The Accidental Journalist: 3 Lessons from a Freelance Writer’s Career

Freelance Journalist Eileen Beal. Photo by Steve Zorc.

Freelance Journalist Eileen Beal. Photo by Steve Zorc.

Many journalists come to the craft the traditional way. The desire likely started at a young age, so they attended J-school and began their chase for jobs and assignments.

For freelance journalist Eileen Beal, the journey was not quite as simple.

Beal started out as a teacher, but fiction was her passion and she eventually left teaching. Prior to ebooks and blogging, it was even more difficult to break into the fiction market, so Beal turned to non-fiction.

For the last few decades, Beal has written for local and national publications, including Crain’s Cleveland Business, Healthcare News and Hospital Report, MD News, Cleveland Plain Dealer, and The Charleston Gazette. She also served as associate editor/special sections editor with Cleveland Jewish News and managing editor of Western Reserve Magazine.

“It took me four years to think of myself as a writer and not just ‘used to be a teacher,'” she acknowledges.

Without formal journalism training, Beal learned by doing, and in an interview with Beyond Bylines, she shared some of her journalism lessons.

Lesson 1: Tap into your personal interests and expertise

“I never pitched something I was incapable of doing,” says Beal. She began writing features on what she knew best.

While education and travel assignments were a natural leap from her previous experience as a teacher and historian, they also unexpectedly helped her when she wrote about healthcare.

As she delved into health writing, she realized how similar the human body is to a building. Her study of architecture and the connection between a building’s bones and skin added a unique insight into her reporting.

When you’re engaged and passionate about something, she says, it’s not only easier to write, but the end result will also be stronger.

Lesson 2: Study your edits

Beal adapted her personal writing style to journalistic best practices along the way.

“Editors helped draw the best out of me,” she admits. For example, she had a habit of providing many examples to make a point but learned to narrow her focus.

She listened to editor feedback and compared the original and final drafts of articles. She highlighted changes and adapted future assignments to reflect them.

As the industry changes, though, she worries about new journalists trying to make a freelance living. There are not as many jobs, and editors don’t have much time to work with inexperienced freelancers.

It was a sentiment echoed by a recent Press Club of Cleveland panel, where four editors discussed how to develop a lasting freelancer-editor relationship.

Lesson 3: Keep looking for the next door

Although a freelancer can look to their passions as a starting point, it’s not enough. You must develop specific expertise to make yourself marketable to publishers.

Beal describes the refinement process as walking through a series of increasingly smaller doors.

When she started writing features for The Plain Dealer healthcare section, she wrote about a number of topics including massage, aromatherapy, and alternative medicine. Then she looked closer at the industry and realized “there’s a universe of health topics, and I can’t know it all.”

So she focused on what interested her the most – geriatric medicine and aging. This led to writing for news outlets such as Aging Today and Arthritis Today, as well as in-house writing for Western Reserve Area Agency on Aging, Kaiser-Permanente, Cleveland Clinic Foundation, and other organizations.

“I think the next door I open within aging is the caregiving door,” says Beal. “I’m always still trying to figure it out.”

In fact, as she continues to figure it out, she finds her writing career is coming full circle. Although she will continue with some freelance assignments, she’s currently preparing for a return to fiction.

If you’re considering making a jump to freelance, read our post Freelancing 101: A Guide to Getting Started.

Are you a freelancer? Register for PR Newswire for Journalists to customize multiple newsfeeds around the different topics you cover, or use our ProfNet service to quickly connect with sources for research and interviews. It’s free and takes only a few moments to sign up.

Amanda Hicken is a former media relations manager at PR NewswireFollow her at @ADHicken for tweets about the media, comic books, and her love of Cleveland.

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