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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 whilst 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 your career goals and how much you want to earn, how motivated you are by being part of a team, and whether you can actually get any work done when the option of watching Married at First Sight is always there. 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 seems 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 think about 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.

Get active

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. 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.

Regular gigs

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. 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 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. The intelligence of others 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.

Top 10 lessons after 18 months in journalism

I’m now a year and a half into my first proper journalism job. After graduating from the school of Janet Murray as a journalist’s apprentice in April last year, Music Week – the most rock and roll trade magazine out there – took me on. Now staff writer, it’s about time I reveal what a job in journalism today is really like and the integral lessons learnt along the way. Is it all it’s cracked up to be? Read on…

1). Multi-skilled really is multi-skilled

I don’t just mean all the fun stuff like being an expert interviewer, feature writer, news reporter and reviewer. Try sub-editor, designer, website updater, photographer and administration assistant too. It’s not glamorous but you need to prove you can do all the boring stuff too if you want to progress.

A year ago I’d never understood the appeal of sub-editing. Where’s the fun in editing someone else’s words? I’m a journalist and I will spend my time writing my own thank you very much. Well, it turns out that the majority of editors/deputy editors/senior people at magazines/newspapers climbed the greasy pole through sub-editing roles, rather than traditional journalism roles. So if you want to get promoted, you need to have A* sub-editing skills – grab any chance you can to start building them now. Revel in being an integral cog in the team that gets your publication out the door.

2). Be meticulous

Don’t brush anything under the carpet, it will only come back and make more work for you later on. Triple check every single name, date, fact and make sure every word makes complete sense – just because it sounds good, doesn’t mean it is good. Be the best editor of you own work you can be.

After deciding I was 99% sure all the names were correct in a recent feature it was pointed out that I’d mis-spelt Chaka Khan as Cakra Khan. The difference between a 10-time Grammy Award winning soul singer and an Indonesian singer who, according to his Wikipedia page, “is a career in the music world since 2012. With music and lyrics that are easy to digest”. Check, check and check again.

3). Research

If you don’t listen to the album before interviewing the artist, find out as much about the interviewee’s life as Google allows or discover what that company executive actually does you’re likely to get a pretty boring interview. Proper research throws up the best questions and you might end up getting an exclusive headline grabbing comment.

I used to be terrified of reading past articles on future subjects in case my brain somehow plagiarised all the information and wrote it into my article without my knowing. This has never happened. Instead, that interesting fact (that would have been missing from an intro) or excellent out of the box question has been discovered – not to mention me sounding fairly knowledgeable and intelligent during the interview by being able to understand references and add in my own. Don’t be afraid of asking colleagues for question ideas either. As long as you’ve got a few first there’s no harm in collaboration.

4). Accept your niche

After reading ex Heat magazine editor Mark Frith’s Celeb Diaries I was convinced I wanted to work for a celebrity gossip magazine. Then I read Piers Morgan’s The Insider and wanted to work for News Of The World. The Guardian was the dream after studying sociology, during the phone hacking scandal it was The Times (infiltrate from the inside) and Cosmopolitan, Glamour and many more have also featured at some point. Instead I ended up at a B2B (business to business) music industry magazine.

It’s not as nonsensical as it sounds –  I studied music at college and Amy Winehouse, No Doubt and Paramore are my heroes – and it works. Some interviews have made headlines in the Mirror, The Independent, The Times, Metro, NME and more. Glamorous award ceremonies, trips abroad and celebrity meetings are also fairly frequent.

Since journalism is SO BLOODY COMPETITIVE (yawn), the sooner you start carving out your niche and stand out from the rest, the better. Plus, if you join a title that serves a small industry, you have a much better chance of being the star of it. You’ll find all the things that should make you want to be a journalist in the first place (love of writing, interviewing and news) anywhere. George Berridge wrote an excellent piece for Wannabe Hacks here on why you shouldn’t dismiss the trade press.

5). You can’t change the world

There are lots of things I don’t like about the UK: our education system, homophobia, racism, ignorance, sexism, out of touch politicians and greed. So my initial plan was to write things that will change them all. Well, I can’t. And neither can you. But, you can do your small part. Interview a pop star who’s down with the kids and ask them about misogyny, explain why a rock magazine talking about male depression is cool and do your best to get more women commentators and interviewees in your publication. Make just one person think about something in a different way and you’ve made your mark.

6). Be nice and fair

There will be days when you never want to see or speak to anyone who works in PR ever again. ARTIST RELEASES BRAND NEW SINGLE!!! SMALL AND UNKNOWN MEDIA COMPANY LAUNCHES INNOVATIVE APP!!! STARTUP SEEKS INVESTMENT!!!  – all of these are often pitched as interesting stories. It’s very easy to get frustrated, ignore calls or angrily slam the phone down while juggling transcription, an exploding email inbox and a pile of pages to sub-edit. If it’s a crap story and there is genuinely nothing you can do with it it’s fine to say no, give an explanation as to why but always thank them for calling. What happens if that PR person one day has a client that has a huge exclusive story but they remember your rudeness and take it elsewhere? Plus, you represent your publication at all times – if you are thought of as a bastard, that reflects badly on the people you work for. Relationships in journalism are very important (see why here) and a bit of courtesy goes a long way.

7). You make the news

No, not your personally (providing the Christmas party doesn’t get too out of hand), but it’s up to you to create a story. This might involve something said during an interview, the results of a press conference or the accumulation of a few opinions. It’s very rare that a fully formed lead lands in your lap so always be on the look out. Think about things from all angles, you’d be surprised at what could be relevant. It’s also your job to make something interesting. This is more relevant for trade publications, but sometimes you might have to write an ad-supported feature that has every reason to be achingly inane. Don’t switch off straight away just because money is involved. We all need to get paid so make the best of it that you can – you never know what you might discover.

8). Many mistakes are inevitable

Despite the mass of emphasis placed on the value of journalism degrees, the real learning starts on the job and never really stops. So expect to make mistakes. Lots of them. You’ll have many moments of realising that you know nothing, but don’t let it get you down. Don’t compare yourself to those who are ten years more advanced than you – whether they admit it or not – they were you once. If you’ve got someone who is willing to take the time to teach you, rinse that for all it’s worth and take note of every bit of feedback. It’s also far better to have an opinion that you regret later on than write a boring piece full of fact and only facts.

Don’t be afraid of publishing something that might ruffle a few feathers. As long it’s the truth and your editor is happy, what’s the worst that can happen? You get a pissy email from some communications person? Who cares! They can’t do anything.

9). Try and write things ASAP

This is where a portable mac/laptop comes in handy. Try and type speeches as they happen (as well as recording) – even if you only get half of it that saves a hell of a lot of transcribing and you’ll be surprised at how much of that information goes into your brain. It makes it far easier when writing up and take a note of the times on your recording when someone says something important/interesting so you can quickly find a quote later on. There’s nothing more demotivating than writing a feature/interview weeks after it’s happened and you’ve forgotten what was great about it.

10). Party like a journalist

Go to events, conferences, ceremonies and launches. Yes, they are going to be outside of working hours but they are also likely to involve free drinks. Don’t be afraid of going on your own, you are highly likely to meet someone new and in a few years when you’re telling of your rise to the top you’ll recall all those lonely drinks while being surrounded by people you know because you put the work in. Being drunk at a party is also usually where the best stories are found.

Finally: work hard, say yes to everything and have fun. It is, as expected, the best job in the world.

The perfect work experience application

Part of my job as staff writer at Music Week magazine is to recruit and manage work experience people. And while some applications are good, most are pretty bad. That initial contact is the first impression a potential employer has of you and if you don’t impress, you’ve failed before you’ve even started. A half arsed two-line email is not good enough. And while Twitter is a great medium for asking questions, if you can’t work out someone’s work email address through a bit of Googling the vital research skills needed for journalism are seriously lacking.

I’ve got quite a lot of facets to my job – as does everyone these days – so it massively helps and impresses me if you put all the vital information (and not much more) in that initial email. Today I received THE greatest application ever from Sam Dix. I’m going to use it for this step-by-step guide that shows you how to do the same.

– First things first, who are you? What are you doing?

Dear Rhian

I am a 3rd year student at the University of Birmingham wishing to pursue a career in journalism.

Good, I now know you are a worthy candidate.

– Secondly, what work experience have you done? Do you have the skills to help us out?

I have attached my CV, my most recent published piece (an interview for the Birmingham Mail with Editors) and my most recent article (on militant feminist Robin Thicke).

Aside from this I will be returning to the Birmingham Mail next week and have a weeks work experience with Esquire in December.

Excellent news. Also worth mentioning here that Sam tailored his CV starting with, “Enthusiastic and creative 3rd year Political Science student with strong communication and organisation skills seeking journalism work experience at Music Week.” Nice touch – shows us you actually have an interest in the publication and are therefore likely to make the most of the opportunity.

– So when can you be available?

I am available w/c 30th Dec or 6th Jan. I am aware these are quite specific dates, if these are not possible I am also available through April, though that does seem an awful long way away!

This takes away another few emails going back and forth, saving me lots of time.

And that’s all you need.

Here’s some advice on how to make the most of that placement once you’ve bagged it.

Think before you print

Hey, you’re a journalist! You can go around saying WHATEVER you want as long as it’s the truth. Who CARES if you piss anyone off? You’re just doing your job!! Right? Wrong. Journalism is all about relationships.

Imagine this: you work for a magazine/newspaper that’s yes, funded by readers buying it (although ever decreasingly so), but primarily – your salary is paid for by advertisers. Big powerful companies who control artists you might interview, products you might review, or have news that you may report on. So you interview that artist, review that product, or report that news at whatever angle you chose to take. The angle you take happens to make a fool of the artist, criticises the product, or unveils some inside information that shows up the company for their immoral ways. And BAM, big fat £££££’s of advertising pulled, relationship severed and you can kiss goodbye to your Christmas bonus.

Here’s a couple of stories for you:

One journo was once telephoned by the UK chief of a large Swiss watch conglomerate who was threatening to withdraw several million quid of advertising – after the paper printed something that displeased him. Turns out with wristwatches, the makers have such control that they expect to be able to nominate the journalists who write about their products.

Or the local newspaper employee who considered running a story about an estate agents that was unflattering in a minor way. The paper holds the advertising for all of the local houses for sale and if the advertising was lost, the newspaper would go under. Needless to say, the story got spiked.

However, it doesn’t just stop at advertisers. Social networking has brought what previously were private conversations in the pub, or texts between friends into the public eye. And it’s very easy to forget that the tweet you just sent, can be read by anyone.

What about the throwaway comment, calling out the demise in quality of a particular publication for example – its editor happens to stumble across it. What happens if somewhere down the line, you want to pitch an article, or apply for a job at said publication? Or even another one that the same editor has now gone on to work at? If they remember your name (they will), chances are you won’t get a look in. Or fancy having an online rant about how ANGRY you are because a sub has edited your work and you don’t like it? Sub sees it: relationships in the office are strained (and they don’t do you any favours when editing your copy in future). Editor sees it: you look extremely unprofessional and immature. Managing Director sees it: you face a potential sacking for defamation.

Sometimes it’s just not worth it. Think before you print.

Why can’t I write good yet?

I really want to be a good writer. Like really, really good. I want to be able to put words to page that make people laugh, make people cry, make people think yeah, she’s quite good. And every time I write creatively I think: this is it. This is going to be the best thing I’ve ever, ever written. It is most definitely going to be amazing. But all the time, it’s not. I have yet to read any of my printed features in full, because I’m dying of embarrassment within the first paragraph: I know it’s not good, and I’m gutted.

But over the course of my journalism journey so far, the most important lesson I’ve learnt is that writing takes years of practice.

Watch this:

Just keep at it.

Headlines: how to write your icing

Witty headlines. How do editors seemingly whip them out of clean air, sprinkling the perfect words on top of a news story like icing on a cake? Everybody Was Kung Fuel Fighting. Genius! Naming Private Ryan. Amazing! Where do they come from? There are certainly none in my brain.

Well actually, there are. But only found after….a little prompt shall we say. As I’ve discovered, there are a few (sort of) cheaters ways of constructing a headline.

First of all, take a word from your story – the key word, what it is will depend on the piece. If it’s a celebrity profile feature, either their first name or surname. If it’s a news story, use the subject, i.e. fuel from above example.

Type it into here, and bingo! You should get loads of ideas.

Second way: again, take the same word and type it here. Pick a word from the list, type it in here and keep doing it with different words until you come up with the perfect headline – by replacing the rhyming word with the original word.

I did this for a recent Annie Mac (VERY cool Radio 1 DJ) interview. I typed in Mac (important word), picked Jack from the list of rhyming words, typed it into the idioms function and came up with…drum roll please…Mac Of All Trades. For an interview in which she talks about the million things she’s done throughout her career. I know, I know. Genius. Amazing. See?

One more. Consider words that are similar to the important word, but don’t rhyme: i.e. Common as Mac (muck).

Of course, use your brain and initiative first of all – because you might come up with something stellar with any contextual/historical/well-known information about the particular subject or person that the story focuses on. But if nothing springs to mind, cheat, cheat, and cheat some more. Editors: you’ve been rumbled.

Music reviewers: please don’t…

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Friday, June 29 brought some crap news for music journalism. Heavily respected music magazine The Word announced that it will release the last ever issue in August. Famed for it’s excellent writing (go and buy a copy and learn while you still can), the demise is another kick in the teeth for the future of good, quality journalism.

BUT music isn’t going to go away any time soon and we still need people to tell us if we should pay £1o for a CD or not. So to make sure this generation of journalists keep the quality alive and in tribute to it’s death, here are some suggestions of what NOT to do as a music reviewer (stolen from a forum post on the magazine’s website):

– DON’T end a feature like this: And with that, he adjusted his trademark spectacles, gave a conspiratorial wink and disappeared into the Soho night…unless for comedic value.

– You can do without obscure foreign quotes in italics and the name-dropping of impenetrable philosophical tomes you know no one else will have read (this applies to all journalism).

– Do not use the words “sonic cathedral” or Quintessential……unless you’re talking about a record by Quintessence: in which the record will, necessarily and inherently, be Quintessential. Unless they’re trying to sound like someone else, of course.

– Stating that an album that “Demands to be listened to” . How does that work then?

– Or describing something as “Wire jamming with Nick Drake while Skillrex mixes the cocktails and Brian Wilson dozes off in a chair”…nothing sounds like that.

Thou shalt not refer to something as being like something else on (insert drug here).

– The overuse of unnecessary semi-colons to create very long sentences just to prove you’re well educated (this also applies to all journalism).

– Mentioning your drug use, especially drug use with the band. Very hard to pull off without sounding like a weakling trying to appease the schoolbully by laughing along with his joke as he flushes your head down the toilet.

– Thou shalt review the album, or interview the artist, and not review how well-heeled or dirt poor their parents were. The tunes don’t sound any different as a result.

– Stop overusing (and misusing) “cerebral” and “existential”.

– A few others…’Has no right to be this good’, ‘What’s not to like?’, similes ie “Like The Stranglers have been in a car crash with Missy Elliot”.

– “….on acid” is not only lazy, it’s stupidly inaccurate because when somebody is actually on acid they very often just say nothing for six hours and dribble a bit.

– Avoid the word I (Yes. Please, please do).

DISCLAIMER: These rules are not verbatim. You might disagree. But I right like them all.