An eight-step guide to becoming a freelance culture writer

Speaking to artists about their work is a gift, but it’s not going to come easy or make you a millionaire. Here’s how you can do it.

by Douglas Greenwood
05 August 2021, 8:00am

Being a freelance culture writer who can earn a living has the breakthrough success rate of becoming a C-List pop star, with just as shaky a shelf-life and as many precarities and pay-offs. The highs are high, the lows are low. But how do you actually become a self-employed writer covering the arts, spending your Tuesday mornings at press screenings of unreleased movies and interviewing musicians you love?

It’s not easy, but certainly not impossible either.

Step one: Do you really want to do this?

The first step in becoming a freelance culture writer is asking yourself how badly you want to do it, and knowing that -- as is standard for any job in the media in particular -- drive and determination alone isn’t going to get you there. A lot of it, as you'll know, boils down to factors like your financial stability: those with inherited income, or a parent who can sub them London rent every month, are the ones who almost certainly win every time. That’s because so much of the culture journalism industry -- and journalism in general -- is cultivated by the upper and middle classes and their children.

Internships are unpaid. Jobs that do prop up are highly in demand, pay fairly little, and come with the added bonus of bosses breathing down your neck. But by forgoing those barriers completely, you can start to forge your own path from your bedroom.

Step two: College is cute, but not necessary

The nice thing about being self-employed and writing about the arts is that nobody asks about your university or college degree. The only way you can really get better at writing is by doing it. In lieu of essays, write reviews or think pieces on movies you love. Contemplate your relationships with art, and question why you did (or didn’t) connect with something.

Step three: Start an online magazine

The first hurdle is access. Any publicist is going to ask you who you write for when you email them and ask to see a new movie or hear a record early. The answer? Make your own. Jump on Wordpress or another blogging platform and find a place where you can store all of your writing on the art you have thoughts on. Give it a fancy name. Populate it as often as you can, because practise makes perfect.

Go see movies when the tickets are cheap, or rewatch old movies you feel may have a greater relevance now. An album celebrating its 5, 10 or 20 year anniversary? Revisit it and write about what it means -- not to you, but its cultural impact and who may have used it as a reference today. Before long, you’ll have built up enough of a portfolio to pretend to editors and publicists this is your job, and you aren’t actually fobbing off shoes in an out-of-town shopping centre as your real source of income.

William Miller of Almost Famous

Step four: Believe you’re the shit

Delusion is the greatest gift you can give yourself when you first start out. Aim higher than you think seems realistic, because chances are you’ll get something over the line anyway -- especially if you have proven to a publicist you have the skills of stringing a sentence together and saying interesting things about their artists.

Continue to populate your own platforms with your writing in the meantime. Write personal essays, critiques -- anything, mainly to remind yourself that you can write even when there are long spells where nothing feels like it’s happening. Once you’ve worked on it, start applying for local festivals or gigs. Accumulating minor flexes like this always adds up to a far more alluring bigger picture.

Step five: Get pitching

At this point, write your first pitch for an outlet and accept that it will likely be terrible. Think of the headline, it’ll streamline your idea. Search LinkedIn and Twitter for editors’ names and then google their email format. Google again to see if someone has written your piece already, and if they have, ensure your take is different enough for someone to justifiably spend money on it. Look for the conflict of your topic, and centre it as the main issue you want to address or find a resolution to.

Take notes of ideas. Write them on your phone and then redraft them on your laptop, or vice versa. Want to interview someone? Think not of what makes them great but of what makes them flawed, and use that observation as your entry point. The basic ‘how did this album/movie come to be?’ question you’re planning to ask has likely been asked to that same subject a dozen times that day. Go deeper — look for the interesting flashes in something, something maybe the artist themselves haven’t noticed.

These are general, but also be mindful of your style. Pitching an irreverent fashion and culture title like i-D? Be smart but fresh. It goes without saying, make sure you’ve read the publication you want to pitch for. Yes, we all want to write for the New Yorker, but unfortunately they’re not likely to accept your 5000-word Rita Ora opus. Wanting a byline doesn’t mean your natural style is suited to them, so be prepared to versatile with subject and tone — and always keep it snappy.

Then, prepare yourself for rejection. It’s a hard slog, but know that just because your idea wasn’t right for one editor, that doesn’t mean another magazine’s staff won’t think it’s ingenious.

johnny depp in fear and loathing in las vegas

Step six: Be annoying and find a mentor

Find someone in the industry who is patient enough to listen to what you have to say. The old-aged trope of success being built on who you know rather than what you know is, disappointingly, still true. But a lot of the barriers that once existed before have been softened by social media. Message someone in the industry that you rate and ask them if they need anything. Be available, positive and interested -- but know your boundaries. Don’t go slamming someone’s personal IG DM Requests folder with resumes at 8 o’clock on a Saturday night. Be courteous and they’ll be courteous back, and you never know what that conversation may lead to. You’d be surprised at how many connections are made outside of the in-person functions -- a big reason why the London-centric crowd prosper -- particularly on platforms where so much of our personality permeates the ‘content’ we put out.

The point of this is that seemingly flippant DM sliding may be the only reason you get anywhere, so don’t be afraid to strike up conversations with strangers. No one likes a reply guy, but a genuine message of appreciation will butter anyone up. Just make sure you mean it. <3

Step seven: Side jobs are encouraged

There is a long standing joke amongst freelance creatives that you are forced to put the ‘free’ into anything -- and that is never more true than when you’re a newbie arts writer. Very little good can come from writing for publications that don’t pay you but pay their staff -- it’s unethical and a fatal flaw in the magazine industry. Instead, make sure you do as much of this as possible for your own platform beforehand, and wait for the right person to get back to you -- the one who actually has a budget and the mentorship skills to help you hone your craft.

If you’re going out into this world alone, unsure of how much money you’re going to make, try it as a side hustle until things look positive. Truth be told, you need to invest time into making it a full-time gig, and if you spend all of your time focusing on it, you’ll naturally make more cash, but that’s not to say that amount will be enough to survive. Find an affordable benchmark, and when that feels tangible, try it. Know that there's no shame in having a job on the side to prop up your earnings -- nobody is making millions here.

william miller penny lane talking in almost famous

Step eight: Be sensible; work smart.

The trick is to work smart and hard at the beginning. If someone’s offering you £40 to write a cover feature, consider if you can feasibly afford that based on how much time you’ll invest in it. Don’t be afraid to turn down things that feel like massive opportunities if you know you’ll bruise yourself mentally by doing it for little money. These things always come back around.

The world won’t stop turning if you stop doing this, so don’t take it too seriously. Take the less exciting commercial jobs if they pay well (ask music publicists for any biographies they need!). A huge part of freelance culture writing is forming your legacy as you go, so when it comes to you moving up the ladder of success, it’s dependent on the rungs you’ve placed your feet on before. Patience is important.

To do a job that is tied so closely to the fantasy of art and creativity is a blessing either way, but prepare yourself for a tough set-up. Holidays are few and far between, and every hour of your life soon starts to earn a price tag (‘Can I take that day off? Is it worth ‘X’ amount of money?’). But there are benefits.

The 9-5 grind seldom applies to anyone in arts journalism; culture doesn’t work like that. But for those willing to do their own thing with no boss, you can play with your hours in the day. You’ll meet people you’ve long admired, and wake up on a weekday and not feel the impending dread of having a boss waiting to speak to you. And, perhaps the most liberating aspect of it all: You’re free to go see movies at 11 in the morning or go to a nightclub and get wrecked mid-week -- and no one can shame you for it. That’s the glamour of magazine writing, baby!

If you have any questions, hit up the writer of this piece on Twitter or email. Good luck, bestie!

Follow i-D on Instagram and TikTok for more on work and culture.