Saturday, 25 August 2012

Advice from a Successful Freelancer

Fiona Sturges

Because I'm interviewing for Pass Me On, I've been scrutinising other interviews more closely.  One that leapt out at me was Fiona Sturges encounter with Antony Hegarty.  If you know a little about him, you'd think he'd be an interviewers dream.  Trembling, fragile voice coming out of a big, androgynous man who sings 'about loving dead boys, plaintive letters from hermaphroditic children, the fear of dark lonesome purgatories, breast amputation, the fluidity of gender' (as Pitchfork described his songs).  Definitely not your average Joe, going to work 9-5, then getting home and settling down in front of the telly.  

What was interesting about this interview however, was the challenge set up at the beginning. To quote Fiona's piece '
Enraged by a recent newspaper interview which he felt was "degrading", he now wishes to redraw the lines of how interviews are done.'  Hegarty makes it plain it's not just going to be the regular run through his career and a discussion on the themes of the new songs in order to shift the product.  He realises he has a platform from which to be heard.  So: you're hooked.  The interview looks like it's going to be tricky and as a reader, you're already wondering what's going to happen next.  

Once I’d finished reading, I flagged it up on Twitter and Fiona replied, thanking me for the praise. I love the way that Twitter gives you instant access to people you’re interested in; imagine trying to do that even a couple of years back. I Googled her, found her blog with links to other features and then figured she’d be able to offer some insight on writing for a living. Turns out she did.  

'It's harder than ever to make a decent living doing this since, unless you're Julie Burchill or Charlie Brooker or a similar 'name', you tend to get paid peanuts. This wasn't always the case. Five or six years ago the rates were decent enough but they have since plummeted due to the fact that most publications are struggling to stay financially afloat. It's the lie of the land I'm afraid - a result of the combination of the internet (ie free "content") and the economy. I have no complaints about the work itself. Although sometimes frustrating, it is mostly rewarding and never, ever dull.'

'In order to make a living out of it some compromises will have to be made. Be prepared to take on less glittering tasks such as listings, preview pieces, advertorials, first-person interviews or sidebars. Think very hard before saying no to a job on the basis that it's not interesting or glamourous. If an Editor deems you reliable, it's likely that more interesting work will come your way. As a freelancer I began writing television and radio previews and built up my portfolio from there. It took a couple of years to build up to writing lengthy magazine interviews, which, along with reviewing, is ultimately what I always wanted to do.'

'By all means specialise - it's good to be seen as knowledgable in a particular field - but beware of your specialism being too obscure. An expert in, say, Scandinavian death metal or dermatology does not a successful freelancer make. I broadly call myself an arts journalist, which covers music, telly, radio, film, books and more, though I have also dipped my toes into the waters of health and travel journalism. The greatest thing you can do as a freelancer is to be seen as a reliable writer - someone who listens to the brief, writes well and to length and is never late filing copy. If you can do that then you can probably turn your hand to just about anything.'

'Also: always keep your pitches brief (no more than three sentences) and put a link to your last published work underneath. If an Editor wants to know more, they will ask, but don't bore them to death before you've even started.'

I took Fiona’s advice on this and magically, got commissioned to write a piece on Matt Berry for the Independent.  No happy ending on this one unfortunately - I got an email later in the week to say that they couldn’t run it in the newspaper due to the earlier transmission date of Matt’s programme.  It did end up online though.  I went on to ask Fiona advice about getting a staff job under an Editor I could learn from.

'Staff writing jobs are very few and far between these days. Also, no Editor wants to be teaching someone on the job - they've got enough to do already. Sign up for Gorkana alerts ( and you'll see what's available work-wise. My advice is not to give up on the photo desk work, as the main problem with freelancing is the very inconsistent and generally low level of pay. In your spare time keep on sending out pitches, though make sure they fit in well with the publication.’

'Most writers I know now do other things to keep themselves financially afloat, whether its copywriting, proofreading, working in broadcasting or doing a bit of PR in the side. I do a small bit of media consultation work (last job was advising Woman's Hour on their editorial content) plus talking on the odd radio programme about arts nonsense. I also give lectures to University students about journalism and feature-writing. I'm not saying you can't make a living as a full-time writer (I did it exclusively for twelve-ish years) but it's much harder now than it ever was as the pay has plummeted. So keep your options open at all times.'

No comments:

Post a Comment