Greta Solomon is a writing coach, published author and a University of Warwick Psychology graduate. Here she shares what she wished she had known before taking the plunge into the lifestyle of freelance journalism.
Back in 2002, after two staff jobs at women’s magazines, and at the tender age of 24 – I took the plunge and went freelance. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was a classic creative who couldn’t just do one thing. Now, I know that there are words to describe people like me. Barbara Sher calls us “scanners”, Margaret Lobenstein calls us “renaissance souls” and more recently Emma Gannon called us “multi-hyphens”. Most people just called me crazy and looked on bewildered as I gave up the prestige of being a woman who worked at a top selling weekly magazine, for someone who tapped away on a bulky old PC in my dad’s dining room.
Back then, it wasn’t the norm to do freelance journalism by day and drama school by night – as I opted to do. But when you throw out the grand master plan laid out for you by society, then anything is possible.
So, I had a baptism by fire by freelancing full-time for that first year, then part time after that. Then, on no fixed schedule as I learnt the lay of the land and how to sustain not just a career as a writer, but a life as a writer. Because often being a writer and / or a journalist simply can’t fit into a neat career box. And knowing this from the get-go gives you the armour and confidence to face the world as the writer you know you have the potential to be.
I look around and see writers that are hungry to write on their terms. I see them finding that the publications they once worked at can no longer sustain them – due to budget cuts. I see new voices dipping in and out of different writing worlds, trying to find solid ground. Experiencing a constant craving for stability where is there none. But nevertheless, plunging in because they need and want to get their voice and message out into the world.
According to the McKinsey Global Institute, up to 162 million people in Europe and the United States (that’s 20 to 30% of the working-age population) are undertaking some form of independent work. And this figure is set to rise to 43% by 2020. So, although I focus specifically on journalism, these tips can be applied to pretty much any freelance, creative career.
It’s OK not to have a job title
I spent many a sleepless night worrying about whether I was a real-life, health, travel or fashion journalist. I pitched and published articles on all these topics and found it too difficult to choose one focus area. I wish I’d known that it doesn’t matter. There is no set box for a freelance career, so there is also no set job title. Spend time writing, pitching and publishing – not worrying about having a neat job title you can rattle off at parties. Your writing identity unravels itself over time and you don’t need to force it.
Rejection comes as standard
A journalist friend and I used to laugh at the rejection emails we’d get after pitching to magazines. Once, after pitching to a very snooty magazine – my friend simply got “Thank you – but no thank you”. We could imagine the cut-glass tone of voice it was delivered in and it had us in stitches. But that was our daily reality. For every commission back then – and I was featured in lots of household names – there were plenty more rejections. I can’t actually remember my exact pitch to commission ratio during my first year. I’ve probably blocked it out, as it was so gruelling. It caused a lot of stress, but finally I learned to make peace with rejection and simply accept it.
So, challenge yourself to go on a mission to wholeheartedly accept rejection, and almost welcome it. Climb the rejection wall so many times that it becomes a breeze, because you can’t go to the next stage in your writing career until you do so. Tell yourself that by simply sending out your work, you’re well ahead of the competition – some of whom are sitting on fabulous ideas for fear of being knocked back.
Seek support from other freelance journalists
It’s essential to view other journalists as allies. Being a freelance journalist can be a lonely endeavor. So, it really helps to walk with other people who are on the same path. I wish I’d known that I needed to actively make journalist friends, talk about my experiences, ask for help and give it and form a community of colleagues. Now, I’m part of a private Facebook group for journalists and it has been invaluable in everything from getting tips on who the best accountant is, to sharing media contacts to just being able to “talk shop”.
Build relationships before pitching
If you’re new to freelancing, then you really have no choice but to send cold emails. But after a while you need to change your approach one of collaboration and community. You need to get your face seen – either in real-life or virtually. So, check out Eventbrite and go to any media meet-ups that catch your eye. If there’s nothing happening where you live, then use social media to interact with other writers and editors. That is the fast track to not only getting your ideas seen, but to landing regular commissions with particular publications.
Get a ‘side hustle’ sooner rather than later
Expecting your freelance journalism to fully pay for your bills, and your life, piles up a lot of pressure. That pressure can weigh down on your writing, making you less agile and adaptable and throw you out of your creative flow. It could even give you a nasty case of writer’s block which, naturally, sabotages your success. You don’t have to announce it to the world but get a side job that is flexible enough to give you the time and head space to write. For me, promotional work was ideal. But I wish I’d done it sooner. Knowing that regular money was always coming in would have alleviated the stress from late payments and invoices that seemed to get lost the moment they left my email inbox.
Ultimately, I believe it’s essential to see freelance journalism as part of a portfolio career. After a few years, I began teaching, training and coaching. And that ensured that I not only passed on the written word to others, but I had activities that funded my writing. So, think of yourself as your own benefactor. Instead of expecting freelance journalism to PAY YOU, think about how you can PAY FOR IT. This simple mindset shift can help you create a sustainable career. The kind where people stop commenting on how crazy you are, and instead ask whether they can join your next press trip, or if you can blag them a party invite. Whether you say “yes” or “no”, is up to you!