Freelance journalism involves juggling deep existential crises and chasing people for tiny sums but it also offers you the freedom to work in your pyjamas!
About 18 years ago, I worked as a legal correspondent for the Economic Times in Mumbai, my first job in journalism. I scuttled from one courtroom to another covering corporate wrongdoing, all the while wishing I could write on books, art, travel, anything more interesting than Section 149, subsection 12, of The Companies Act. I didn’t know freelancing existed, but if I had, I would have thought of it as something housewives did from home, badly paid, poorly respected, definitely second best.
Years later, I am now a freelancer. This month I wrote about mutton, the military, motherhood, a new documentary film, sexual education, an Istanbul food tour and JK Rowling’s new novel. I have written for magazines in the US, UK, the UAE, Scandinavia, and Hong Kong. I do all this sitting in Bangalore and working in my pyjamas. I am still badly paid and poorly respected, but I no longer think freelancing is second best.
Does this make you want to quit your job and write? Hold your horses. It’s not entirely the artistic profession you think it is. I see myself not so much as a creative, but as-oh dreadful thought!-a salesperson. Yes, I am more or less the writing equivalent of those chaps who go door to door selling the Encyclopaedia Britannia. Freelancing means pitching editors every week for work. Freelancing means deep existential crises, “If an editor does not reply to your pitch, are you a real journalist?” Freelancing means either being absolutely frantic with work or frantic for work. Freelancing means chasing people for tiny sums and filling out more paperwork than for a Schengen visa. So why then, would anyone want to freelance? For me, it’s about the variety. I like that I can write on health one day and detective fiction the next. I like that I have interviewed Vikram Seth and Norman Mailer, but also street children and Yakshagana artists.
One of the experiences I am proudest of is a interview I did with the reclusive author Lionel Shriver for Elle. There’s probably no other journalist in India who has read every one of Lionel’s 12 or more books, but I had. And when I did meet Lionel, her icy exterior quickly melted when she realised I knew she hated to talk about ‘Kevin’. Later Lionel wrote me an email “wishing me joy”, which I still treasure. I’d never have the time to do that kind of thorough job on staff.
Show me the money, you say? I am not going to pretend that freelancing is well paid or steady. With rates in India hovering at Rs 5 per word, often paid months later, I‘d be stupid to try. BUT it can be better paid than you think. The smartest freelancers don’t rely on writing for low-paying Indian magazines for their income. I focus on foreign publications, but not just the well-known ones. My best paying assignment was a US$1.50 per word assignment for an obscure Texan trade magazine, which covered conferences. I also do media training and writing workshops.
Also, here’s a little secret. Editors pay writers who negotiate more. Most Indian writers think talking about money is dirty, but when you have been in this business as long as I have, you learn to get past your Indian upbringing. Haggling like a fishwife helped me coax a British tabloid, that wanted a brief story on the 26/11 attacks, to go from £150 to £1000.
Despite the peaks and troughs, I so enjoy the freelance life that I wrote a book about it earlier this year, called Everything You Wanted to Know About Freelance Journalism (out from Westland, and available on Flipkart and Amazon.in), along with my co-author Charukesi Ramadurai. The book has sold over half of its print run in three months; clearly a lot of people think freelancing isn’t second best any more. As for those who think “real” journalism is done by staffers, I can’t claim to have changed the world. I love writing about books, culture, people — things not greatly admired in a country where the only “serious” journalism is about politics and business. But this year, some of the really important stories in India — about Badaun, caste, health, the police force — have been written by my fellow freelancers. Editors are finally waking up to the fact that freelancers can be just as good, or better, than staffers. And hey, with all those editors being fired these days, perhaps learning how to freelance is a good skill to fall back on.
Kavitha Rao’s work is at www.kavitharao.net