Making serious money as a freelance journalist (a six-figure income) was way beyond my wildest dreams when I started training at the London College of Printing (LCP) in 1983.
I was screwed up from a dysfunctional upbringing that was as far removed from The Brady Bunch as The Exorcist from Bambi.
I also had a secret which I hid from prospective employers – severe hearing loss.
In my new book, The Bounty Writer: How to Earn Six Figures as an Independent Freelance Journalist, I say that I am nothing special – at least in my opinion.
I am a product of dysfunction – self-analysed and largely conquered – someone who has doggie-paddled through a sewer and emerged smelling of tulips, if not of roses.
My determination not merely to survive, but thrive, begat a competitively ruthless streak which was my saviour during a career that began with dependence on chemical crutches.
Nearly 40 years later, in October 2019, I moved to a beautiful traditional Welsh Longhouse, two minutes’ walk from the most beautiful beach in West Wales and the Coastal Path. I had just turned 57.
I indulge in nature’s delights and write for pleasure rather than to pay the bills. Investments I have made over the course of my career should mean I live comfortably to the end of my days if I am not foolish.
I went freelance in October 1990 and I have never looked back. I worked demoniacally, sometimes 18 hours a day. My health suffered: my thyroid packed up and I suffered herniated discs in my neck that squished nerve roots – the pain was unbelievable.
I always had a strong sense that if I did not ease off in my 50s, I would never escape north London for the rural, less stressful dream I had craved since childhood.
I spoke to another freelance journalist recently who denied it was possible to make six figures a year – a self-limiting attitude, I would suggest.
I did it. So why not you? Of course, it is not quite that straightforward. I have a few essential ingredients: fear of destitution and determination to leave behind my first 25 years of emotional torment. I am driven and I am able to work the kind of hours that would drive most to an early grave.
I had an end game, creativity and a pathological inability to take “No” for an answer.
An unshakable belief in my abilities has been essential. This, I have in spades, although I have had odd blips of self-doubt – most notably in 2013 when I lost EGi, my biggest client, and my world nearly came crashing down.
When the late Jim Wardlaw at the Fleet Street News Agency, where I got my first journalism job, sat me down and told me to give it up, my internal response was “Fuck you” – not that he must be right. That has always been my response to anyone who, for some ulterior motive, has tried to crush me.
Ten tips on how to make serious money working as a freelance journalist
My ten essential ingredients to generate more than £100,000 a year could be whittled down to:
- Self-belief. If you genuinely believe in yourself, you will find a way of convincing prospective clients.
- Become a skilled multitasker: juggle editing a magazine with news shifts, features, subbing and producing editorial packages by working all hours – contrary to popular opinion, freelancing is not for those who want work-life balance. You need a work “blend”. I could be working a day shift on news from 9.30am to 5.30pm for The Grocer, but before then I might have been working on EGi, Farmers Weekly Interactive (FWI) Chemical News and Intelligence (CNI) and Martin Information in the early hours of the morning producing national press news summaries with other journalists whom I subcontracted.
- Resist distractions.
- Have specialisms but be willing to write about anything and everything: A good journalist can research anything and, with the use of skilful questioning and an ability to nail down the right interviewees, no subject should be off limits.
- Be the Madonna and David Bowie of freelancing. Keep re-creating yourself.
- Work towards your end game. I thought my dreams were all over when I visited John Toner at the NUJ’s freelance branch in 2013 and told him that after 17 years, EGi, my most lucrative client had pulled the plug on my services. But I worked my contacts and made new ones – it was almost like starting again but before long I was pulling in loads of work.
- Don’t be scared to request a bigger fee than other freelance journalists. If you undervalue yourself, so will editors. You are not other freelancers. You are you and worth your weight in gold. If it looks like you might lose the gig on price, you can always negotiate. Good editors and section heads respect those who know their own worth.
- Despite your workaholic hours you must find time to look after your mental health. For me, using a sauna, steam room and swimming pool as well as regular acupuncture helped control stress as did time spent in nature.
- Stay in touch with any mentors you have had in your life. I had two – Stephen Clackson, most recently news editor of the Evening Standard, and Jim Muttram, my former editor at SuperMarketing who went on to become managing director of what was then known as Reed Business Information. I probably would not be where I am now without them.
- Don’t let your weaknesses deter you. I am diabolical at maths, yet I can look through a company balance sheet and produce a cracking news story. You don’t need an ology to earn big money as a freelance journalist – just a sensitive nose.
The Bounty Writer: How to Earn Six Figures as an Independent Freelance Journalist is published by Beachy Books in paperback and as an ebook on 2 July and is available to pre-order now from all major stockists.
(Editorial illustration by Eloise Fabre)
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