Donald W. Reynolds National Center For Business Journalism

Two Minute Tips

Navigating through finance as a freelancer

March 30, 2022

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Photo by Karolina Grabowska

Freelancing is a double-edged sword: it comes without the security and benefits of a full-time job but allows for greater flexibility to pursue a wider range of opportunities and lifestyle choices. 

Because of the very nature of freelancing, journalists must take extra steps to ensure that their pay for each assignment matches up with the work they are doing. Here are some tips to make sure that you are being compensated quickly and fairly.

Map out your personal expenses

When you go to pitch a story, map out the amount of expenses it will accrue for you. How many hours of work will it take to research and write the piece? Can you complete the article without leaving your home, or will you need to factor in public transportation or gas and food expenses? If you are being asked to review a destination or a product, will the publication cover the costs to access that?

Write a list of expenses and potential expenses down either on a piece of paper or in a Word document or Excel spreadsheet. That way, you better evaluate whether a publication is planning to compensate you fairly for your work. You can include this information when pitching your story to various editors and outlets, giving them a better idea of what resources you require to complete a project.

Finally, factor in tax withholding from your compensation when planning out your expenses to understand your final take-home pay.

Understand your worth, and who you’re working with

Just as journalists tailor their pitches to the specific publication that they are pitching to, they should tailor their strategy for dealing with the financial aspects of a freelance agreement the same way. Many organizations, including the Reynolds Center, maintain a flat compensation fee and minimum word count requirement for all their freelance articles. This greatly simplifies the negotiation process between publications and freelance writers. 

Other publications have a set budget for freelancers that can be doled out at the discretion of the editor. This means that writers not only have to convince the editor that their pitch is worth publishing, but also that it is worth paying fairly for. Remember–you know your story and its worth better than anyone. If it is generating interest, remain confident in the fact that you are on the right track, and avoid selling yourself short! Understanding how your stories generate interest over time–and providing hard data to show that interest–can also provide a huge boost in the negotiation process.

Most importantly, once you and a publication have agreed on compensation, get it in writing. This allows both parties to hold each other accountable to what they have decided upon.

Get your information in order

Freelancers and contractors are federally required to fill out a W9 form for tax purposes, which is provided by the entity they are performing the job for. The form is fairly straightforward–for the vast majority of freelance writers, they will need to submit:

  • Their name as it appears on their tax returns
  • What type of entity they are (in most cases, this means “Individual/sole proprietor or single-member LLC”)
  • Their address and the address of the publication or entity that is paying them
  • Their taxpayer identification number–for U.S. citizens, this is generally their social security number. For foreign residents or other entities, information on how to obtain their taxpayer identification number is included in the W9 document.
  • Their signature and date of signing

Many publications will have an additional contract to sign or additional forms to fill out that may ask for additional personal information. Read through those documents all the way through before handing over your signature or anything else that could compromise you at a later date.

Lastly, stay in touch with a contact at the publication that you are working with, preferably the editor who will oversee getting your work published. It can be extremely helpful to establish a rapport between yourself and your contact in order to strengthen the professional relationship.

Freelancing is entrepreneurial

Freelancing can work for a lot of different people in a lot of different lifestyles for a variety of reasons, but it takes more than great writing to freelance. It takes becoming an entrepreneur to freelance on a full-time basis. Preparing for your expenses, understanding your worth as a journalist, knowing your publication and audience, and staying on top of tax documentation can all help you become a successful freelancer.

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