Seven years in self-employment
On 19 May 2014, I sat down at my desk for the first time as a full-time freelance journalist. The first few months felt good as they went by, though looking back at my accounts now, I can see that I only just about made enough money in those early days.
But things got better. My original plan was to freelance for a year and then try and get a reporter or staff writer job but I soon decided I didn’t really want that. Freelancing was too much fun.
Over the years, I’ve been approached for jobs at publications a few times but I’ve always turned them down. I wanted to remain independent. Sworn to no lord, as I like to say. That may change in the future, I’d never say never, but it’s been the case to date.
I’ve been enormously fortunate. I’ve travelled around Europe and to the US with work, I’ve reported on stories that have moved me and genuinely changed my perception of the world. I’ve had lovely emails and comments from readers, thanking me for helping them to understand difficult scientific topics or controversial issues. I’ve always had enough work. I’ve made friends. And, perhaps best of all, in seven years I’ve never had to attend a pointless meeting or click through one of those diabolical computer-based health and safety programmes.
In seven years, I haven’t changed course. But I must admit that, lately, the seas have become a little choppy.
I’ve been publishing my writing online in one form or another since I was at least 14. It started with a site about video games. I was a huge Nintendo fan and I loved the very British, very funny N64 Magazine. I dreamed of being a professional games reviewer one day. What on Earth would be cooler than that? I couldn’t answer that question back then.
So, around the time of my GCSEs, I set up a site where I reviewed games and published news about upcoming titles. I got friends and gamers who I met in chatrooms, which everyone used back then, to write for me. And I made contacts at video game PR firms. I suppose if I had been born 10 years later I would have been a YouTuber — except for the fact that writing is what I love.
I won’t bore you with everything that happened since, save to say that I kept experimenting with writing while taking any vaguely editorial-type work I could get. This went on for years and took many forms. But eventually, mercifully, it turned into an actual career.
One key moment was when I launched a blog called The Machine Starts back in November 2010, about technology and culture. The blog was named in awkward homage to the EM Forster story, “The Machine Stops”. Forster, writing in 1909, had imagined a dystopian future in which humans live underground inside a giant machine, connected to one another by video feeds and pneumatic tubes.
During the next few years, one or two pieces I wrote for The Machine Starts ended up going viral in a small way, and that led to some paid freelance writing work about technology-related topics. I got to write for some great titles — BBC Future, The Atlantic, The Economist, New Scientist, Wired, and others. This was largely thanks to a couple of generous editors who, having read my blog, said they were open to receiving pitches from me.
By the time 2014 arrived, I was planning to quit my job at a PR firm and enter journalism full-time. I know what you’re thinking, that’s the wrong way round! But it was what I’d dreamed of doing for so long.
My freelancing did include, I should say, ad hoc shift work at BBC News and, occasionally, New Scientist. Among other benefits, those opportunities let me have a slice of office life, which, for freelance writers, is something you never really get otherwise. I met some fantastic people through those shifts.
What I really, really like about freelancing, though, is how it is totally and utterly about just getting the work done, getting paid for it, and doing nothing but the essential admin. Through this, you hone your skills and learn how to organise yourself to meet your clients’ requirements, as best you can.
But my overall feelings about journalism have changed a bit since 2014. Initially, everything seemed to be getting better and better. Today, I’m more aware of how journalism, when practised remotely for months on end, can be very draining.
Yes, the pandemic has played a big role in this. It’s been exhausting and, frankly, the closest I’ve ever felt to the bleak world of “The Machine Stops”. I know I’m not alone in this but, in the last few months, I’ve experienced a disaffection with work that I have never — in my entire life — felt before. This genuinely shocked me.
I’ve worked with some fantastic editors lately but the general to-ing and fro-ing, the ups and downs, of pitches and rejections, became much more disheartening during lockdown. And every story, or tweet, that seemed to get little or no reception felt increasingly — still feels — like a judgement. Irrational maybe, but difficult to shake that feeling.
Finally, the inequality of who gains recognition in journalism, in general, has started to grate. I know so many freelancers who never seem to get a good boost on social media or elsewhere from their peers. And staff writers and editors who do lots of legwork but feel that it’s a thankless task. Journalism is, unsurprisingly, a bit of a popularity contest. An endless search for the journo who shows us all how it’s done! Well, most of the time, it’s not flashy, actually. It’s just honest, useful, insightful writing crafted by hardworking people. We put too much pressure on one another, chasing stars.
When I look at it all like that, it’s clear to me that my changing opinions of journalism are not exclusive to the pandemic. I think the ground was shifting long before that. Perhaps the pandemic just quickened things and heightened the intensity of the burnout.
I read Jenni Gritters’ blog earlier this month about her decision to leave journalism and I have to say it struck a chord or two, though I don’t share all her opinions. Have a look at this comment:
“[This industry is] not working for freelancers, who often hustle for low pay because we’re told it’s all we can get, who are slammed by terrible contracts and unfair assignment set ups, who are satisfied with making $30,000 per year while feeling ignored and inadequate day after day, who power this industry with their passion but find themselves racking up credit card debt instead of glory.”
I’m biased but I love that line, “who power this industry with their passion” — like, yes, oh my goodness, all I’ve ever wanted to do is explore science, tell intriguing stories that engage people and develop good working relationships with folk!
But as Gritters points out, freelancers don’t always get rewarded for this enthusiasm. I’ll reiterate that I feel I’ve been pretty lucky overall — and I am grateful for that. However, I’ve had a few bad experiences along the way and, lately, the grind has seemed all the more unforgiving. It’s not just me. Over the years, I’ve known many self-employed and employed colleagues who’ve had tough times and who’ve felt let down by their clients, their employers, or their industry more broadly.
Does it have to be this way? Is it just the natural cut and thrust of a competitive trade? I don’t think so. I think, like most things, it’s a pattern of behaviour we’ve become accustomed to tolerating when, actually, we shouldn’t. An aloofness we don’t notice because we surround ourselves with our clique. We should ask for and expect greater compassion and collaboration. The bosses and business folk, the ones with the money who can actually change all this ought to realise that it benefits literally everyone. It’s a good investment.
For the moment, I’m tired of writing pitches. I’m taking some time off over the next month or two to rejuvenate myself. And I want to do some writing purely for pleasure. That’s one reason why I recently set up a newsletter called The Nature Gatherer. It’s about the deep connection between human culture(s) and nature, and how I think we can use culture to rescue biodiversity. For now, it’s free. I hope you’ll have a read and subscribe!
The Nature Gatherer is very much an experiment but I am loving the sense of a return to blogging — because that’s what it is for me, and it’s the very thing that got me where I am today. Through the newsletter, I hope to encounter new voices, learn new things, and find new stories to tell you about.
Seven years is a long time in the same role, at least it feels that way. To be honest, it’s felt a little stagnant lately. But I know that there’s only one person who can shake it up. If the last year has taught me anything, it’s that you really have to look after yourself, and think creatively to get yourself out of the corners. I’m trying that right now.
Many publications have suffered budget cuts or layoffs recently, which has affected me and friends of mine. I hope that, in the coming months, things feel more hopeful.
I also hope that all this doesn’t sound too gloomy. There are many great things about this industry, which keep me in it. And although I am taking a short break, I’m still game. At present, the thing I still do best, to whatever extent I do it well, is write. Get in touch. Let’s work on some cool stuff together.
Because year number eight is calling.