“Lockdown must be a breeze for you, freelancers are used to being isolated.”
The words of a journalism professor at the London School of Economics, no less, during a phone interview at the start of lockdown in March.
He could not be more wrong. And he’s not the only one. Freelancers are widely portrayed as lonesome hermits with unkempt hair and an endless stream of words at their fingertips. The truth is, lockdown is hurting my creativity and my bottom line. Only thanks to freelancers pulling together online during this pandemic have I found new avenues of work.
Time to put an end to the persistent myths about freelance writers and get real about what it takes for us to thrive.
Myth #1: We work alone
We may spend quite a bit of time alone but when it comes to our work, collaboration is key along the way. For writers, the journey from idea to published piece is long and winding and never runs the same course twice. And it only takes one shaky pitch or walled-off editor to hit a dead end. Without the resources of a newsroom, freelancers must support each other to make it across the finish line.
I’m part of a 54-strong and growing “freelancer co-working” Whatsapp group. We check in daily with work opportunities, tips and asks—like for editor contacts. You can throw a question out and get a reply within minutes, if not seconds.
Fridays at 3:30pm is our “pitching hour.” We mull story ideas and feed in on each others’ pitches. It started out at The Frontline Club in Paddington, a popular London haunt for journalists, and migrated to Google Hangouts when coronavirus hit. These types of meetups are a fantastic way to sound out ideas, get up to speed on which editors are looking for pitches, trade news and land commissions.
Myth #2: We get our work solely by pitching from our laptops
It’s true that writers can generate a certain amount of business from our laptops. In fact, that’s how I was commissioned for this piece. (And how writers get work from Contently clients.) But pitching online is only one element of a freelance writer’s portfolio.
When I pitched to become the editor of homeWORK magazine for London co-working house Workspace, I did it in the flesh. It started with a coffee at Pret with the owner of a content agency, followed by a series of face-to-face client meetings. Every time I visit the client, I am effectively reminding them why I am the right person to curate the stories of their customers. For now, we communicate via Zoom, but I would never have landed this gig from my sitting room.
Myth #3: Our ideas appear as if by magic
I wish I was that good. Sadly, sprawling on the couch in my PJs with a messy bun offers little in the way of inspiration or, more importantly, commissions.
Funnily enough, brushing my hair and teeth and meeting people at events who do cool things is a great way to get ideas for stories. Calling up contacts on a regular basis unearths new information. Combing over the minutes from dreary local council meetings can reveal tidbits that blossom into news stories.
It can take a fair amount of digging around to find inspiration, and even more to turn that into a legitimate story.
Myth #4: We love solitude
I bought into this myth when I first quit the newsroom and embraced freelance life. I had some commissions lined up and, quite honestly, enjoyed the solitude. I certainly didn’t miss my boozy editor. But no woman is an island.
Pre-lockdown, on any given day, you could saunter into the British Library Newsroom, a national news archive, and find groups of journalists huddled together, tapping away at their laptops. There’s something to be said for co-working, even if you’re not saying much. Silent Zooms are testament to that.
But the point is that solitude is a choice. Freelance life offers the chance for quiet time, but also random encounters and a varied social life that shape our ideas and the stories we write. One of the greatest powers of being freelance is the freedom to discover those offbeat stories that our newsroom counterparts—often chained to their desks—cannot pursue as easily.
Myth #5: Freelancing is temporary
More than once, I’ve found myself chatting to newsroom staffers at networking events that casually mention, “Oh there’s a position going at so-and-so. You should apply.” The first time it happened, I didn’t understand why the person I was talking to was telling me about a job going at British magazine Spear’s. It only dawned on me after that perhaps he assumed I was freelance because I couldn’t get a contract.
Most freelance journalists I have met are self-employed out of choice. We have worked in newsrooms, witnessed seasoned staff shuffle out in the wake of never-ending job cuts, found ourselves lumbered with an unrealistic work burden, and decided to take matters into our own hands.
This virus has taken away everyone’s freedom, regardless of where you work, but those of us who have been freelancing for years are well accustomed to being flexible and thinking on our feet. However, contrary to popular belief, we are affected by the lockdown like everyone else. Our work is better when we are free to socialize, collaborate, and pitch face-to-face.
Right now, I’m chained to my desk and seeing the same faces every day. It feels strangely like being back in the newsroom.
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Photo Credit: NGnoma