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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 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 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 Exclusives

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Gauging the reaction around ITV2’s new reality offering The Exclusives – a show which follows six wannabe journalists competing to win a twelve month contract at Bauer Media – it’s plain to see people aren’t impressed.

Journalist and TV critic Grace Dent wept, Wannabe Hacks think all the contestants are crap and twitter said it was ‘awful, degrading and an embarrassment to journalism’.

On the contrary, I think it’s pretty good.

Here are the contestants:

Ex-glamour model Hayley Newnes has a degree in English, works in Pizza Hut and writes for her local newspaper. Her modelling past has given her heaps of confidence and she has brilliant communication skills, knows exactly how to get the best shots at a photo shoot, and as a magazine addict she knows what readers are interested in. I expect this was why she was chosen, not because she “looks like a glamour model” (Wannabe Hacks).

Ellie Henman is also brilliant. I love her. And if she doesn’t win, she’s going to make it anyway. A broadcast journalism graduate from the University of Leeds, the competitions already seen her get on her knees to beg a fit male to come to a More magazine photoshoot and told him her favourite sex position to get him to tell her his, not blushing one bit. The one to watch.

Felix Clarke is the token toff of the lot, studying journalism at a London university and while he’s probably a good writer and knowledgeable about current affairs its fairly clear celebrity journalism isn’t where his future lies.

Twenty eight year old Stuart Roberts hasn’t really had the chance to shine yet either, out of his depth with a Made in Chelsea photoshoot he says he’d be more at home at Kerrang! Which incidentally, is the place he nailed an interview with Charlie Simpson (Fightstar) in last weeks episode. Watch this space…

Blackpool born Chris Goddard grew up in care and has heaps of confidence but is again, one of the weakest ones so far. I’m saving my judgement on this one but warning signs have already started to appear (complains a lot). University drop out Sunny also seems like a bit of a wet rag at the moment, doesn’t have a good attitude and is quite quiet, however, she’s apparently a keen writer so only time will tell if it’s the right thing for her.

But the great thing is, is that they are from all walks of life. There couldn’t really be a more diverse group. So the one who wins the year’s contract at the end is the one with the most talent and hopefully – the one who’s learnt the most after the six weeks. Not the one whose dad works at The Independent, or whose parent’s money could pay for them to slog it out on countless unpaid internships for as long as it takes.

The tasks they’ve been given are pretty much what you should expect when you take your first job (admin, transcribing, being the general dogsbody) and are a test of one of the vital things needed to succeed as a journo: a good attitude. The hands on learning they are all getting is also a very important part of a journalists career, because it’s the only way you learn from mistakes and improve. The only difference is that their mistakes are all being filmed and watched on national television. Cut them some slack.

Journalism takes balls and that’s something they’ve all got for applying for the show in the first place. May the best hack win!

CV – show don’t tell

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When it comes to putting together your journalist CV forget everything you were taught in careers lessons at school/college. Your CV is there to show a prospective employer that you have the skills for the job, not to tell them you have the skills for the job.

1. Delete the personal statement.

Instead of leading with a paragraph of clichés, describing yourself as ‘dependable, conscientious and punctual with a positive ‘can do’ attitude’ (an excerpt from my old CV), start with your most recent employment, work experience placement or internship which clearly states the things you did in that role that mean you have the skills to excel in the job you are applying for (your CV should be tailored to each job application).

For example: imagine you are applying to be a writer for the web and you’ve just done a work experience placement for a website. The skills they might be looking for are; computer savvy, experience with WordPress and an understanding of social media. As a suggestion and assuming the next three points are true, you might list your position, employer, and the following:

– Uploading content to a WordPress based site

– Using social media to publicize content

– Sourcing and editing pictures using Photoshop

2. Keep it relevant.

All the employer needs to know at this stage is that you can do the job. They don’t care if you’ve climbed a mountain for charity or if you’re a prima ballerina in your spare time (unless these things directly relate to the job you are applying for). If they want to know about your hobbies it will come up in the interview stage; that’s the chance for them to get to know you.

3. Ditch the two page rule.

It was drummed into me at college that my CV HAD to be two pages long. One page is the new two. Microsoft Word has some really good tools that enable you to make the most of the space on the page; for mine I narrowed margins and inserted textboxes for my contact info and references.

3. Hyperlink to anything you can. If you say part of your job was to live blog for an event or make a video for a website, link your work to that part of your CV (everything is requested over email nowadays).

4. Design. You don’t have to have degree level design skills or expensive software to make your CV look attractive. Again, use Microsoft Word to add a bit of style and colour. Chose one colour theme, add a border and change the colour, font or boldness of text that needs to stand out, such as job titles or qualifications.

Take a look at mine for a simple example, it is by no means a perfect CV but it’s far better than my old one (and it got me a job interview!) –

P.S. The spray paint is so I don’t get any stalkers, I am not advising you to do this on your real one.

Rhian Jones journalist apprentice CV

– List two recent references (who have agreed to give you a reference) here from jobs that have similarities to the one you are applying for.

If you need any more help head over to WannabeHacks where you can upload your CV and get tips from fellow wannabe journos on how to improve it.

My beginnings

In August 2011 I’d just completed my first year at Lancaster University and was in London for a work experience placement, when I came across an article in the Guardian. It was headlined:

“Read all about it! Smart boy or girl wanted as apprentice”

Janet Murray, a freelance education journalist was looking for a protegee. Someone to work directly under her helping research, write and interview. It was a huge opportunity for a wannabe journo to be trained on the job and I immediately though; ‘That’s mine.’ Naturally, I applied.

Fast forward a few weeks spent in a constant state of anxiety, two assessment days in Harlow in Essex and a one on one interview with Murray herself. Then I got it. My sister cried, my mum cried, my Twitter followers doubled in the space of an hour – it was a great day. I went back home feeling like my life had finally begun, packed all my things and moved to London.

So here it begins. My apprenticeship ends at the end of June 2012 when I will be a wannabe hack with no degree but plenty of drive, determination and fingers crossed, lots of contacts, a good sized portfolio and tons of hands on experience. I’m going to use this blog to publish all sorts to do with my apprenticeship, my struggles and hopefully some triumphs too. There will be some advice and tips that I hope will help young people to go out and get that dream job. I am a true believer,  that if you really really want something and are prepared to do everything in your power to get it – you will. Stay tuned.