The secret to repeat commissions

This week I pass the aux to Meehika Barua, who only began her freelance career last year and is already writing for Vogue, Elle and The Guardian. She shares her number one tip for regular work

When I started actively freelancing mid-2020, two years after coming to London on a fellowship with Thomson Reuters Foundation, I knew nothing about filing clean copy. Hell, I didn’t even know what the word ‘copy’ meant, until an editor at a big national publication emailed saying, “Your copy required a lot of edits and was a lot of work.” Ouch! The edits were mainly restructuring the paragraphs and line edits to tighten the copy, removing unnecessary colour.

But two week into 2021, and I was officially closed for commissions for January. I had accepted work for around $3000 – six pieces (some reported articles, some personal essays and one celebrity interview) from high-paying publications. I've been living with my parents ever since I actively started freelancing, so it was more than what I needed to make.

Some of my commissions have been from pitches, but a lot of them were assigned by editors for whom I had written 1-2 stories. It’s always flattering when editors reach out to assign stories and I don't have to pitch. But that only happened because my mentor drilled into me the importance of CLEAN COPY from his 20 years in journalism, when I shared that email from that first editor.

Clean copy doesn’t mean your draft won’t be edited – of course, every editor would tweak things – but it means your draft has no grammatical errors, typos, awkward sentences, colour that isn’t the publication’s style/tone, or mundane/repetitive quotes that are endlessly adding to word count. I edit my draft at least twice before filing. I make sure my quotes are crisp and paraphrase instead of putting everything in interview format. Sometimes when I'm too sick of looking at it, I swap it with a fellow freelancer and we give comments or correct typos on each other’s draft.

During my days of interning at several magazines and newspapers, I noticed how editors became frustrated when looking at copy from writers who apparently hadn’t bothered to proofread their work. I often see new writers complaining on journalism groups about a story being killed after they filed, or the editor having ghosted them. It isn’t always the cause of unclean copy and there could be many other reasons, but it is also a major factor that journalists forget to give importance to. It is as crucial as filing on time.

I also think asking for a brief is one of the most useful ways a journalist can protect themselves against heavy and dispiriting edits. I always ask for a brief when an editor commissions me. It's okay if they don't reply to it, sometimes they just want the writer to have a go at it. But sometimes I've filed and it isn't what the editor expected. It's better to ask for a brief, than the story requiring huge edits. I also ask for clips of similar stories they've run on their publication for tone and style. It is because of this that many of my editors have gone ahead and published the stories with little to no edits, saving us both time. They remember me as someone professional that they can rely on.

I'm aware that to many seasoned freelancers, clean copy is obvious. But it wasn't obvious to me when I was starting out. I really feel bad for the first few editors I worked with who probably had to rewrite my copy because I had no idea! First impression is the last impression. If you impress the editor with your draft, they will remember it and come back to you when assigning pieces. They will trust you, value you and reply to your pitches quickly. Editors always need good freelancers, and I’ve found that they are always willing to take a chance on new writers if your pitch is solid and clean. An editor emailed me last week after I filed: “The draft is in excellent shape and I made very little edits.” 

If you want more details on freelancing, I did a panel on freelance journalism – the recording is available on SPA Journalism’s YouTube channel. But if you have specific questions or want to learn step by step on how to get national and international bylines at publications like British Vogue, The Guardian, Vogue US, The Washington Post, etc, you can book freelance journalism consultations with me here.

Meehika Barua is a freelance journalist writing for Vogue US, The Guardian, British Vogue, VICE, Glamour, The Washington Post, Al Jazeera, Elle, The Independent, Insider, Metro, among other publications. She covers culture, lifestyle and social issues, sometimes through the occasional lens of tech and human rights. Follow her on Twitter @meehikabarua