March 26, 2020 (Updated )
As a freelance journalist, how can you have a break from the news but still manage to get work? I tried to detach from the never-ending cycle for two weeks, and discovered that just living my life actually helped with ideas…
Early this year, like most of the UK population, I was experiencing some serious news fatigue. With the ongoing debates around the election, Brexit, and Megxit, I couldn’t browse Twitter, a news site, or read a paper without feeling dragged down into a misty haze of negativity and anger. Now, in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, the world of news can feel even more overwhelming.
As a freelance journalist, it’s part and parcel of my job to keep up-to-date with current affairs in order to produce newsworthy pitches. I couldn’t afford to take a holiday and I couldn’t switch careers for those two weeks (although a Freaky Friday moment at that time would have been greatly appreciated). I had hit a wall that had stamped gloomy headlines into my head. I desperately needed to come away from the all-consuming news bubble.
I asked myself: Could I still be a freelance journalist and not look at any news, but manage to get commissions? Was it even possible to land commissions without key news hooks? Keen to let my mental health take precedent this time, for a fortnight-long stint I deleted my Twitter app, turned off my news alerts and put my news-site scanning habits on hold.
Get In The Mood With What’s Already In Your Head
It’s hard to make a mood board without feeling like you’re studying Graphic Design at GCSE, or that you’re fresh from watching Jennifer Garner put together a magazine in 13 Going on 30, but they became my saving grace.
I made loads of different boards of vintage monthly magazines and newspapers, consisting of pictures, interviews, quotes and throwback articles that intrigued me. Looking at the collages of cut-outs that provoked all sorts of different stirs and feelings like anger, inspiration and joy, I felt compelled to put pen to paper and start brainstorming thoughts.
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I began to piece story ideas together from nuggets that had been bouncing around my head. I built on them, and this is probably what I learned the most. Sometimes, I put so much pressure on myself to squeeze ideas out, I forget that some of the best articles are usually the ones that have been brewing inside you for a while. They are the ones already in your heart and on the tip of your tongue. They just need a little pruning.
The exercise of putting together mood boards just highlighted those ideas and brought them to the forefront. It sounds pretentious and like a nineties art teacher, telling you to “get your creative juices going”, but there’s already so much in you to write about. Mood boards just give you more direction to see visually how you can shape your ideas.
While Also Taking The Time To Get Out Of Your Head
I listened to more podcasts, and no, I didn’t just have them on in the background as I tidied my room, texted a friend, or decided what was for dinner. Instead, I put time aside to listen to a few of my favourites while armed with a notebook.
Having the space to commit to just purely listening, allowed me to take in and meditate on what they’re talking about, which felt crucial. Hearing a colourful spectrum of interesting conversations and human interest stories sparked ideas. Pitches organically came together.
“I put so much pressure on myself to squeeze ideas out, I forget that some of the best articles are usually the ones that have been brewing inside you for a while.”
At the same time, I went out more. This might sound like odd advice now, but the essence of this shouldn’t be revolutionary. However, for me, as a freelancer who sometimes neglects self-care and religiously has their head in a laptop, it was.
I went on walks, ran, had more coffee dates in the daytime with friends – which could now easily be switched to a video or phone call, as long as you pledge to avoid talking the news.
From those activities that had nothing to do with work, news or journalism, I found my brain acting more productive and attuned to good ideas when they bubbled up. I could filter through the average ‘where was I going with that pitch?’ ideas, to the sparkly ones, more easily.
It was a win-win. I was looking after myself more, managing to escape the news, and coming up with unique pitches for editors, as my mind was in a better state to deliver the good stuff. Even though I may be late to the party, I learned that the power of separation in your life is a glorious and fruitful thing.
Make The Most Of Those Chats
In my freelance journalism work, I run a consultancy business for aspiring journalists where I encourage clients to familiarise themselves with something simple that’s been done for generations of journalists. I’ve nicknamed it ‘Table Chat’. Hoping to go deeper with the method, I used it more than I usually would.
Table Chat is essentially, whenever you’re around a table, be it around the dinner table with family, the pub table with friends, or even overhearing someone’s conversation from the table where you’re sitting, take notes of what people are talking about. Either take them mentally, or when you go the bathroom, bash a few key sentences out in your Notes app. It goes without saying the same goes for video calls, whatever your neighbours are talking too over the fence, or what the shop assistant has to say at the supermarket.
“Look out for the social trends and patterns that aren’t being written about yet. If I’ve read it, I don’t pitch it.”
What people are ranting about, getting excited for, feeling disappointed by — that’s what you need to keep your ears out for. Look out for social trends and patterns in thinking and behaviour emerging that aren’t being written about yet. If I’ve read it, I don’t pitch it, so I’m constantly on the look out to see those new trends in society developing that haven’t been written about.
Table Chat gifts me with those gems I’m after to see what people are caring about. When I was out with my friends, just listening to what was getting them down, what they felt unjust about, and what was making them happy, was where I found some of my best pitching material. As a journalist, I could bring those conversations to the surface to provide an inclusive, open discussion where readers could have an opinion.
In the two weeks, I got five commissions for a mix of national women’s magazines and global news sites. The pitches were two first-person, one opinion and two feature pieces. They didn’t have a fleeting news hook but more of a general trending talking point peg. The ideas were born out of doing a little more life, rather than immersing myself in the news around the clock each day.
So I say this to my fellow freelance journalists, the next time you feel like you’re drowning in the bad news, you do have the option to skip it for a short time and still get commissioned — and it doesn’t mean you’re signing up to live on beans on toast.
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