$1,000 from one idea

$1,000 from one idea

It’s very difficult to answer the question: ‘How long does it take to write a good quality article?’

But I know this question is often asked by newcomers to the writing game, so to give at least some estimate or idea of how long I might take to write a freelance article, here is one example (a journalistic article) I completed recently. It’s not a travel article, but it will give clues to how to work effectively.

My pitch was for an article based on an interview with a young girl who was a shut in – she basically didn’t leave her parent’s apartment for a year. VICE Asia bought the idea, and I set to work. The work comprised:

  1. Setting up the meeting and interview with the girl through social workers and charities – various emails and phone calls just to find someone like her who was willing to talk to a journalist.
  2. Travelling to the interview place and interviewing her.
  3. Phone interviews with 3–4 other professionals who could shed light on this issue, on this mental condition.
  4. Research into the condition of social reclusiveness in general, especially in Japan, Hong Kong and Asian societies.
  5. Finding a translator to translate the interview, as the girl only spoke Cantonese.
  6. Finding a photographer to photograph the girl.
  7. Finally, with all the above gathered, the writing!

I estimate all the above points, 1–7, took about 30–40 hours in total – that is a very rough guesstimate, and those hours were obviously spread over various days. In fact, this particular commission, from initial pitch to filing the final article, took place over the course of about 6 months!

Even more interesting, I think, from a freelancing point of view, is that I didn’t even have the interview done or arranged when I initially pitched. It was only when I won the commission that I decided to spend the time and effort to find a reclusive subject willing to talk. There’s no point in spending valuable hours on this kind of thing if it won’t pay off.

VICE paid me just under US$400 for that. Is that a ‘decent’ fee for that work? Probably not. There are far better-paid jobs you can find, that don’t take anywhere near as much time and effort, and that also pay better. But this was a story I really wanted to write.

Plus, a second important takeaway: I was able to increase the average hourly fee I earned by pitching a similar, though different version of the story to another publication. I had already done most of the hard work – which is the research – so by spending just a few more hours on an extra write, I could more than double the money earned.

My second pitch was focused on the social workers who worked with Tung, the girl I interviewed. As it happens when the SCMP saw my article, they wanted something rather more similar to the VICE piece, and after the edits and extras they requested, the two stories ended up with similar angles, focused on Tung herself.

In the end, having sold the two articles off the back of the research and interviews done, I earned just over US$1,000 for the time I spent. Much better, though still not raking it in.

Here are the two stories, if you’re interested:

VICE: Hong Kong Now Has Its Own ‘Hikikomori’ Problem Where Young People Are Shutting the Door on Society

SCMP: Hong Kong’s hidden youth: why city’s young are becoming recluses

The main lesson here for me was that when you have a good idea, and especially when you have good access – not many people would take the time or have the inclination to even start the research on what could have (should have?) been a non-starter of an idea – you win assignments.

7 thoughts on “$1,000 from one idea

  1. Good to know other writers are putting in long hours for short pay. My article for a national newspaper easily took 40 hours of research and writing followed by four rewrites for an editor who couldn’t decide on the length or angle. But I totally enjoyed writing the article and seeing it published on the front page. But you’ve inspired me to double that $450 paycheck by pitching it to another client.

    1. Good to know Kim yes! And absolutely. In fact I argue if you’re living the freelance life, especially if your work mostly comprises journlism and single gigs (as opposed to content marketing and retainers), it’s crazy NOT to resell them to multiple clients. Also why I advocate simultaneous pitching to multiple editors and organizations.

  2. Thank you for this post! I have a question — do you tell the 2nd editor (where you are planning to pitch the 2nd spin) that you’ve already written a piece on that topic? do you tell your first editor that you are writing a second piece? Hate to step on toes in this business, and I’m wondering how that conversation would go … .thanks again.

    1. Yes, transparency is key of course. I told VICE I was selling a similar story to SCMP – the only thing they wanted to be sure of was that the piece I did for them was published first. It was. I told SCMP I was writing a story about this girl for VICE, and asked if they would like a piece about the social workers, especially the animal-assisted therapy, that got her out of her slump and back into the world. They said yes. As I said, when they saw that version of the story they in fact wanted something much closer to my original VICE angle, which was fine by me, and also VICE (as they published weeks prior). So everyone was happy!

  3. Thanks for sharing… that bit about the combination of good idea and good access resonates with me – and given some pitch ideas. Thanks!!

    1. Common? Probably not, but possible, yes. The Post pays about US$0.30 a word, plus they also paid half the translator fee (US$130-ish), and I think the fee I mentioned includes that fee too.

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