When I landed my first commission with The Times two years ago I was over the moon, but also nervous. English is my second language and the prospect of writing succinct, readable copy, which hit the word count and met the deadline was daunting.
After that first commission others followed and my confidence grew. Occasionally I still struggle with English punctuation, finding punchy headlines and losing those extra words, but the language no longer poses a barrier and I now prefer to write in English.
Being bilingual has advantages, since I can still write articles for German magazines. And I can negotiate higher rates when interviewing German speakers and then writing in English.
What do editors expect of foreign journalists who want to write for them? Julie Daniels, editor for the CrÃ¨me section of The Times, has no problem commissioning foreign freelancers as long as they present the same high-quality copy she expects from native speakers and adhere to her brief.
‘It depends on the proficiency of the language,’she says. ‘Somebody who is slightly faltering and didn’t really get what you’re after, then obviously you go to somebody who understands you more.That would be the only sticking point.”
Commissioning foreign journalists has advantages when working on specific stories. ‘They can bring a different insight to a story’she says. ‘We have a particular view about the workplace and that may not be entirely the same view as someone who works in a foreign country.’
How do my fellow foreign freelances manage? St Albans-based French journalist Veronique Mistiaen has lived here for 14 years; before that she spent 12 years freelancing in San Francisco. After a slow start she got her first big commission in Britain with SHE magazine and has since written for The Guardian and The Times, among others. Has nationality ever been a problem?
‘In the UK, it has never been an issue, but it has in the US. People were disconcerted by my French accent – some were suspicious; others assumed I must be stupid and spoke very slowly to me,’she says. It’s a different story in Britain. ‘Editors remember me because I have an unusual name. Being bilingual is a plus. I have covered stories from France, Rwanda and other French-speaking countries. Coming from a different cultural background also gives me a wider perspective.”
Though she has been working in English for 20 years and feels mostly comfortable with the language, she still occasionally struggles with prepositions and idioms.
‘I also sometimes feel insecure pitching on the phone, especially if it is to an editor I don’t know. I feel much more comfortable sending an e-mail first. And I still struggle when interviewing someone with a strong regional accent.’
Mistiaen advises other foreign freelances to network and join professional organisations. ‘Speak with other journalists; read and analyse the publications you want to write for – and go for it!”
Studying for an MA in international journalism at City University gave London-based Russian freelance Svetlana Graudt a head start. And a work placement at The Observer led to her first article in the week she started.
Since then her articles have appeared in the Daily Mail, FT Magazine and on the Guardian Unlimited website. Her nationality wasn’t a problem for her.
‘I have strong English-language writing and speaking skills, I don’t have a Russian accent. I understand the British culture well and its national humour and can tell a good joke myself,’says Graudt.
Convincing editors that she can write about other subjects and not only pieces about her own country can be tricky, but being Russian has also its advantages: ‘There is a constant interest in my country. Apart from my knowledge of Russia and its culture, I bring with me a fresh take on British politics and culture.”
Graudt advises foreign freelancers to come up with strong story ideas: ‘If you are a part of an ethnic community, get to know people and their stories because they may be of interest to the British press.”