move – it’ll make the transition that much smoother. Here’s what you’ll need to set yourself up as a writer.

The number one journalist’s must-have: a notebook and pen. Keep these on your person (in your bag or jacket pocket) at all times. Don’t go anywhere without them. As a freelancer writer, you need to come up with fresh story ideas – and your greatest ally is your notebook. Whenever you hear, see, smell, touch, taste, feel, or do something that makes you think, ‘Hmm, now that’s interesting,’ whip out your notebook and write it down, otherwise you’ll forget it. Trust me, you won’t remember that brilliant insight in a few hours’ time when you’re back home at your desk. Write it down immediately – that quote, book title or place name – and you’ll be able to build a whole feature article around it.

A reliable computer with MS Word. If you go the laptop route, invest in a padded computer bag to protect it on your travels. No computer? Simply write up your articles in an exercise book, and then head to your nearest library or Internet café to type them up and email them off.

An Internet connection and email. As a magazine journalist, you’ll do a lot of emailing and Internet research. Make sure your email and Internet connection are reliable, and that you’re able to access your email account to send and receive messages from anywhere. If you don’t have Internet access at home or on your mobile phone, make use of these services at your local library, school or Internet café.

A phone with an answering service. Because a landline is often clearer and cheaper, it’s useful for conducting telephone interviews and making daily admin calls. A mobile phone is essential for taking important calls from editors while you’re, say, researching an environmental story on a remote island in the Indian Ocean. Add a hands-free kit, and a mobile phone makes telephonic interviews a breeze, as you’re able to write notes without scrunching up your shoulder. Ideally, have both a landline and a mobile, plus Skype access to make cheap overseas calls (download the software free from the Internet and buy Skype credit at www.skype.com). Always keep up-to-date telephone directories at your desk.

Three places to save your work. Life happens – power cuts, burglaries, laptops left on trains. As a writer, you need to ensure that you don’t lose your work or, infinitely worse, miss a deadline, despite the chaos around you. The best practice is to save your work daily (or after each chunk of work) in three places:
1. On your computer’s hard drive, PLUS
2. On a disk or USB flash drive/memory stick, PLUS
3. At a third site, located in a different place from your office. This could mean saving your work daily on a computer in a different building, emailing it to your mother, or saving it in cyberspace. It’s easy to open a free email account (try Gmail, Yahoo or Hotmail) and email yourself your work-in-progress daily.
Should the unthinkable happen – your house burns down, a tsunami hits, aliens invade your city – you’ll have less to worry about.

A recording device. Since magazine writing involves lots of interviewing, it’s sensible to invest in a dinky, reliable dictaphone or other recording device such as an iPod. This allows you to sit comfortably and pay attention to your interviewee while he or she speaks, instead of scribbling down notes. Afterwards, you play back the interview, pick out the comments you want to use, and type them up. As an optional extra, consider a manual answering machine or device to record phone interviews. Just remember to let people know you’re recording them.

A regular newspaper. As a writer, you need to know what’s going on in the world. Stay up to date with trends, personalities and current affairs by dipping daily into a newspaper or news website.

Stationery. You’ll need the following:
A few big lever-arch files.
Lots of reliable pens.
A few bright highlighters.
A ledger, A4 exercise book or other large notebook in which to make notes, write up telephone interviews, sketch plans of your articles, and write up your stories by hand if you don’t have a computer at home.
Essential reference books, kept on a shelf within arm’s reach. I recommend a good dictionary (Oxford or Collins) and a thesaurus such as the classic Roget’s Thesaurus. A grammar guide is useful too: try the Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar or Fowler’s Modern English Usage.


Ask a writer

How do you market and promote yourself?

‘I’m a member of SAFREA (South African Freelancers Association and Media Professionals Forum), which lists my profile on their website. I also keep in touch with a few select editors. But I think the best way to market yourself is to view every piece of copy that appears with your byline as an ad for your services. As a features editor, I learned that there were many, many writers who might try to schmooze me, but whether they saw me in person, phoned or emailed, it was seeing good work from them that I remembered. And those who pestered me relentlessly I couldn’t abide. Vigorous self-promotion can be a red flag that you’re not very good, because you’re clearly not very busy.’
Laura Twiggs, freelance writer and editor

‘The basis of promoting yourself is getting your name out there, in the press (if you’re in print media) so that people recognise your name when you ring them up. This is particularly important for freelancers who don’t always have the name of a big title behind them when they make that introductory phone call. Beyond that, it helps to have a website that lists your contact details and CV. Have a professional signature on your email, with your title, contact details and links to relevant websites.’
Leonie Joubert, freelance science journalist and author