My Big Break Story: How I Went From Nervous Wreck To The Guardian In Just 4 Months
Do you just wake up one day in a life you’ve had enough of and decide “I want to be a writer”? I did. And four months later, I’d been commissioned by the Guardian to write an article for them. Six months on with several other national newspaper commissions under my belt, I gave up my public sector job completely and went into full-time self employment as a freelance journalist.
I suppose I’d come from nowhere, into the career of my dreams. But I get so many people asking me what happened in that four month period, that I decided to write this post.
I’m hoping my story will be a source of inspiration for you, regardless of your own career choice. But for would-be writers, you’ll find some practical tips here too. Be warned though, this post is long! Make a cuppa.
The straw that broke the camel’s back
If you’ve read about why I started Butterflyist you’ll see that several years ago I was in a gloomy place. Depressed isn’t really the word, but I was a stressed out, nervous wreck.
I’m telling you this not for a sympathy vote, but so you can understand why I was so motivated to take control. Without being this desperate, the turnaround might never have happened. We all need a catalyst to make drastic change, and this was mine.
Since around 2000, I was working in a demanding job as an alcohol and drug advisor with young offenders. Many of the young people had very deep-seated issues and the most horrible backgrounds. It could be emotionally-draining work, and often unrewarding because it felt like I was banging my head against a brick wall on many levels.
My son’s father, Bob, died suddenly in 2002, when our boy was 9 years old. He had a burst appendix which wasn’t discovered until his body was riddled with septicaemia. In my opinion, it could have been avoided had the doctors performed investigative surgery earlier. Whatever the truth though, Bob was gone.
So on top of my work, I found myself dealing with the tragic loss of Bob, the most painful I’d ever experienced, and trying to help my little boy through his grief too.
I had a lot of support from family, but managing as a single parent, getting my son to school, then working in a job that dealt with other people’s problems, picking my son up late, then having a tiny amount of time to spend together – whilst also coping with our bereavement. It wasn’t easy.
I was exhausted, drained, and my world felt chaotic. In May 2004 something snapped.
Firstly, at work one of my long-term clients had died in sad circumstances, aged 18. More emotional turmoil. Then, I went to a gig (The Streets, as it happened) and I came out of the venue to find my car had been broken into – the driver’s window and door all smashed up. Worse, I had boxes of Bob’s CDs stored in the car. Music was Bob’s life, and these CDs represented him. But they’d been stolen.
I was supposed to have been sorting the CDs to file them, but hadn’t managed to find the time. My car now being a write-off, the CDs being nicked, the client having died at work – the last straws. I felt like I could no longer cope with the world, my job, or anything.
The next day, I phoned my manager in tears and told her I couldn’t come to work. I was in pieces. I went to see the doctor a few days later who diagnosed me with an anxiety disorder. This was a shock to me as someone whose perception of myself is a ‘strong person’ (and I know other people see me like that too).
I didn’t realise then that I was about to spend the next two months off work before I felt able to go back. And to be honest, the idea of going back at all made me feel sick to the stomach – I was no longer able to ‘switch off’ from emotional demands of the job.
“I want to be a writer”
I couldn’t bear that I didn’t have the energy or time to be a parent when my son needed me more than ever. He had been blessed with the most wonderful and loving dad that a child could have had, and seeing his tormented face as he came to terms with the loss of his father was excruciating for me, especially when I barely had a moment of ‘calm time’ to offer him.
I knew that I had to start thinking about altering my life completely so that I could be around more for my son and also, have more time for little old me. I wanted my life and work to be on my own terms. I wanted to work from home. I wanted to do something that I wasn’t just good at, but that I had passion for – that I wanted to live and breathe through.
Ever since being a little girl, I’d been interested in writing. It was a part of myself I hadn’t really accessed in a long-time, although at various stages in my life I’d written in different forms.
I remember creating a little illustrated book when I was about 11 that I sent to Penguin. I got a rejection letter back, of course, but they let me down sweetly and I had hope that one day I’d be a published Penguin author. (Still working on that).
I’d also posted fully-drafted pieces in to magazines, not knowing that sending unsolicited articles is one of the clearest signs of an amateur writer, not having a clue about pitching appropriate ideas. Basically – I was complete novice with no portfolio whatsoever and was ultimately thinking…
…WHERE would I start?
At the beginning
I am ultimately quite a positive person and I hadn’t seen it possible that I could ever been diagnosed with anything that could be classed as a ‘mental health issue’. So in those two months I had off work, while dealing with the anxiety, I started taking action.
I knew I could write, but how would I break in?
I bought a rubbishy antiquated ‘how to’ book from Amazon (not knowing what to look for) which was clearly written in the day when we had typewriters and posted manuscripts off to editors. Still, it appeared to me to have some ‘useful’ advice about starting out. So, wet-behind-the-ears, I made some first forays into this new world.
My newbie mistakes, now I look back, are excruciatingly embarrassing.
I did things like send in article ideas by letter, with an SAE! Yes, a pitch, typed on paper, popped into an envelope with a return, stamped, addressed envelope inside, and then dropped into the postbox. What a laugh. And a waste of stamps. I think I only ever received one reply.
It was only when I bought a different book, which turned into my freelancing bible, that I started to get the hang of what I was meant to be doing in order to forge a way into freelancing. This book was the single most pivotal piece of inspiration and guidance I had in assisting me do all the ‘right things’ and create my new career.
It was called The Renegade Writer: A Totally Unconventional Guide to freelance Writing Success, by Linda Formichelli and Diana Burrell. I’ve been recommending it to newbie writers ever since (I should be on commission! Alas, I’m not).
There isn’t space to review the book here, this post is going to be long enough as it is, but if you’re interested in writing for a career – get a hold of a copy of this book right now! I think an updated version has been published since, which I haven’t seen but I’m sure it will be wonderful.
How did I get published?
Devouring books on freelance writing is all well and good, but unless you actually get off your butt and follow the advice, nothing will change.
As you’ve gathered, I was incredibly determined to start living a different life, and I had never wanted anything more than this in terms of a career achievement.
In fact, until I started to freelance, I realised I’d never even properly known what I wanted to do before.
Still, I didn’t even imagine at this point I’d be writing for the Guardian ever, never mind in such a short space of time. Before I got that golden chalice of a commission though, I’d already had a few features published.
So – what were some of the key things that I did?
- I built myself a portfolio
I knew I could write, so that box was ticked, but I needed a portfolio of work samples before I could make contact with editors that might pay me for my articles.
I decided I’d just get a few things onto the web, on some writing sites (without pay, of course), so at least I had a few links. Here is the first thing that I ever had published online, for the purpose of beginning a portfolio:
Hah – I felt SO proud! But not exactly the most literary piece of work you’ve ever seen is it? And quite simply, anyone can get anything on sites like this.
But what’s really crazy? This is actually the only link I sent to the editor that I pitched at the Guardian (as you’ll soon see) when I got my ‘big break’ in the newspaper. I had been doing other stuff by then, but I didn’t have any online links to those articles, so this is what I sent!
Back to where I was though. In building my portfolio, I also started approaching publications that I felt that I could contribute to with ideas, such as parenting and health magazines. And a friend of mine was editing a freebie listings magazine at the time, so I wrote a couple of pieces for her.
As with my friend’s mag, I offered to write for magazines for free. Not big ones who could afford to pay, just small fry so I could get my byline in print. Local and charity publications are good for this.
Once you’ve got enough of a portfolio of course, you stop writing for free and start charging. But as my very first step on the ladder from nowhere land, it was essential.
- I made connections and contacts
None of us exist in a vacuum, and whatever you think of writers sat in their pyjamas all day at their desks, they still need to schmooze.
When I began my quest to be a writer, I did not know ONE SINGLE PERSON who was already doing it. I did not have one single contact in the media world (oh, except my friend on the listings mag, but I only knew she was doing that AFTER I started asking around).
I pretty much started from scratch.
One of the best sources of information and advice I found in those early days was other freelance writers. If you didn’t know it, they’re actually a very supportive bunch.
So I searched the web for friendly-looking faces and for those who were writing in fields I wanted to write in, and sent off a few polite emails. I asked these lovely folk all kinds of questions and some were even generous enough to offer me editorial contacts.
I bet she won’t remember it now, but I think the first freelancer I ever approached – who was amazingly responsive and offered me tonnes of advice – was a talented journalist called Rachel Newcombe
In fact, I soon started writing for a magazine that Rachel then worked for, called Berkshire’s County Child. It no longer exists and paid peanuts, but hey, it was part of my humble beginnings as a paid writer.
Another fabulously helpful writer I approached in those early days was Jan Murray. She is an education journalist mainly for the Guardian. Similarly to me, she didn’t come into freelancing from a traditional route and she was very giving in the advice she provided me with.
I also made contacts with the people who could provide me with ideas – like PR companies, interesting businesses, and charities. And through finding this stuff out from freelancers, I got myself onto news services like Newswise.
- I pitched, and pitched, and pitched…
Remember, I was off work. I had time to focus on me, and writing pitches and articles was the best therapy ever. I sometimes sent a hundred pitches a day, variations on ideas to different editors, and always had many ideas in circulation.
I found markets and magazines through sites like Media UK, and I honed my pitches to make sure they caught attention.
I did this through researching the web (following articles about pitch-writing), reading books (Renegade Writer offers good advice), and through asking journalists to check my pitches and see where I could improve. Sometimes nice editors would even tell me where I was going wrong.
I developed a very thick skin and did not let any rejection deter me. If I received a “no”, I just sent the idea elsewhere, having looked to see if I could improve the pitch first.
Of course – it’s important to know who to pitch in a magazine, too. The biggest no-no is to send an email to a generic address, such as email@example.com – hence why making contacts with helpful people is, well, helpful.
Before I went back to work, after almost two solid months of research and pitching, I’d received my first proper commission. That is, paid work. I was ecstatic. It was a travel piece for Virgin RedHot magazine (no longer in existence) about how to see Amsterdam with children.
This felt like the true beginning of my writing career. I was getting paid for my words!
Now I am a real writer
By the time I returned to my job in July 2004, I had that ‘proper’ commission to be proud of, and it gave me some klout when it came to contacting other publications.
I then started getting commissioned in other magazines, such as Take a Break, the aforementioned Berkshire’s County Child, as well as some US publications.
My confidence was growing rapidly, as were my contacts and idea-pool. I was being a very diligent new freelancer, reading all the newspapers and magazines to ensure I knew the potential markets, so when I got wind of a good story, I knew where I could pitch it.
No doubt there was a whole heap of luck when it came to getting my break in the Guardian. But I like to think there were things that I did myself that sealed the deal, once that opportunity came my way.
And then – the Guardian
Through my ever-important contacts and interest in psychology and women’s issues, and being in touch with university research departments, in August I managed to find out about some research that was way ahead of publication (before other journalists knew about it).
It was pretty ground-breaking, about how women are treated at boardroom level when it comes to recruiting into high-risk of failure jobs – the ‘glass cliff’.
I knew this unpublished research would make a great story for a section that used to be in the Guardian called ‘Office Hours’ and I was in touch with a journalist who wrote for this section (contacts, contacts, contacts!).
What’s important here is that I had no preconceptions of the media world before I came to it. So I’d never assumed that I had to ‘pay my dues’ and start small (other than establishing my portfolio), as many newbie journalists believe.
Those hundreds of pitches of mine were going out to editors of all sizes of publications, and when I found this story I had no qualms about pitching it ‘big’.
The journalist acquaintance told me which editor I needed to pitch, but I needed to be quick – this editor was about to go on holiday.
I scribbled my pitch together and sent it off. Amazingly, I still have that pitch. Do you want to see it? It’s here (I’ve just taken out my contact’s name):
When that commissioning email came through confirming I’d ‘got the job’, I could hardly believe it. I phoned my boyfriend and just screamed down the phone at him while whizzing round the front room in circles.
Yes – I was a lucky sod. But I think several factors worked for me that day, and surely covered for the fact that I’d included that bloody Hackwriters link in the pitch (and I have to be honest, since the editor was rushing off on holiday, she probably didn’t even click on that link).
I’ll tell you 5 things that I think got me this commission through that pitch, in case it helps you:
1. Even though I was actually only a meagre scrap of a writer, I already saw myself as an accomplished one, and so I wrote my pitch very confidently.
2. I knew the editor was going on holiday, and it was a Friday afternoon, and so I kept the pitch as concise and pithy as possible.
3. I used the name of my contact in the pitch. This journalist had a good reputation, wrote for the section and the editor would have respected her work.
4. I made sure that my pitch came across as urgent and timely, as it was, and that the idea could be lost if not acted upon very soon.
5. I followed up by calling the editor exactly when I said I would, to plant my idea and myself into her brain.
On the 13th September 2004, almost four months exactly from the day I went onto sick leave, I screamed again with utter joy when my article ‘Women on the Edge’ was published in the Guardian.
And I bought a zillion copies to hand out to every person I know (I probably bought them all). It felt like the best moment of my life (other than my wonderful son’s arrival into the world, of course).
From there and with that article published, things just started to roll. No longer did I need to use the Hackwriters link in order to try and sell myself, haha.
I continued to build my freelancing career, doing more of the things I was already doing such as expanding my network and gathering ideas. And even though I was still in my stressful job in drug and alcohol work, everything was looking brighter and I was happier.
For a while, I was actually working harder than I’d ever done previously and had even less time for my son than before – but I saw the bigger picture and knew it wouldn’t be long before that changed.
And because I was doing what I wanted to do, I was able to devote more to him anyway in terms of my emotional input.
I made many mistakes, as well. Hundreds! Too many to go into here but just to say, you’ll make mistakes too. You just have to learn from them.
Rolling on into early 2005, there came another stress point in my ‘day job’ with a young girl who I’d been working with. I spent the weekend in tears about her situation, and my boyfriend said to me “why don’t you just leave?”
On Monday, the first day back after my tearful episode, I handed in my notice.
Exactly ten months from the moment I said “I want to be a writer”, I left my job and went full-time as a freelance writer. But there’s another huge post to write.
If you’re a wannabe or newbie writer though, carry on reading…
8 tips to pave the way to that big break commission
1. Never, ever doubt yourself. I didn’t doubt I’d achieve my goal to be a writer for a minute. Maybe it was because I felt there was no choice, so this was the only path. I was completely single-minded – there was no Plan B, I was just going to be a writer and that was it.
2. Never give up. It can take a thick-skin sometimes to be in the media world. You have to endure countless (and I mean countless) rejections before you reel in a stickleback, never mind a big fish. Don’t let anything put you off. Just keep on going.
3. Surround yourself with positive people. Some people become envious when they see you realising your goals. They say negative things as ‘a friend’, unwittingly aiming to sabotage your efforts. They don’t realise they’re doing it. Ignore it, and listen to the words of encouragement instead amongst successful, positive people.
4. Be prepared to work your socks off. Yes. REALLY work your socks off. Until you wear holes in your feet. I had two months off work to delve into my new career, and once I was back at work it was a whole lot harder. But many people have achieved it while working, so you can too. But you might have to be at it every minute initially.
5. Stay alert for ideas all the time. Keep your eyes and ears peeled. You’ll probably need a cracking story to break into a big publication for the first time, so make sure you have as much access to all sources of information in your interest field as you can (news feeds, blogs, PRs, people in the pub, research departments, etc). Tell people you’re looking for ideas too.
6. It obviously matters that you can write. But they do say that the people who land the jobs are often those who market themselves better, rather than necessarily the brilliant writers. If you doubt your writing skills, ask a kind freelancer to check a draft you’ve written to see what your standard is like. Consider a writing course if it’s not up to scratch.
7. Practice your pitch writing. An ill-written pitch can lose a good idea. Again, ask other freelancers to look at your pitches (see why they’re so useful?), or even a nice editor that you’ve built a rapport with. Make your pitches sing out.
8. Don’t be afraid of the phone. Making that first phone call to an editor is never easy but just do it. This will make you stand out from others, and give you more of a connection. Send your idea to the editor, then a few days later (depending on how timely it is), follow up by calling them to see if they had time to consider it yet. Remember to ask if they have five minutes to chat first, though.
Incredible Journalist & Freelance Resources You Can’t Do Without!
It actually took several years to glean out the most useful resources from the many that exist. Here are my favourites, in one handy place and no time involved on your part other than reading this post.
Hope you find this list useful.
JournoBiz – Jan Murray is behind this forum. It operates as a virtual meeting place and lifeline to many freelancers. Here you’ll find people to connect with, find out what’s going on the media world, and hopefully make useful contacts.
Response Source– Looking for information, experts or case studies for a feature? This is the place to come. You can send a request out to thousands of PRs to help meet the requirements of your articles.
Gorkana – A news source about the media world, the movers and shakers, as well as another way of contacting PRs for your material for articles. Get on their list for alerts. News of media jobs here too, and you can put out a notice that you’re looking for work , or ask PRs to contact you with ideas.
Newswise – As mentioned, a news service on latest medical advancements, social science research, business news and so on. Register here and get embargoed press releases that could provide ideas for articles. Also good for finding experts.
Journalism.co.uk – Editorial jobs, freelance jobs, media news and a journalist request service. You can also advertise yourself as a freelancer here.
askCHARITY – A media service that puts you in touch with charities to help you with case studies for your articles as well as expert opinions.
Media UK – A database of British magazines, newspapers, and broadcast media. An excellent resource when it comes to researching possible markets, and where to pitch ideas.
The Renegade Writer Blog – How could I not have this in my list? Lots of useful tips to keep you inspired and motivated, and offer advice. You can also obtain a ‘free query packet’ (query is the US term for pitch) of Linda Formichelli’s own successful pitches to show you how it’s done.
NUJ – Ever wondered how journalists get their press cards? From the NUJ. You can join while you’re building your career as long as a certain percentage of your income comes from media work. They offer legal support, advice, professional training and more. I know some journalists who have never joined but the NUJ has helped me out several times when I’ve not been paid by publications. Worth considering.