How to stay sane as a freelance journalist
Last year I quit my dream job to go freelance. Management changed, I became unhappy, so I left to see what would happen if I tried to be my own boss. The first few months were great. I had loads of work lined up and got a big confidence boost after being published by the Guardian and The Independent. Then, a quiet period arrived. I panicked, thought it might all be over, and got a nannying job. Thankfully, one of my regular gigs shortly followed and by Christmas I was a full-time self-employed journalist again.
Overall, this year has gone well. I’m London correspondent for an insightful yet comedic US music trade magazine and get to work on a hugely successful newsletter start-up. All while wearing comfortable clothes and no make-up in my own home (some of the time). Is freelancing better than a full-time job? The boring answer is no, not necessarily. It depends on how much you want to earn, how motivated you are by solidarity, what your career goals are and whether you can actually get any work done when the option of watching Married at First Sight is always there. And while the last eight months have been largely good, it’s taken around a year and a half for me to arrive at a place where I feel calm enough to realise that. Here’s what I’ve learned along the way.
Be your own cheerleader
When you’re in an office you’ve usually got a team around you that form a support network. You trade ideas, edit and praise each other’s work and get drunk together to complain about the bad parts. When you’re a freelancer you’re basically sat on the pavement outside a closed door on a rainy cold night while everyone else appears to be having fun inside. They might not be having fun, of course, there might be some really horrible stuff going on in there. But you can only see the light and warmth.
Every now and again you might get praise, but all the in-between is filled with crushing self doubt and anxiety. In my world, anyway. I believe you have to feel confident to be creative so you can imagine what that state of mind does for a writer’s skills. So here’s my advice. Every day, tell yourself how great you are and think about what you’ve achieved so far. Don’t concern yourself with what everyone else is up to, just consider the unique combination of knowledge and experience that exists in your brain. Realise that you’re supposed to be here and everything is going to work out fine.
Leave the house
Every other day I work from the library, a coffee shop or at an industry event. It gives me some human interaction and means home doesn’t get boring and is still somewhat of a luxury. Going out and speaking to people is also where articles come from. I can’t recall one time I’ve found an excellent story or feature idea while sat at home scouring the internet. Everything there has already been done.
As a freelancer you’re constantly at risk of living in your own tiny world and being completely unaware of what’s happening in everyone else’s. In the olden days, local journalists would get their stories from the butcher, the florist, and by chatting to people over a pint in the pub. I think that’s still the best strategy. Showing face also makes sure people don’t forget you and are therefore more likely to get in touch when they do have a story or a commission. Being self employed is lonely but there are quite a few solutions. It’s up to you to find them.
If I didn’t go for a run or a cycle in the morning before work I have the attention span of a gnat. There’s something about releasing physical energy that helps your brain concentrate. Perhaps it’s because your body is tired so doesn’t want to keep moving to clean the kitchen/try out a new hairstyle/wander around aimlessly looking for the meaning of life. People’s capacity for exercise peaks at different times so an afternoon session might be best for you. Just carry on until it becomes a habit. I’m not a natural runner but now it’s part of my routine I get agitated if I don’t and it messes up my whole ‘schedule’.
Which leads nicely onto the second half of this: have some sort of schedule. If I’m at home, I wake up, go for a run, have a shower, make breakfast, sit down and work. This varies, but if I didn’t have a rough outline I’d start every day unable to make a decision when faced with a world of options on how to proceed. Too many choices is never good. It’s what causes your brain to have a meltdown when hungry in the supermarket with no plan. Have a plan.
Without my two regular employers I doubt I’d be freelance right now. I’m not sure how many self-employed journalists make a living from sending out loads of pitches and getting commissions every week. But I do know that the budget for freelancers at newspapers and magazines is probably the lowest it’s ever been, and that unless you’ve got something absolutely amazing that they could never have found themselves, your carefully constructed pitch will be met with silence. Hence the importance of regular gigs. I am very lucky to have two that enable me to pay my bills and the longer features I write for others fund travel and drink. The two that I do have came via someone I’d worked with before who seems to think I’m all right.
So use the connections that you have already and don’t be afraid to tell people you’d like to write for them. I’ve done that four times with a 100% success rate. When you do get work be super reliable. A stressed and overworked editor (they all are) will love you for delivering your article on time, containing all the information they asked for and within word count. When you have a reputation for doing that, the work will start coming to you. Worry about getting stuff done before worrying about being the best. Best comes later.
Know your shit and learn
Being the expert on something you enjoy learning about will really help you stand out. Once you’ve decided what you’re going to write about, you then need to work out who your audience is going to be. There are so many talented music journalists out there that it’s a waste of time for me to pitch articles to music consumer titles because my idea will either already be in the works by someone else or have been considered and vetoed. And all the broadsheets have their own music business journalists. My two regular employers are both trade titles, however, and there aren’t many music business journalists writing for the trade press. Find a space that’s not cramped.
Then you need to start learning and never stop. Just because you’re being paid to write doesn’t mean you’ve graduated from the school of journalism and never need look back. The school is lifelong. Keep an eye out for talks and conferences on your subject and do whatever you can to go there and properly listen. Interview people who are experts in their field just for the sake of it. Absorb everything they’re saying, record it, transcribe it, save it and read it. Your brain is then filled with a portion of that knowledge that it will recall when an associated thought or experience arrives in future. You’ve also got it on your computer if you forget. Other people’s intelligence is literally the gift that keeps on giving.
For further reading, go here for Kate Hutchinson’s timeless piece on how to be a freelance journalist, and I highly recommend this captivating book I’m reading at the moment by Anne Lamott with instructions on writing and life.