The Wall of Aspirations

Here are the concerns raised by members at the London Freelance Interactive evening on 13 February 2006, smashed down just as they appear on the sticky notelets but lumped together in the ways that the discussion groups set about organising them. It shows you the kind of concerns that your fellow freelances have, and which you quite likely share.

In some cases it's been possible to add on a response which might make the beginnings of a solution. Do email in to more concerns, comments, additions, responses or whatever to keep building up this stimulating resource of things we should be setting ourselves to do something about.


  • Being asked to write on spec. Discussion at the meeting suggested people were happy to write articles that they wanted to do anyway, on spec, and then attempt to sell them. The problem came with publishers telling people what was wanted, including deadlines, yet refusing to make the commitment of commissioning the piece with a guaranteed payment. Advice boiled down to this: write on spec if you're doing what you want; if the publisher wants to specify what you do, tell them you only work that way on commission.
  • Deadlines coming like Number 30 buses, either none at all or arriving in threes. Advice: learn to say "No" if you really have to; try to negotiate staggered delivery dates; see whether you can pass the work on to a friend or colleague. The group discussion resolved spontaneously and unanimously that it did not want any suggestion that the NUJ should lay on another Time Management course.
  • Administration. Ick!! Advice: Think of the administration as the work for which, effectively, you get paid - the journalism is the fun part.


  • Getting paid on time: companies owing payments earn interest on our money;
  • Chasing very late payments, two to three months overdue, especially over Christmas;
  • How to handle picture editors who are apologetic but money still hasn't come through. Advice:
    • Look at for avice about handling late payments and assitance calculating the interest you can charge.
    • Members see also to supply the Freelance Office with all the details needed for them to help you chase a claim.
    • John Toner, NUJ freelance organiser, says that as soon as you're having problems with people paying up stop working for them until the money comes through. At least you're not getting further and further into the morass and, hopefully, you will be able to turn up work from people who do pay on time.
    • Some banks - including the Royal Bank of Scotland - offer invoice assignment if you have a business account. They charge a percentage but take over responsibility for paying and chasing invoices.
  • Poor payment of pre-agreed work - overdue invoices, find fees/tip fees. Difficult to prove it's your idea.
  • Negotiating better terms for contracts ie percentage of licence fee etc - check out the NUJ training days such as the Pitch & Deal course.
  • How to negotiate a minimum rate that's NUJ standard without being rejected in favour of someone who'll do work cheaper.
  • Should guidelines be different for work that appears on websites? Particularly on a paid-subscription news site. Surely we're getting ripped off for a standard per word fee?
  • Rates stagnating, year on year, behind staff rates - how do we organise?
  • How to claim what is reasonable/ask for more money without risking losing work by annoying an editor?
  • Tax issues and what you can and can't claim.
  • Finding a good accountant; finding out about beneficial tax arrangements, deductions etc Advice:
    • ask friends, colleagues, branch meetings.
    • The NUJ Training department does a day on finance and tax, though the NUJ cannot recommend accountants or offer financial advice.
    • Look locally for a small firm, or even an accountant doing freelance work. Ask what experience they've got handling self-employed people's accounts, and particularly journalists'
  • I took someone to the small claims court, had to throw more money after bad. It involved 3 hearings and then he vanished. I paid around £80 and got nothing. Is this money claimable back from the union? Answer: Not in these circumstances. Approach the union before going to the small claims court and it will advise you and offer to provide someone to come along and help represent you. It is also possible to get free legal advice from the Union's solicitors - contact John Toner, NUJ freelance organiser, who can arrange this.

Terms and conditions

  • I've been asked by a client either form a limited company or to bill through an umbrella company. I'd like to know about the pros and cons for me, especially considering that over 14 months they only extended my contract by 3 months. Advice: look at specific advice about this coming soon on Also send them a memorandum setting out all the reasons why turning you into a company will make extra work and problems for them.
  • Guidance on when you are working as a freelance for a client for a number of days and are entitled to certain fringe benefits. Advice: the main one, particularly if they are deducting income tax on PAYE before paying you, is likely to be holiday pay. Keep asking whether there are other benefits. Ask if there is a staff NUJ agreement and if there are any benefits listed in that such as meal allowances when working late or taxis home (although you may have to pay tax on the value of these).
  • If a piece is commissioned and not yet published once written, how can payment be chased? I want to be able to claim it after a reasonable lengthy time and not wait for publication eg Guardian/Observer. Answer: Try negotiating a deal that lays down a payment date tied to delivery, or, second best, a projected publication date. Just ask them for payment on the grounds that it should have been used.
  • I want us to somehow get back to having freelance agreements, negotiated annually so that our rates creep steadily upwards. Hopefully the agreement would acknowledge our copyright ownership, too. Staff are in there often because they have legal rights to recognition now. Can freelances get there too?
  • Amend contracts that are sent to you. You don't have to accept them just as they stand.

Syndication and agents

  • How to make money from second rights and syndication? Advice: First make sure you understand what kind of copyright deals you have to do to allow you to re-exploit material. Next find out what syndication deals the clients you are already working for offer. Then look for independent syndication agencies (there aren't many for words; there are lots of libraries for pictures). Alternatively, treat everything you have produced as something you can now speculatively offer elsewhere.
  • Getting paid for work used a second time - finding out it 's been used! Advice: For text, googling a probably-unique phrase is better than nothing; don't forget either.
  • Finding a good photographer's agent who won't rip you off and take ridiculous percentages. Answers:
    • Keep talking to other photographers and looking at the photographer websites and e-networks.
    • The managing director of the agency Magnum once told a group of student photographers that they didn't want to think about an agent as someone who would find them work, but more as someone who would help them handle the work they were already getting. The time you know you need an agent, he said, is when you come home from a three-day assignment and there are 30 messages on the voice mail, some of them saying they'll have to put work elsewhere as they can't seem to contact you.
    • Make sure you are a member of ALCS (writers) or DACS (visual) to receive your share of collective rights such as photocopying fees.

Exploitation and aggravation

  • People using my photographs on their website and not wanting to pay - using really low res images helps keep them from being lifted. Advice: invoice them! Try invoicing for double what you'd have charged if they'd asked permission.
  • When submitting work electronically, and, perhaps, speculatively, need to avoid work being used without consultation and ending up in the paper without your knowing or, since you don't know to invoice, getting paid. This concern was given a Very Urgent sticker by the group considering it and the member concerned raised the matter from the floor during the full discussion. Advice came in three waves:
    • Make sure that you spell out at the beginning of the electronic file that you are expecting to be paid if the work is used and that you want to be notified that it is being used - together with any information about how you go about invoicing, contact details for yourself and your bank and so on.
    • You can repeat this info at the end, but the important thing is to make sure that it cannot by missed by putting it at the beginning.
    • You can submit work as a read-only pdf, so that they have to come back to you if they want the usable version: this does mean paying the licence fee for Adobe Acrobat which makes it feasible.
    • And keep trawling to see whether you spot anything of yours being used in ways you weren't aware of.
  • Being overlooked for decent staff jobs when they come up.
  • How do I respond to a contract that's disadvantageous - online rights, intellectual rights, low pay - and negotiate it better. Advice: it's there, in that word negotiate. Give yourself some background knowledge and a bit of confidence by coming on NUJ courses such as Getting Started as a Freelance, Pitch & Deal with its rôle play, the day-long Copyright seminar (a bargain at its subsidised price of £30) and anything else that bumps up the skills you have to offer - see
  • Fearing an idea you've pitched will be used without commissioning you. Advice:
    • Pitch in writing/email so there's a record;
    • Keep making it clear that you are submitting a commercially valuable proposal, the ownership of which you expect them to respect;
    • Try to keep back the details that make it feasible to actually carry out the project (such as the name of a prospective interviewee - just give a description);
    • Try to build in blocks that mean they've got to come back to you to get anywhere with the project.
  • BBC photography contracts. Their licence grabbing sucks! Any ideas?
  • Editors fight shy of stories that critique the media, eg on Copyright.
  • An end to the problem of editors messing about, eg saying yes and then no, promising answers which don't happen
  • Code of conduct for editors! Provided that query letters are always accompanied by SAEs, how can we encourage editors to reply to our written queries, even if it's only "no" scribbled on the SAE?
  • Educate staffers about freelances. Freelances don't exist when out of the office. Ways of approaching companies.
  • Campaign for freelances. We are good/efficient/save money/don't dawdle around in the office looking at Valentine's Day cards that beep.
  • How is it possible to make staffers realise I continue to exist (and may be working for someone else) when I am not working for them? Ie is there any way to educate staffers about freelance life?
  • How do we get editors to take seriously the idea that they should pay even a small amount (a fiver? a tenner?) for phone calls to freelancers? It's not so much the money. It's being taken seriously.



  • Lack of communication: freelances not knowing what other freelances doing comparable work are being paid. Advice: Check out the Rate for the Job on the website, and add your own contributions.
  • Making links with other like-minded freelancers - particularly in terms of support from their experience - come to branch meetings, join in/set up email/phone/personal networks.
  • Meeting other freelances socially - start with branch meetings, seek out the networks already in existence (we plan that the Freelance and the website will give them greater prominence) and even go about setting up your own for like-minded freelances.
  • Email network forums etc. More info on what's what. Centralised client database. Blog: who's good, who's not, who pays, who doesn't, experience.
  • I want the Freelance side of the union to be better organised, probably via developing freelance networks - volunteer for some of the positions on the Branch committee or to carry out union-related work and help to bring this better organisation into being.

Knowledge and training

  • Journalists or clients using cheap digital cameras to grab a quick snap rather than pay a photographer to do it with (hopefully) better results - have a look at the NUJ Photographers - email networks.
  • What about an advanced course on feature writing - the NUJ Feature Writing course says it has been designed to cope with both beginners and the more experienced.
  • A one-day course in speaking in public, at trade union meetings and the like. Advice: the GFTU (General Federation of Trade Unions), of which the NUJ is a member, organises courses in public speaking along with many other courses in organising and other skills valuable to trade union members. The next GFTU Public Speaking course is set for 8-10 September 2006 in Nottingham. Any member who would like to go on it should contact the NUJ Training department to make a booking.
  • As a new freelance I'd like advice on how much to put aside for tax. Advice:
    • at the meeting the swift answer was that putting aside 25 per cent of whatever was coming in would see you safe for tax and National Insurance.
    • NUJ Training department does have a day course on finance and tax as well as other freelancing matters.
    • The London Freelance Branch website will be adding in more sections of advice on this and other matters raised at the Interactive meeting.
  • Photographers: Info, or a meeting, on picture libraries. What's good? What's not? Up to date info.
  • What about a course for people who have established themselves as freelances? What do you do next to become a really great freelance? Answer:
  • Freelance trainer Humphrey Evans, who teaches on the NUJ's Getting Started as a Freelance and Pitch & Deal courses has suggested to Linda King at the NUJ training department ( that he should try setting up just such a course to be called Develop Your Freelance Capacities. This is hanging fire, slightly, at the moment because the training department has been so successful in setting up professional skills courses and taking on the running of training in union activities that it's staff are overstretched and it just doesn't have access to the rooms it needs for extra courses. Hopefully, however, it will happen sometime this year.
  • Look at how many freelances have to work across different areas, eg video journalist, photographers/writers. Multi-skilling and how many people have to do it.

Rights and meanings

  • Creative freedom plus not having your work completely rewritten? Responses on the night included checking out the provisions for moral rights in copyright legislation which, irritatingly, do not apply to newspapers and magazines but do in plenty of other situations; and hinting to editors that you have carefully written the piece to avoid legal problems which might ensue if other phraseology were to be used. You could ask, too, for emailed proofs suggesting that it might be helpful for you to have one last check.
  • How far with copy and cutting is it acceptable for an editor/sub-editor to cut/change one's copy? Or when to take your name off a piece because it is no longer your work?
  • Subeditors re-doing writing, sometimes with too many corrections which change meanings.
  • Dealing with difficult PR people.
  • Advice on re-engaging with former employers who don't call you anymore.


  • Is it ethical to sell a story about your own experience, particularly when you've used the fact of being a freelance journalist to get something done? Answers:
    • Many journalists are strong on the idea that the journalist should never be part of the story - anything along the lines of "I was there. . ." smacks of grandstanding.
    • But anthropologists have the concept of participant observation ndash; things happen and are seen only because the observer is part of the process. If you get involved in something where what happens to you would have meaning to the reader in the same way that it would if you were reporting it as happening to a third party, then by all means run with it.
    • One piece of advice, however, is still don't start the article with the word "I" - that turns it into a diary, which is never interesting.

Diary planning

  • Keeping local press information up to date, eg collating deadline dates - keep an eye on the website which has plans to try to put together information about press days, lead times and the like in the way that it has Rate for the Job for fees. Answer: the Branch is working on this...
  • Knowing when and where photo calls are - click through to the NUJ photographers network from the website and see whether people can help.
  • As well as press days, databases of lead times for features and when features/editorial meetings happen. For example, which papers do all their travel feature planning in January for the summer, etc.


  • How to go about pitching ideas to publications without the worry of them either declining it, or, more likely, not replying and then nicking the idea! The bastards.
  • I need advice on cracking the freelance market. Could there be a panel discussion about hot areas, friendly publications, etc. Answer:Perhaps there could be. Also, check out the Getting Started as a Freelance and Pitch &: Deal courses run by the NUJ training department:


  • I want more hair. Answer: buy a wig. The Union's charities, the Provident Fund and the Members in Need Fund (shortly to amalgamate) may be able to provide financial help where needed. Just make sure you keep up your NUJ subscriptions so as to be eligible. (And check out the charity NPF, based in Dorking, which helps journalists falling on bad times - a lifetime's membership costs £50 and could be the most effective £50 you spend.)
  • Problem: isolation. Answer: you have made a good start by coming to a branch meeting.
Humphrey Evans and Miranda Gavin inspect the Wall of Aspirations
Humphrey Evans and Miranda Gavin inspect the Wall of Aspirations

Last modified: 11 March 2006 - © 2006 contributors
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