This is the last newsletter of 2020, because from today I’m trying this new thing. It’s called ‘switching off’ and ‘taking a break’. Truly radical, I know. Like the queen of quarantine, Taylor Swift, my approach to 2020 has been to funnel my anxiety and malaise into being sickenly productive: I’ve written more words this year than ever before.
I’m sorry for being *that* person on your timeline who wrote a literal novel during lockdown, but I also am not that sorry. We’ve all coped with this year in our own unique ways; whether you knitted a Harry Styles cardigan, made copious quantities of banana bread, or wanked yourself into oblivion, I’m not judging. We all did what we needed to do to get by.
For all the unexpected curveballs that 2020 threw me, I’ve actually done some pretty cool stuff. I recapped some of it here:
Before I leave you, though, I wanted to reflect on some of the things I’ve learned this year about being a journalist. I started the year as a student desperately trying to pass my 100 words-per-minute shorthand exam, and I’m ending the year as a gold-standard NCTJ-qualified journalist who has just secured a £900 commission for one 1,000 word article. Yes, you read that right. I couldn’t believe it either — in fact, I had to email the editor back to say “Are you sure?”. So it’s fair to say I’ve learned a few things along the way. Here are my main takeaways.
Find your people
While I was a student doing my part-time NCTJ diploma with News Associates, I was surrounded by like-minded individuals for two days a week. After I finished my last shorthand exam in January, I found myself floundering and not knowing where to start when it came to establishing a career as a freelancer. The single most useful thing that I’ve done this year is finding a tribe of people I can turn to for support and guidance when I need it; I’m a member of Asyia Iftikhar’s (@asyiaiftikhar) brilliant Facebook group ‘ Young Journalist Community ‘ and I’m part of two WhatsApp group chats that have been so incredibly useful in terms of giving me the know-how and confidence to pitch my ideas to national publications. Without these resources, I wouldn’t have known what a commissioning editor is, or have the foggiest which publications are great at working with first-time writers (Metro, Indy Voices and VICE, to name but three).
red — no reply; orange — rejection / not right now ; green — commission (not necessarily paid)
Organisation is key
Once I started pitching said editors, I very quickly realised that I needed some sort of system to keep track of all my pitches. I know people have different approaches, but I found a colour-coded spreadsheet useful, as this enabled me to see at a glance i) when I needed to send follow-up emails and ii) the best days/times to pitch, as well as the more responsive editors. I’ve only had a handful of successful commissions this year so I don’t want to make any sweeping statements, but it’s something I’ll continue to monitor in 2021.
You have to send a LOT of pitches for one to stick
Crafting a carefully worded email, sending it out into the world only for your inbox to immediately be hit with an editor’s out-of-office is the equivalent to waking up on Christmas morning only to realise your sack is full of coal. It’s soul-destroying. Let’s not sugarcoat it for anyone thinking of turning to freelancing. But the more pitches you send, the better at writing them you get and before you know it, editors actually start replying to your emails. As you can see from the spreadsheet above, the majority of my successful commissions happened fairly recently — if I’d given up in January, then I wouldn’t have any of those bylines now.
Get to the damn point, woman
The major differences in my pitches from earlier in the year are the WHY? and the length. I drastically cut them down after attending a series of journalism talks, and also I received some great one-to-one advice from brilliant journalists like Richard Franks (@richardpfranks) and Joel Golby (@joelgolby). Joel kindly offered to give me some feedback on a piece of work earlier in the year and he said that my opening sentence failed the ‘So?’ test. I’ve applied that to everything since — from writing a pitch to writing an article, you need to answer “Why does anybody care?”. When you’re pitching an idea to an editor, you need to make it clear why people should care about your take on the issue/event/bit of culture.
Reading more leads to more inspiration
It’s all well and good knowing what to put in a pitch, but generating ideas in the middle of a global pandemic is a whole other kettle of fish. I’ve always taken an interest in current affairs: I grew up in a house where my parents watch the 10 o’clock news every night and regularly watch shows like Question Time or The Andrew Marr Show. But there was definitely a period this year where I stopped reading as much journalism — mostly because of Covid-19 fatigue and also being preoccupied with my then relationship. It’s unsurprising that I didn’t have any ideas: I wasn’t riffing off other peoples’ takes, I wasn’t tapped into the conversations that everyone else was having about Normal People.
In the second half of the year, though, I found making dedicated time for reading a useful way to control news cycle burnout. Now every time I see an interesting looking article on Twitter, I bookmark the tweet. If I see a cool piece on Facebook or LinkedIn, I open it in a new window and minimize it, saving it for a time when I’m in the right headspace to read and engage with others’ work. Creating dedicated ‘reading time’ on the weekends creates a natural brainstorming period where I can think about any issues or trends that I’d like to tackle the following week, and I construct pitches off the back of whatever has grabbed my attention the most. This also helps me keep my freelance writing career separate to my 9–5 day job in marketing, as it means I don’t get distracted during the working day by reading a news story I really want to expand into a feature.
So there you have it, those are some of my most salient takeaways from the shitshow that has been 2020.
… in editing
I edited this great piece on the politics of punk by Ed Brown for The Indiependent, as well as Sam Lambeth’s track review for ‘Doom Generation’ by Brum band Table Scraps, which genuinely made me LOL.
… in writing
Commissions: 1 (£900 for 1,000 words)
Remember that piece from a few newsletters ago that I said an editor liked but hadn’t assigned yet? Yeah, well, I got the greenlight this week. I am still in shock looking at that sum of money. That’s some Carrie Bradshaw, $4 / word level shit.
Articles written: 0
Articles published: 1
I wrote a piece for Metro on my family’s tradition of writing ‘Do Not Want’ Christmas lists alongside the more conventional festive ‘wishlist’. That’s my first time being published in Metro, which is a nice note to end the year on!
… in listening/watching
I didn’t do any fancy journalism events this week, but I did watch Bombay Bicycle Club play I Had The Blues But I Shook Them Loose in full live from Konk Studios on Tuesday, and I also watched Eddie & the Wolves ‘ livestreamed gig last night, too.
… in reading
- ‘Keir Starmer is a wet wipe’, pass it on. Absolutely brilliant stuff from Moya Lothian McLean for gal-dem
- As a Sheffield gal through and through, I found Shahed Ezaydi’s piece ‘Amid the pandemic, Sheffield’s activists are mounting a new line of defence to protect asylum seekers’ encouraging
- Sian Cain’s piece for The Guardian ‘Famous first words: how celebrities made their way on to children’s bookshelves’ was great
- I thought Anmol Irfan’s take on Taylor for gal-dem was really refreshing: ‘As a young Pakistani girl, Taylor Swift’s music helped me grow’. Also on Taylor, I liked this Buzzfeed piece by Katherine Miller
- Nana Baah’s piece for VICE on the fake wealth industry making influencers look rich was eye-opening
- Emma Garland’s profile of Love Island’s Megan Barton-Hanson was a really refreshing read
- Sirin Kale’s oral history of Dominic Cumming’s Barnard Castle scandal is a brilliant way to end an utterly bizarre year
- Rhys Thomas hit the nail on the head with ‘Everything you need to leave behind in 2020’
- Also for VICE, I loved Eloise Bulmer’s piece ‘The 2020 rise of women and non-binary music producers’
- Evan McGarvey’s Slate piece ‘John le Carré saved me from the CIA’ is the most refreshing obituary-style piece I’ve ever read
- Anne Helen Petersen’s piece for Vox about ‘America’s hollow middle class’ was illuminating
- Charlotte Higgins’ look at The Archers was an interesting piece about the longest-running series in the world (which I’ve never listened to)
- I wrote my dissertation on translating Jane Austen’s linguistic consciousness through time, and I included a whole chunk on letter-writing and what gets lost when you convert the epistolary to the digital. So it’s fair to say I found Hannah William’s piece for The TLS ‘What is a letter?’ rather interesting — maybe you will too?
Originally published at https://thepeakdistrict.substack.com.