Is Freelancing a Viable Career for Recent Grads?
When most people graduate from college, the traditional next step is to find a job. Nurses join hospitals, teachers join schools, but does a writer have to go straight to a newspaper or magazine? What about freelancing as a career?
The media industry is particularly fluid. And career trajectories never have to look one way. Some industries start recruiting college seniors months before they graduate, but that’s not often the case for media. Newsrooms are also volatile, experiencing layoffs, restructures, and closures — so the jobs that do exist are particularly competitive or already occupied.
The one bright spot is that full-time freelancing is a real possibility in this industry, and it’s becoming extremely common. But is it a viable option for a recent college graduate? Or do you need years of experience and a strong network to be successful?
How do you get started?
“I definitely fell into freelancing,” Hanna Merzbach, an Oregon-based journalist, said. She applied to a full-time role that ultimately went to someone else, but the company offered her the opportunity to freelance for them. Similarly, Andreina Rodriguez, a 2020 St. John’s University graduate, started freelancing after struggling to find full-time work upon graduation.
No matter how you come to freelance writing, knowing how to break into the industry is usually a top priority. While there’s no one way to do it, you often have to go to publications before they’ll come to you. This means finding editors and sending them pitches.
When you send pitch emails, most editors want to know what the story is, how you plan to write it, and why you’re the best person to do so. These days, many publications have pitch guides that share exactly what they’re looking for and how to get in contact. “Don’t beat yourself up over the fact that learning these things that seem simple can take a long time,” said Jade Fabello, an Austin-based freelance writer.
Do you need to have a niche?
It can help to focus on a certain niche or beat — maybe that’s social justice, business, arts and culture, or science. “One of the focuses that I had was Latinx community,” Rodriguez said. She’d been given the advice to look at things that were in the news cycle and then approach those topics through one focus point.
The first article she published came after George Floyd’s death in May 2020, when there was increased demand in the media industry for conversations about race.
“So my question was ‘How can we talk about race in the Latinx community?’” she said.
With a good idea and compelling pitch, you’d be surprised how many editors are willing to work with writers who have less experience. Once you start building a portfolio, it gets easier to get work. “Once I started to write for one publication, places knew my name and it was easier to pitch,” Merzbach said.
Can you make a full-time income as a freelance writer right out of college?
All three agree it’s hard to make a full-time income freelancing right off the bat. “I would generally recommend having other ways to support yourself,” Fabello said.
“In theory, it could work,” he continued, “but learning how to make it work is something that takes time.”
Finding some kind of part-time work — writing-related or not — that provides financial stability and consistency while you’re building your freelance career doesn’t make you less of a writer, it just makes you strategic. Of course, it also helps when publishers pay fairly and on time.
Are there any specific resources for new graduates?
The Writer’s Co-Op, a podcast and membership program, is a great resource mentioned by both Merzbach and Rodriguez for learning the business side of the profession.
“Opportunity newsletters” like Study Hall and one by journalist Sonia Weiser compile pitch calls from editors who are looking for specific stories and can give you a more targeted approach when brainstorming ideas.
Many editors often share these opportunities on Twitter, so it might be worth making an account there, too.
Are there benefits to starting your career this way?
“[Freelancing] gave me so many new perspectives that I didn’t even know were possible,” Rodriguez said, who now works in a full-time journalism role.
However, starting your career as a freelancer can also bring a lot to the media industry, too. “I appreciate the efforts to try to find ways to make it [the working world] less stupid and bad,” Fabello explained.
Between work-related burnout, anxiety, and the lack of flexibility, traditional work environments are becoming less appealing to some. In many ways, freelancing from the get-go is a way to reclaim some power and establish agency over the ways this new generation works, earns, and contributes their skills to the workforce.
Since the start of the pandemic, there’s been discussion about the 40-hour workweek. In many ways, it’s failing workers. For Fabello, half the appeal of freelancing is that it breaks this outdated model. And in 10 years, he hopes to still be doing it. “I would rather have this more flexible schedule,” he said. “I’m more interested in having a good work-life balance or just being happy and enjoying life.”
Katherine McLaughlin is a writer and journalist based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Business Insider, Architectural Digest, Well + Good, Real Simple, ReWire, and Roadtrippers Magazine, among other places. She’s from Indianapolis and graduated from The New School.
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