Earlier this year, I was part of a panel discussion in Tokyo for the Society of Writers, Editors and Translators during which I gave a presentation on the business of writing about Japan as a freelancer – about finding work, choosing who to work with, and other aspects of the job.
From time to time, new writers and students get in touch to ask for advice about becoming a writer—I’m always happy to try and answer questions—and so I thought I’d put my notes from the SWET presentation into this post just in case some of what’s here might be useful to writers trying to get into freelancing.
Before reading, please bear in mind that the notes are in fairly rough form, more often than not just extended bullet points. Also, the focus is on freelancing, not finding full-time work as a journalist or at a publication (that’s a very different beast). Being a presentation in Tokyo for Tokyo-based writers, the focus is also on writing from Japan, although there are many points in here (pitching, marketing, etc) that aren’t specific to Japan-based writers. Finally, this is by no means a definitive guide, it’s just advice that comes from my experiences as a writer – there are many, many other ways to approach the job, probably many of them better than the way I go about it.
Anyway, here are parts 1, 2 and 3 (I’ll post the rest separately), on how to find work, who to write for (in Japan and overseas) and (because travel is a large part of my work) what is travel writing.
PART 1: HOW TO FIND WORK AND HAVE WORK FIND YOU
- Contact a publication directly with a detailed pitch for a specific story.
- Contact a publication to introduce yourself and ask if you can send ideas or be considered for work.
- Send a publication a full story “on spec”.
- Keep and online bio and portfolio that’s easy for editors/publishers to find.
- Join professional organizations.
- Do a good job. Be professional. Word of mouth works wonders even across borders in media.
- Create a social media strategy, if you think it can help you reach your goals. Don’t be afraid to ignore it and use that time elsewhere, if not.
Contact a publication directly with a detailed pitch for a specific story
You need to be proactive to land good assignments. That means contacting publications that aren’t advertising a need for writers (in most cases, publications advertising for contributors have no or a very low budget). Let’s start with the pitch that I used to get my first story in Time magazine.
Twenty years ago, Naoshima—an island just off the northern coast of rural Shikoku—was a small fishing community in decline. Today, the island is the centerpiece of Japan’s contemporary art scene. And it would be a great fit for the Global Adviser section of TIME. Would you be interested in a 400-word piece about the island, titled “5 Reasons to Visit Naoshima”? I would include:
Benesse House Museum: Art set to a natural soundtrack of lapping waves and birdsong. The inside, with works by Hockney, Pollock and Warhol, is impressive, but it’s the 20 outdoor installations scattered around the surrounding beaches and hillside that really define the site.
Honmura Art House Project: On the outside it’s a sleepy fishing village, but look more closely and several of the old wooden houses, as well as a temple and a shrine, have been transformed into permanent art installations.
Chichu Art Museum: This sleek Tadao Ando-designed museum built into a hillside is home to a collection that includes Monet, Walter de Maria and James Turrell.
I love Yu: A modern take on the traditional Japanese public bath, I Love Yu is plastered inside and out with pop art, ceramic tile mosaics and even a bit of erotica.
The Man with the Red Tattoo Museum: More like the attic of a crazed collector than a conventional museum, this collection of James Bond memorabilia was inspired by Raymond Benson’s Naoshima-based 007 novel of the same name. [Bio follows…]
Some thoughts on pitching
- Pitch to the correct person (check the masthead, dig up their direct email, don’t waste time emailing info@ or other addresses that lead straight to the slush pile).
- Study the publication a little beforehand. Know what they want and how they want it. Do they like short and punchy sentences or something longer? What kind of tempo? You often hear talk about developing your own style, but it also helps to develop the ability to write in any style a publication needs.
- If you think the idea is a good fit, pitch to a specific part of the publication AND in the style of the publication.
- Add a brief bio/info on experience.
- Use a clear subject line (Pitch: Global Adviser section, 5 Reasons to Visit Naoshima, Japan)
- Can be time consuming, BUT it can also be tweaked and reused.
- In the case of the sample here, it formed the majority of the actual story.
- Don’t be afraid to follow up on a pitch. Emails get missed. People can forget to reply or just need a nudge because they are busy.
Contact a publication to introduce yourself and ask if you can send ideas or be considered for work
Again, here is an example of a simple introduction email. This (or something like it) has been quite effective as an icebreaker over the years.
Dear USE THEIR NAME,
Hello. I read your recent feature on Osaka and was wondering if you would have any interest in other Japan-related articles? If so, may I send you some pitches or be considered for any Japan coverage you might be planning?
I’m a Tokyo-based writer covering Japan for the last decade for publications that have included National Geographic Traveler, TIME, the Economist 1843, and the Independent. My work ranges from guides and travel narratives to interviews with artisans and features on food and drink, with recent work including this online guide to Tokyo for Nat Geo, this story about the cat that saved a Japanese railway for the BBC, a piece on bull sumo on the remote Oki Islands for Roads & Kingdoms, and this book on Japan’s traditional inns.
Thank you for your time.
- This kind of email is extremely time effective.
- Can get a dialogue started; the editor can reply without having to commit, and you can take it from there (asking about sections open to pitches, and so on)
- Can lack personalization, so tweak it a little each time.
- Works better when your bio shows you are experienced (pitches and on spec are more effective for newer writers). It’s sad, but name-dropping certain publications can make a pitch or an intro letter more appealing.
- Can be adapted to magazines, book publishers and all sorts.
- Like a pitch, make sure you are sending it to the correct person and use their name. Also like a pitch, don’t be afraid to follow-up (I tend to wait a fortnight), if you don’t get a reply.
Send a story on spec
“On spec” means to send a complete story (or the first part of a complete story) to a publication in the hope that they will want it.
- Negotiations for fees, rights usage and so on naturally come after acceptance. Make sure you stress this is an offer to sell work, not a free submission of the piece.
- Can be an effective way for inexperienced/new writers to break into a publication, if the story is good OR if the publication has a gap to plug (and publications often spring leaks).
- It’s best not to send the same on spec story to multiple publications. You can only sell it to one at a time and depending on the rights you sell there will likely be other limitations.
- Just like a pitch, an on-spec story needs to be a fit for the publication and a particular section therein. If they don’t publish 2,000-word first-person travelogues, don’t send them one.
Keep and online bio and portfolio that’s easy for editors/publishers to find.
Over the years this has been how I’ve got the majority of new clients.
- I keep a simple and infrequently updated website aimed at potential clients (not general readers). It contains a basic bio, a portfolio of samples, and contact info: tokyofreelance.com. Every writer and photographer, in my opinion, must have something like this.
- I also have my details on about half a dozen websites used by media professionals: NATJA, BGTW, LinkedIn, etc.
- The above bios need updating about twice a year, but that takes very little time.
Join professional organizations
- Good places to communicate with and meet people actually doing the same job. Professionally I often feel isolated in Tokyo, as there are very few people doing what I do fully freelance and full time. That makes professional organizations overseas (with online activity) very useful.
- Offer professional development seminars, webinars and so on.
- Not just for full-time travel writers. Most have associate memberships.
- Have forums, job boards, email alerts and so on with info on new publications, editors looking for writers, etc.
- Have annual awards for writers – these can be great for marketing.
Do a good job. Be professional. Word of mouth works wonders even across borders in media.
Here’s an example of why this is such good marketing. Many years ago, I did a few hotel reviews for an Asia-wide guidebook whose editor was based in Hong Kong. A year later another editor got in touch on the HK editor’s recommendation. This turned out to be a $2/word market, with interesting assignments. Emailing with this editor one day, he suggested I contact someone he knew at Time. I did (with the earlier pitch). That was another new client. Years later, I pitched an inflight magazine in the US. The editor said he remembered my name from when he worked as a copy-ed at Time. And on (hopefully) it goes.
- Word of mouth and publication-to-publication recommendations are a great source of work. As is the movement of editors across publications. Bear in mind that many magazines are published by companies that produce several or dozens of publications. It’s not uncommon to end up working for multiple titles for these companies, if you maintain a solid reputation.
- Make your deadlines. If you can’t, don’t reschedule at the last-minute. There is often wiggle room and editors are usually fine with delays, but you need to ask for it in advance.
- Don’t flake out. If you take a gig for $500 and then a $5,000 gig comes along at the same time, you still have to do the $500 gig to the best of your ability.
- Follow your brief, deliver clean copy. If the assignment is for 600 words, deliver as close to 600 as possible (not 900, not 450)
- Don’t be a diva, but do stick up for yourself and your work when needed (and with a cool head).
- Help out a bit. If your editor is struggling to contact a source for images because of language issues, it’ll take you just two minutes to email in Japanese for them. There’s no need to charge an additional fee for that. If they want to add a new 500-word section not in the original brief, however, that requires an additional fee.
Create a social media strategy, if you think it can help you reach your goals. Don’t be afraid to ignore it and use that time elsewhere, if not. (updated 8/2020)
- With marketing, one size doesn’t fit all.
- I don’t use Twitter. I have an Instagram account for connecting with others in the media industry; not to be an influencer. I started it during the pandemic as a way to keep in touch with others. Likewise, Facebook I use only for two professional, private groups (including one I founded for travel media in Japan: https://www.facebook.com/groups/568677747411442/). I check neither daily, and all told don’t spend much time on social media. If I were a blogger or influencer, who needed to communicate directly with an audience (and build their own audience), I would be much, much more active. One size really doesn’t fit all. But the kind of clients that hire me (editors, publications, agencies and so on) don’t tend to trawl through the noise of social media looking for writers. We find each other in other ways (see above), and I write for their audiences, which they build. So, I don’t need social media for getting work or building a reputation. The idea that you must be active (or very active) on social media is a fallacy that many new writers fall for.
- Whether writing full time or part time, time is precious. The less I need to spend marketing, the better. It means more time writing and improving as a writer. That means being clinical (or trying to be) with my marketing.
- It might be different for you, but ask yourself a question: does the time you spend on social media for work bring in enough income to justify it? Do you think it ever will? Does it help you in any other ways, such as creating a sense of connection with others? Writing might be creative, but it’s also a business and a business still needs a business plan and goals – think about social media’s place and effectiveness in your planning.
PART 2: WHO TO WRITE FOR?
The obvious first step: publications in Japan
- There are some good English-language publications in Japan that could be worth getting experience with or targeting for full-time work. Examples: Tokyo Time Out, Japan Times, iNTOUCH, Weekender, Tokyo Cheapo, Kyoto Journal.
- They tend to be fairly easy to break into.
- Good for getting clippings that can build a portfolio for targeting other work. Or just a nice way to do a bit of writing for fun on the side and see it in print, if that’s your thing.
- Tend to be open to a greater variety of Japan-related content and story ideas as Japan is their sole focus.
- English-language media in Japan represents a small fraction of the global industry, and a fraction that (excluding international media outlets here) generally isn’t very well developed or funded.
- It generally doesn’t pay professional freelance rates. For a full-time freelance career, it can really help to look outward.
- Some English-language publications in Japan don’t provide much editing, have poor production quality, or don’t seem to understand copyright laws, writers’ rights, and more. Can often be amateurish. That said, the ones listed above have good reputations.
To make a freelance career viable: publications and clients outside Japan
- Japan has a handful of English-language publications, but the US, UK, Australia, and other places between them have thousands, and many of these are open to travel and non-travel pieces about Japan.
- When I started, however, a few things soon made it clear that not many writers in Japan were successfully targeting these. The most obvious was that despite being inexperienced I was getting contacted (via a simple online portfolio) by decent publications looking for writers in Japan.
- The main thing: pay levels that make a freelance career viable. It’s an easy choice between 10,000 yen to 50,000 yen for a 1,000-word story in Japan or 50,000 yen to 200,000 yen for exactly the same work for reputable overseas publications. I can’t churn out a well-written and well-researched 1,000-word story in a day, so it’s impossible to do 1,000 words for 20,000 yen or 30,000 yen. It varies on the exact content (list articles are quicker, in-depth features take a long time), but spread over a longer period a 1,000-worder might require up to a full week’s work. That requires a full week’s pay.
- There are very few in my eyes, but it can sometimes be hard to convince overseas publications to cover lesser-known places and experiences. Many want the same thing: Tokyo, Kyoto, food, sumo, geisha, and other usual suspects.
PART 3: WHAT TO WRITE ABOUT? WHAT IS TRAVEL WRITING?
If you read blogs, first-person features and travelogues often dominate. In reality, those kind of stories are in the minority in magazines and travel sections. The umbrella of travel writing covers many types of stories: front-of-book shorts, city guides, craftsman interviews, hotel/restaurant reviews, top 5/10/20 lists, and many, many others. These don’t just appear in travel-focused publications like in-flight magazines or National Geographic Traveler, all sorts of publications will have sections into which travel and culture pieces fit. Broadsheets have travel sections, for example, and even business magazines often have a section dedicated to leisure. Look far and wide and you will find numerous opportunities.
Then, of course, there are guidebooks or other travel- and culture-related books. Writing a book is one option (with royalties—when a royalty deal is available—roughly being 10% of sales), but don’t overlooking updating work and editing guides. The larger guide makers typically update every two to three years and although some will offer risible fees, many pay fairly (on a work-for-hire, not royalty, basis). They represent a good opportunity for ongoing work, provide travel experiences (sometimes with expenses covered, sometimes not, but in the latter tourist boards might help support your travel) that you can turn into features and other articles, and for me were an important step toward writing my own books.